"I think it was one of the more efficient halves when you look at our shooting percentage and shot selection overall and offensively just the ball movement and spacing," UT coach Pat Summitt said of the first 20 minutes. "We got a lot of great looks, and I think our team understands a little bit better how to score in the half court.
No. 4 Tennessee, 5-0, had 24 assists on 35 baskets, once again reflecting the team's overall unselfishness so far this season.
"We're a very unselfish team right now in terms of our ball movement and player movement, inside-out action," Summitt said. "When you share the ball and move the ball as well as we did you've got a chance to get great looks. And we managed to do that as a team."
The concerns after the game were Tennessee's three-point defense and the condition of Parker's right knee. Middle Tennessee, 3-3, came into the game averaging 8.6 made shots behind the arc. The Blue Raiders hit 13 of 26 attempts on Sunday.
"I think that we probably got stretched out a little bit too far and didn't do as good a job of covering the perimeter game as we did post game," Summitt said. "We've given up too many threes. That seems to be right now one of the biggest concerns and probably a shortcoming for our team that we've got to get better at."
Parker went down hard in a scramble for a loose ball on a fast break and had to limp to the bench at the 12:37 mark of the second half. She was examined by Jenny Moshak, assistant athletics director for sports medicine, and spent the remainder of the game with an ice pack on her right knee. (Her left knee is her surgically repaired one.)
"The doctors are looking at Candace," Summitt said in her post-game press conference. "We won't know anything for a little while. Hopefully just a couple days or a day of rest, and she'll be ready to go. She felt pretty good about it. She's moving on it and walking on it right now."
Parker also said in the press conference that she was OK.
"It's good," Parker said. "I just sat for precaution."
Although the perimeter defense needs considerable work, the post defense, led by Parker, Anosike and Fuller, was in fine shape Sunday. Middle Tennessee's Amber Holt came into the game averaging 21.2 points and 8.2 rebounds, including nearly two offensive boards, per game. She ended Sunday's game with eight points and five boards, none coming off the offensive glass.
"Honestly I feel like with our size we're able to disrupt a lot of inside players," Parker said. "I think with her being kind of an undersized post player it was tough for her to get her shot off in there. We also focused on limiting her touches."
Blue Raiders guard Chrissy Givens got a lot of touches. She was 10-21 from the field – including 4-5 from three-point range – and scored 26 points. Tennessee's defensive plan was to key on Holt and Givens.
"We were concerned going into the game because we knew exactly the numbers that Holt had put up," Summitt said. "When you think about the play of Amber coming in you challenge your players to match her intensity and to make it difficult for her to catch the ball. Looking at the stat line at halftime (Holt was 0-3 from the field) we obviously did a great job there. Givens got too many open looks, and to me we were not as committed to defending at that position."
Tennessee did use its defense to wreak havoc – Middle Tennessee had 15 turnovers in the first half – and to break open a game that the Blue Raiders led early, 13-7. The Lady Vols had hoped they could use their quickness and size to disrupt Middle Tennessee.
"It was hard to know because the tape we had on them people didn't really extend their defense that much against them," Summitt said. "I just felt like we had a distinct size advantage, and we can cover a lot of ground because you've got Candace and Alex and Nicky that are very mobile. I think the one thing about our team out of our presses was that we can cover more ground because of our mobility as a team and our quickness."
Fuller entered the game at the 14:48 mark and promptly went on a tear, hitting two three-pointers and finishing the half with 10 points. The Lady Vols led at the break, 49-27, after overcoming a slow start in the first five minutes.
"I was definitely surprised," Fuller said at the post-game press conference, where she was flanked by Parker and Hornbuckle. "I looked up and saw the score. I think it was five to 10 or seven to 10. I looked over at Dom and asked her what was wrong with us. But finally we got in our rhythm. These two girls started playing."
"Thank you," Parker said with a sideways look.
"We finally got it rolling," Fuller said with a smile.
Fuller was a big reason for the roll. She added an assist, a steal and two boards to her first-half stats. In a way she was playing for two coaches – Summitt and Middle Tennessee's Rick Insell, who was Fuller's high school coach at Shelbyville Central High School in Shelbyville, Tennessee. She used that familiarity to her advantage.
"I was kind of nervous at the beginning just because I was playing against him instead of with him and I've been used to that for four years," Fuller said. "Once I got into it, though, I was excited. He runs the same plays in high school so I was trying to call the plays out for them (her teammates) to let them know what was going on. But then again once you've been an Eaglette, you always kind of have Eaglette blood in you."
Fuller finished the game with six rebounds and four assists to go with her career-high 12 points. One defensive board particularly stood out because of the finish. Fuller fired a bullet outlet pass to point guard Shannon Bobbitt, who scooted down court and found a trailing Parker in the lane for an underhanded scoop pass. Parker, who was fouled, hit the layup and free throw to give Tennessee a 65-37 lead five minutes into the second half.
