Then the Lady Vols outscored Notre Dame by the bucket-load. With half of the second half ticked off the clock, Tennessee had padded its total by 35 points; Notre Dame had added just 11. Tennessee controlled the game at that point on the scoreboard, 64-38, and on both ends of the floor.
Point guard Shannon Bobbitt was responsible for a five-point swing to push the score to 64 after Tulyah Gaines was called for an intentional foul as Bobbitt drove to the basket. Replays appeared to indicate that Gaines didn't intend to foul Bobbitt in the face – Bobbitt ducked as she headed to the basket – but she knocked down both free throws and then hit a 20-footer on a kick-out pass from forward Candace Parker after Tennessee got possession again.
The lead extended to as much as 34 points – 74-40 – with 4:30 to play before Tennessee got its last four points on a layup by Alberta Auguste and two free throws by Elizabeth Curry.
"Honestly, we talked at halftime and realized that we had to push the ball and play offense from our defense, and I think that's what we did," Parker said. "We rebounded the ball, and we looked for scoring opportunities in transition. And then that opens up things in the half-court. We just started feeding off of each other. That's what we need to start the game doing. Sorry it took 20 minutes to do that, but we got there."
Parker led all scorers with 22 points. Bobbitt had career highs in points (17) and three-pointers (five). Senior Sidney Spencer also had 17 points.
Notre Dame, 9-4, was led by junior guard Charel Allen with 16 points. The Irish came into the game with four players averaging double figures, but only Allen hit the mark and nine of her points came within the last six minutes after Tennessee had built a 30-point lead with 5:33 to go. Guard Breona Gray got the closest with nine points. Guard Ashley Barlow was 3-3 in the first half and had six points at the break but got just one more in the second half on a free throw.
For Tennessee the most-impressive part of its game was not the offensive production in the second half but the defensive pressure that led to it. Tennessee's effort kept bringing the crowd of 15,652 to its feet to roar its approval.
Junior guard Alexis Hornbuckle didn't shoot well – she had four points on 2-8 shooting – but she had six assists, four steals (she has swiped at least one in 49 straight games) and three blocks. Hornbuckle's stuffs tied a career high – she had three against Kentucky last season – and she now has 42 for her career.
Parker led the block parade by rejecting five, two of which resembled volleyball spikes and another of which suspended the shooter in the air for a second with Parker bringing the ball to an abrupt stop while both players had hands on it. She has now moved past Chamique Holdsclaw into sixth place for career blocks with 118.
The Lady Vols ended up with 12 blocks, good for second most in a game and tying the mark set against Colgate in 2004. The record is 13 against Eastern Kentucky in 1987.
"What makes it exciting?" Parker said when asked about the blocks. "Honestly, Coach Pat Summitt stresses having an air about us, an attitude. I think we're able to have that this year because we bring our defense every night – I think with Shannon and Lex stepping up on defense and pressuring and we're back there; Nicky and Sid are back there to help them out – I think it just gives us excitement to know that we pressure and our teammates have our back. I think that's what blocks do."
Parker displayed a touch of that 'tude while descending the ramp from the tunnel when the starters were summoned. She popped the Tennessee on her shooting shirt and held the school name out for effect to the delight of the fans, who could either see Parker emerge in front of them or on the two video boards in the corners of the arena. Parker was called for a technical foul in the last home game against West Virginia for popping her jersey after a dunk.
Parker finished this game with zero fouls and was such a force inside that Notre Dame essentially had to quit trying to go inside with the ball in the second half. She altered the shots she didn't block, and her presence allowed post players Nicky Anosike and Alex Fuller to get in the passing lanes and deflect or steal the ball. Fuller also had two blocks to go with one steal and two points. Anosike had one block (and now has 100 career swats), three steals and eight points.
"She had an incredible game with no fouls and five blocks," Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. "Her timing is good. She got all ball. She really is an exceptional player all around."
Summitt attributed the performance to an increased level of dedication from Parker on defense.
"I think Candace is playing harder now than she did in earlier games," Summitt said. "As far as taking possessions off she's been much more committed to playing hard and what a difference it makes for our team. She has such a great presence and obviously great arm span, gets her hands on a lot of passes. Doing a better job on the boards … She's worked hard in practice."
The issue of board play came up at halftime, among other topics. Spencer had five rebounds, Parker had three and Hornbuckle had one. But not one of those nine were on the offensive end.
"At halftime, we're looking at goose eggs for Parker, Spencer and Hornbuckle on the offensive glass," Summitt said.
She discussed that with the team at the break and brought up the passive approach on defense. The players also called their own meeting at halftime.
"At halftime Pat stressed the fact that we were looking dead out there," Bobbitt said. "We weren't playing defense first and our boards first. So we had a little meeting among ourselves and we just went out there and we were going to show it in the second half, and that's what we did. We got a lot of steals out of it, and that's what caused us to get transition points."
