Tennessee falls to North Carolina, 70-57

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Pat Summitt said she lines up the toughest schedule in the country every season just for games like Sunday's at North Carolina – a learning experience that should pay dividends in the postseason. After the 70-57 loss to the Tar Heels, the Lady Vols cited their errors but noted they were fixable. The correction process begins now.

Both Candace Parker, who led all scorers with 27 points, and Alexis Hornbuckle said this game differed from last March's loss to North Carolina in a big way – the season isn't over. Parker noted that the Tar Heels took it to Tennessee, and the Lady Vols brought it in spurts.

"We need to bring it all the time," Parker said. "I know we wanted this game. It was just a great environment, and we came in and sold out the gym. It was like a postseason environment. But we know what we need to work on. We need to work on rebounding and not turning the ball over as much. Those are areas that are easily correctable."

Pat Summitt said before the game that it would be an early season measurement of where her team stood.

"I think we can really improve our defense and our rebounding and then just composure offensively against the type of pressure that we saw tonight," Summitt said. "It was very physical. There was a lot of fouls, there was a lot of hand checking and a lot of body checking. They're two physical teams. There's so much for us to take away from this game.

"I hate losing. I hate it with a passion, and they do, too. But it's early and we're going to learn from it. This team is going to be a much better team as we progress through the toughest schedule in the country."

Hornbuckle nodded her head while Summitt spoke.

"It's a learning experience," Hornbuckle said. "We need to work hard. We practice two and an half hours, and instead of practicing in spurts we need to play hard for those two and an half hours and make the 40 minutes easy. I think like what Candace said – I agree with it – we brought it in spurts.

"You can't do that against a team like North Carolina. They're a great team, they're competitive, they're quick, they're athletic, and we showed that we can keep up with them, and when we had our lead we showed that we were able to get over that hump, but it only happened once, and you can't run a game like that. I'm just like coach. I hate to lose. Even though it's early, we're not going home, it's not the end of the season, we're just going to go work on our offense, work on our efficiency and just get better at rebounding and defense."

North Carolina, 8-0, was led by forward Erlana Larkins, who had 17 points and 12 rebounds. Tennessee's inability to keep Larkins off the offensive glass – she had six boards on that end – undermined the Lady Vols' attempts to seize any momentum in the second half.

Despite foul trouble for Hornbuckle and Shannon Bobbitt in the first half and a shooting percentage of 34.6 percent, the Lady Vols only trailed at halftime, 30-25. They tied the game within the first two minutes and 13 seconds of the second half, but then North Carolina put together mini-runs and kept a three-to nine-point lead until pulling away for good in the final two minutes.

The pace was often frenetic and the play brutal, especially inside, where players hacked and held each other, often without a whistle being blown.

Tennessee, 6-1, also couldn't score a bucket in crucial stretches. Sharpshooter Sidney Spencer had a miserable night – she was 2-13 from the field – and finished with five points.

"I think they did a great job defensively of just making us play fast and play a lot faster than what we would like to and, like coach said, Sid's a big part of our offense and when she gets started early, it makes it a lot harder for them to guard Candace, because they're pulling out their defense to guard the perimeter," Hornbuckle said. "And Sid was just struggling, and we were doing our best to try to get her involved."

Spencer wasn't forcing shots; she just wasn't hitting them. And that left Parker to handle the scoring as Hornbuckle also was misfiring with five points on 1-7 shooting. Nicky Anosike helped out with nine points (4-6), Bobbitt added seven (3-6), and Alberta Auguste had four (2-4). But the balanced scoring that had served Tennessee so well so far this season abandoned the Lady Vols in the bandbox of Carmichael Auditorium, before an announced sold-out crowd of 8,010, although there were some empty seats scattered around the facility.

"Obviously we really struggled to put the ball in the hole," Summitt said. "I think North Carolina had a lot to do with it, just their pressure. We rushed a little bit, just did not feel as comfortable or in sync offensively, but I think they had a lot to do with it, just the physicality of their team. We needed to be able to score with a little more balance and players that typically have played, have made shots (didn't) – we rely a lot on our perimeter shooting as well – and we had to resort to going inside. We were just trying to get the ball inside and try to get some three-point opportunities that way since we weren't shooting the ball well from the outside."

Tennessee finished the game at 36.2 percent. North Carolina, aided by a strong second half at 59.3 percent, finished at 44.4 percent after shooting 33.3 percent in the first twenty minutes. Both teams were cold in the first half, despite the warm temperatures inside the auditorium.

"Tennessee is a great team," North Carolina coach Sylvia Hatchell said. "I don't think they have any weaknesses. I just think maybe we made more shots than they did tonight. They're a great team. It was hot out there, and I think both teams were tired down the stretch. Hopefully the crowd was a factor."

The Tar Heels had two other players in double figures – Camille Little with 11 and Ivory Latta with 12. Latta also added eight assists, most on feed passes into the post. North Carolina outscored Tennessee in the paint, 43-31. The Tar Heels out-rebounded the Lady Vols, 43-33. Both teams committed 24 turnovers each.

"I just think I did a better job of getting open," Larkins said of the second half. "They weren't doubling as much or helping as much as they were in the first half. They switched some things defensively. They put a taller player on me, not that Nicky Anosike wasn't already tall enough. They went with Candace Parker and I knew coach said they'd try to be shot blockers so give her a couple of fakes or try to go around her, and that's what I did in the second half."

Tennessee did have seven blocks – Parker accounted for four and Anosike had three – but Summitt said the defense against Larkins should have been adjusted from the sideline.

"I have to take a responsibility for us playing behind her most of the game," Summitt said. "We got caught on the high side early and then we chose to stay behind. We didn't double. We didn't do a good job of taking away the fact she loves to go left. We gave her a few of those, but maybe we'd have been a little better off to vary our defense. That's my responsibility. I'll take a look at it. We may see them down the road."

Hatchell shared those sentiments – not the defense on Larkins but the notion of meeting again.

"We went through and shook hands and I told the players, ‘Let's meet again for a national championship,' " Hatchell said.

Tennessee did answer one big question mark going into this game – was its guard play better than the last time the Lady Vols faced the pressure of the Tar Heels? Bobbitt and freshman Cait McMahan are an upgrade – especially the speed of Bobbitt and her ability to break the press – but work remains to be done. Hornbuckle had to play at the point in the second half, and Tennessee is better off if she can stay on the wing for her rebounding and instinctive play.

"Sporadic at times," Summitt said of the backcourt play. "Of course Shannon and for Cait it's a little bit of new territory for both of them. They haven't been in quite the type of environment. I know Shannon hasn't in the last two years, and Cait at the high school level has not been in anything like we saw at Arizona State in here. I think the fact that we've got a lot of tough road games this year will be good for both of the point guards. I was much more comfortable with going with Lex at the point, but I think sometimes that hurts her offensive game, and it hurts her rebounding."

At least one person in Carolina blue was impressed with Bobbitt.

"Little Bobbitt? She is quick," Latta said. "She is definitely quick. That was to their advantage. Me and her were having a good time out there. We were talking about who was the tallest. I guess I won that battle. She does a lot for Tennessee, and she's a great point guard."

Summitt was circumspect after the game and capable of seeing the big picture – it's early December and there's a lot time between now and March to improve.

"We're still growing," Summitt said. "I like this team. I like their energy. I like their skill. They've been very tough minded and competitive. We'll learn. That's why we here, and that's why we play the schedule we play every year. There's a lot of time between now and postseason, and I just think we're going to continue to grow."

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