"Obviously, on the other bench, was Alex's high school coach," Summitt said. "I guess she wanted to reassure coach Insell that she learned a lot from him, and she came to play against him.
"She has been very efficient. I think Alex has been a great spark for our team coming off the bench. She's been efficient and it's not just her scoring. Her rebounding, she is pursuing the basketball and coming up with either the rebound or keeping the ball alive on the glass. As I said going into this year the most-improved player on our basketball team. I think she's demonstrating that game in and game out."
Insell didn't spare any words praising the performance of his former pupil.
"She's a winner. Great family," Insell said. "I coached her for like seven years, all the way through junior pro and then junior high and AAU and then high school. What a great family and a good young lady. Not only is she going to be successful on the court, which she is right now, she is going to be very successful off the court. And she's come through a lot of hardships. She's had knee problems, and she's overcome all that. That says a lot about the person. And I'm very proud of her, very proud for her and her mom and dad."
Insell sought this game with Tennessee as a measuring stick for his program. The Blue Raiders have made it to the postseason and the first and second rounds of the NCAA Tournament, but they want to go farther.
"This game not only prepared us for the next game, but it also prepared us for the rest of the season, because our goal is to go deeper into the NCAA Tournament," Insell said. "We won't have to play a team as good as Tennessee to get … to the Sweet 16. Hopefully we can play someone like them or Maryland or Georgia in the Sweet 16 or Elite Eight."
Insell's intention is to get his team to the next level. His rapport with the media is already there. When he was asked by the press conference moderator to provide an opening statement before opening the floor for questions, Insell replied with a smile, "Why don't we open it up for questions right now? I'm still stunned."
He then provided thoughtful responses to the questions directed his way – as did Givens – about the performances of the two teams.
When asked about Middle Tennessee's turnovers, Insell said, "We've been averaging about 11 or 12 turnovers a game. And 15 in the first half that kind of took us out of the game. Plus, they shot 64 percent. (They) shoot like that and you turn the ball over like that, you don't have much of a shot. That's what happened to us. We didn't quit; I was really proud of that. We kept getting into them. We kept attacking them. You know, we learned some things today. Tennessee's got a great team, they're well coached, they play hard just like we play hard. They've just got six inches on us at every position."
Insell, a graduate of Middle Tennessee, also acknowledged the fans in the arena – there were 7,835 in attendance and quite a few were wearing the blue and white of the Blue Raiders – but he especially singled out the ones in orange.
"The best fans in the country are from the state of Tennessee," he said. "We're building a great fan base at Middle Tennessee, and Tennessee's already got a great fan base. They're knowledgeable, they love their women's basketball, and that's what I like about this state."
Givens, a senior and the reigning Sun Belt Player of the Year and Sun Belt Tournament MVP, gave a good showing for her school and conference with her performance but that didn't give her any comfort.
"No, because we lost," Givens said. "None of them (points) really mean anything but a ‘W.' We didn't get a ‘W' so to me, it's almost as if I didn't score anything because I'm hurting right now over the loss."
She was pleased that she and teammates didn't back down and kept trying despite Tennessee's lead and the difficulty of playing in Thompson-Boling Arena.
"That's one thing that I like about this team is that no matter how big of a team we are playing, we're not afraid of anybody," Givens said. "Little Middle Tennessee had nothing to lose coming in here. Our mindset was that of going into any other game. We knew it was going to be tough, we knew it was going to be a different brand of girls we were playing. But we know you have to have heart and fight. You can't be scared. Like coach said, this is preparation for the NCAA."
Insell has put together a competitive out of conference schedule – his team has already played Maryland and Minnesota – that he hopes will help his team come March.
"We've probably played the second-toughest schedule in the country behind Tennessee," he said. "We've still got Georgia and Old Dominion left on the schedule along with our conference. And if you know anything about the Sun Belt Conference, we're the ninth-toughest conference in the country out of 31. And I think that we're probably going to raise that on up to maybe sixth or seventh because a lot of our teams have beat a lot of teams around the country in their non-conference schedule. So I think that's going to help us some."
Middle Tennessee barely lost to Maryland, 80-76, in the season opener for both.
"They're two great teams," Insell said when asked about Tennessee and Maryland. "It wouldn't surprise me at all to see them both of them in the Final Four. Maryland is very gifted like Tennessee. The difference today was we played Maryland at Middle Tennessee. We might have had just a little bit of a home-court advantage. And Tennessee might have had just a little bit of home court advantage today. We played well against Maryland, and it was the first game of the year. Some of the things we did bothered them a little bit. There was not a lot of film out there. They're two great teams, two great programs."