Tennessee finished the game with 34 points off of turnovers.
"Obviously, we played better second half than we did in the first," Summitt said. "We had a lot more energy. I thought our guards dictated tempo better; frontline people stepped up their defensive intensity. Guest coaches (the people from various companies and groups who sit behind the bench at games and go inside the locker room at halftime) told me at halftime they needed to play better defense so I listened to them.
"No, seriously, we just didn't bring the energy and the intensity on the defensive end until the second half. I thought Notre Dame got the shots they wanted and really managed to run their offenses and get good looks. I think when this team understands that they can generate points off defense and board play, they can obviously go on a lot of strong runs, and they did that in the second half in a big way. I challenged Shannon to really step up and pick up her intensity and pressure on the basketball. As a team overall we did that."
Notre Dame came into the game averaging 17.6 turnovers a game. The Irish had 29 against Tennessee.
"We don't normally turn the ball over quite that often, and we had a struggle getting it in," McGraw said. "I thought we did a much better job in the first half against the press."
Tennessee's full-court pressure flummoxed the Irish for most of the second half while the Lady Vols, on the other hand, were taking care of the ball. Tennessee had 12 turnovers in the first half and just three in the second half. Two of those came in the final minute of the game with ball-handlers Bobbitt and Hornbuckle on the bench, along with backup point guard Cait McMahan, who played two minutes in the first half but is still recovering from a stomach flu that kept her out of practice all week.
The 1-3-1 zone defense that tripped up Tennessee in the first half didn't slow down the Lady Vols in the second half. With the Irish struggling to score they also couldn't set up much full-court pressure.
"They extended their defense and went with more of a 1-3-1, just trying to delay like we run some of our action where you try to delay and disrupt and get a team late in the clock, take them out of rhythm," Summitt said. "I thought they had a lot of success with it in the first half. Shannon said she was waiting for someone to get in the middle, and I said, ‘Your mindset should be get and go. Until somebody stops you, you go until you're stopped.'
"Once we came out at halftime I thought she had a different mindset. We got our wings up, and we got Candace in the middle a little bit quicker. We kind of fell into the tempo they wanted us to run and fortunately picked it up in the second half."
Bobbitt also became a major part of the offense. She hit 5-7 from behind the arc, which forced Notre Dame to pick up both her and Spencer deep. McGraw cited Bobbitt's play as the backbreaker for the Irish and even forced Notre Dame to try a special defense.
"I thought Bobbitt was the difference in the game," McGraw said. "I thought she played really well (and) from the three she really hurt us. … It really hurt our zone. We didn't feel like we could play man-to-man. She's coming in averaging six points a game, and you have to decide who's going to beat you. Honestly, we were trying to guard her. We really left her open a few times unintentionally. But, especially late in the game, we actually went to the triangle-and-two on her.
"I thought we did a decent job on Spencer. She got a couple of open looks when we made some mistakes in the zone. I thought overall we did a decent job on her."
Bobbitt wasn't surprised to find herself left open on occasion.
"Basically, I'm guessing every scouting report against me is I don't have a consistent jump shot so everybody kind of plays off of me so I just take what the defense gives me, and I was just shooting it good," Bobbitt said.
When Bobbitt was asked if she had been frustrated on offense sometimes, she replied, "As long as we win, I feel like I did my job. It doesn't even matter. It doesn't frustrate me much. I've just going to have to work on it and just have confidence in my jump shot. That's what I did tonight. I just shot the ball, and it went in. It felt good."
Spencer welcomed the help on the perimeter – it was her first made three since the Texas game after not connecting against West Virginia and Old Dominion, and she is now in 11th place on the UT career list for made three-pointers with 100 – which leads to a domino effect in terms of scoring. The long-range shots forced Notre Dame to shift its defenders, who had been collapsing inside.
"With the guards shooting the ball well I think it opens up a lot more opportunities inside," Spencer said. "They were playing a zone that was really packing it in on the inside, and they were matching up well with the shooters. So with Shannon knocking down jumpers like that it's opening up a lot more opportunities inside for us."
Summitt had been asking Bobbitt to look to score from the point position and to not pass up wide-open shots.
"She was fairly aggressive on offense in the first half; she just didn't guard anybody," Summitt said. "When she picked up the ball and put a lot more pressure on the basketball it got into overplaying the wing and limiting the touches. I thought that was the big difference was her defense. I think she has to look to score more. I told her even in late seconds in the clock she's so good off the dribble that she's got to not only look for her teammates but create opportunities for herself.
"I don't think Shannon has turned down a lot of open looks, but I think she looks to pass first, and scoring is a second option for her. We've had a lot of clock situations where we've had 30-second violations because she'd have the ball and was looking for somebody else to make a play.