Hornbuckle also was asked to compare the two games – Maryland-Middle Tennessee and Tennessee-Middle Tennessee – in a question spring-loaded with potential to say something that could be misconstrued.
"Be careful," Parker said.
Hornbuckle pointed out that comparing scores – she cited the fact both Middle Tennessee and Tennessee had beaten Chattanooga by large margins – wasn't really worthwhile.
"It was Maryland's first game; they came out with a win," Hornbuckle said. "That's what big teams do, no matter how ugly it might have been, they came out with a win. As the season goes on each team gets better so you can't dwell on it in the beginning of the season. You've just got to get better and focus on Tennessee. We're not worried about what everybody else is doing."
"Good job," said Parker, who reached over and high-fived Hornbuckle.
Hornbuckle was much happier after this game because she spent the first half on the floor – she logged 18 of the first 20 minutes – instead of sitting on the bench in foul trouble. Hornbuckle and Bobbitt, who both had been plagued by foul trouble recently, finished this game without a single whistle.
"We kind of put our team in a bind when either one of us is in foul trouble, especially when both of us are in foul trouble, because we're the two primary guards that push tempo," Hornbuckle said. "I was looking at that (on the stat sheet). I was kind of excited I don't have any fouls. It's great. I try to go out every game – zero fouls, zero turnovers. That's my goal. I'm really proud of Shannon and I today to just go out there and play great defense and at the same time come out without any fouls."
Bobbitt hit a three-pointer to get in the scoring column but her most-impressive stat was eight assists to two turnovers. Hornbuckle had two assists and two turnovers and also added four boards and two steals to her stat row.
But the eye-popping statistic with this team continues to be its shooting ability.
"I've been pleased obviously with our outside shooting," Summitt said. "Certainly Sidney you expect that, but I think that we got in the gym this summer, we're getting in a lot of shots in our practices. One thing that helps our shooting is that we're not rushing into our shots. I think having the quick ball movement and the good spacing offensively we're just getting better looks overall. But you have to give them credit. They're knocking down the shots."
The scoring is coming from expected places – Parker and Spencer – but also from Hornbuckle, who is an outside threat in addition to her slashing ability; from Anosike, who specialized in defense last season; and from the bench. Bobbitt and fellow point guard Cait McMahan haven't shot a lot so far, but they are dangerous enough that they can't be left open and both are a threat to use their quickness to drive to the basket and shoot, dish off or kick out.
"I think we have a great offensive team," Hornbuckle said. "Any individual person at any point in time can knock down a shot, open shots, and-ones. We have faith in each other, whether it's a three or a two or somebody driving and I think that's been a concern in the past few years. Maybe six or seven people you count on scoring but then the other people might be specifically defensive. It's like everybody can do both ends of the court."
Tennessee came into the game averaging six made threes a game and hitting 45.3 percent behind the arc. They had six in the first half and hit at a clip of 66.7 percent. They added four more in the second half and finished at 58.8 percent behind the arc. Fuller was 1-5 from long range entering the game but hit both attempts Sunday.
"We were banking on that they wouldn't hit some of those threes," Insell said. "We were kind of hoping that Fuller might take a few shots from three and we were hoping that Bobbitt would take a few, and McMahan. I coached McMahan in AAU also, so I knew McMahan's a winner. But she hadn't been shooting a whole lot, so we were going to try to play with that a little bit. She was looking pass more than shot, so we were hoping she'd lay off of it, and Bobbitt, too. Spencer came out, we got lost a couple times, and she just drained it. Tennessee played great. They just flat took it to us and kind of controlled every facet of the game."
Hornbuckle said the shooting stems from ball movement and confidence.
"Great ball movement makes the defense move – make them switch direction as much as possible so it opens up the open shot," she said. "And like I said before the confidence factor. If you're confident that the shot is going to go in and you know your teammates and your coaches have confidence in you, you're not going to think twice about shooting it."
With these shooting percentages Summitt likely isn't going to think twice about letting them.
The Lady Vols have another quick turn-around with one day between games. They will practice Monday afternoon and then leave for Ruston, Louisiana, for Tuesday night's game against Louisiana Tech.
"I'm not too familiar with them this year, but I will watch them on tape," Summitt said. "Right now it is one game at a time for this team, but I know that the game at Louisiana Tech will give us another road test."
ODDS AND ENDS: Alexis Hornbuckle's steal streak is up to 41 consecutive games of at least one theft. … Best fan shout: "We're playing Bucky ball!" … Best sign in the arena: "All I Want for Christmas is Candace Parker's Autograph" … Sidney Spencer's streak of six consecutive double digit games is the longest of her career. … Freshman Nicci Moats got her first official point as a Lady Vol when she hit a free throw. … Nicky Anosike's block moved her into a tie for 13th place for career blocks with 88. Candace Parker had three blocks and with one more will tie Daedra Charles (97) on the career list for 10th place.