"I told her, ‘You are a playmaker so you've got to think playmaker is going to have to make a play, and that is going to be you a lot of times because you have the ball in your hands a lot.' She responded, and she responded at halftime because I wasn't particularly pleased with how she was playing at halftime."
Tennessee's start wasn't a total surprise. The Lady Vols hadn't played in a week because of the Christmas break and they haven't faced much zone defense in the first 12 games. They got some good looks within the offense but the shots didn't fall – Tennessee shot 34.5 percent in the first half and finished at 38.1 percent for the game.
But in the second half – in which Tennessee didn't shoot much better at 41.2 percent – the Lady Vols used defense to create offense. Hornbuckle offered a textbook case of how to not let bad offense lead to poor defense.
"I thought Alexis played great defense overall," Summitt said. "She was a difference maker. She didn't shoot the ball well, but there are going to be games that players are going to have poor shooting nights. But the thing she did, she did not let that affect the other aspects of her game. More importantly, what she did on the defensive end and on the boards and just running our team, that was big for us."
Hornbuckle got credit for three rebounds but had countless other tips to keep the ball alive and allow a teammate to grab it. Parker finished with 10 boards, and Spencer added two - both on offense - to her halftime total of five. Anosike had six boards, and Dominique Redding grabbed three in just 11 minutes of play. Auguste also had three boards, and Tennessee finished with 39 to 40 for the Irish.
Hornbuckle also helped Bobbitt push tempo by leading the break and directing the offense at times.
"I think it just happened that way," Summitt said. "We had some long rebounds or she got the ball off of steals. It wasn't by design. It's just the way it played out."
Of Hornbuckle's six assists there was none sweeter than the one she got after lofting the ball from about 22 feet away just past the top of the key to Parker, who was cutting to the right side of the basket. Parker caught the ball in the air with her back nearly turned toward the baseline and laid it in off the glass.
Hornbuckle was on the receiving end of a nice assist when Spencer, who was on the wing, passed the ball to Anosike, who had moved to the edge of the lane. Anosike bounced a pass to Hornbuckle, who had slipped along the baseline on the left side. Hornbuckle hit the layup to push Tennessee's second half lead to 50-36. A minute later Hornbuckle found Parker on the alley-oop.
Parker was asked about that play, but she also pointed out Hornbuckle's overall game.
"Lex brought her defense and rebounding and just her presence, and she does that every night,' Parker said. "She was getting good looks, and they wouldn't fall for her. I feel like it's great when you look up and you see the type of athleticism and quickness that we have in our backcourt. You have Shannon and Lex pressuring out front.
"We're smiling back there because we know that they're going to get steals, and we're going to get easy makes off of steals. I thought she did a great job of pushing tempo. She stepped up and played a great game."
Tennessee's defensive pressure clearly disrupted the Irish both because of their hesitancy to attack it and the turnovers.
"They came up a little bit more," McGraw said. "I thought we got it in a little bit easier in the first half. In the second half, I didn't think we cut as hard to the ball. I didn't think we looked like we wanted the ball. I don't think we wanted to try to get it up the floor. We really just looked like we were real tentative. I think we got a little bit shy about making the pass ahead, and that's what was effective for us in the first half."
Each coach had a half to be happy about. Unfortunately for McGraw and her team it was the first 20 minutes.
"We just wanted to come out and be aggressive," said Allen, who led her team in scoring but combined with Gaines for 12 – six each – of Notre Dame's 29 turnovers. "We didn't want to back down. We just wanted to give it our all. We had nothing to lose so we played our hearts out in the first half. Second half, we seemed to be back on our heels a little bit."
But McGraw, whose team starts Big East play on Tuesday against Seton Hall, could still find positives about the whole game.
"I thought it was a great experience for the freshmen to play in this environment and this great crowd," McGraw said. "It was very good for our young freshmen just to be at a game like this. I think it's going to help us down the road.
"We've got to move forward and look at our season as just beginning, with the Big East season coming up. I think there are some good things we can take from this, and I think there are some things we can learn from it."
For Summitt she has tangible evidence in terms of film that she can use to underscore how playing hard on defense will turn around a game.
"Playing hard has to become a habit and for some of our players it is; for others they may play in spurts," Summitt said. "But to maintain that intensity is really important. It's the same thing I told Shannon today. She wasn't playing like she typically plays with the ball pressure, just playing in the passing lanes. That's something that we have to become – a team that understands for 40 minutes or 40-plus minutes, we're going to have to play hard."
The team will return to the practice floor Sunday afternoon. Alabama will be in town on Wednesday evening and then UConn, the third Big East team of the regular season, awaits Saturday in Hartford.
"We need to bring the energy and intensity and have five people – a lot of times in the first half we might have three people playing hard and we'd have a couple of people not covering the passing lanes or sprinting to the help side," Summitt said. "I just thought we had so many breakdowns because we weren't all on the same page with the same level of intensity and commitment on the defensive end.
"This team has to understand that."