"It's always good to get a win in the SEC and open up your season the way we did tonight as far as Southeastern Conference play," Pat Summitt said in her post-game opening remarks. "I thought we did some good things. Obviously turned the ball over too much for my liking but aside from that I thought we shared the ball well and got some good looks and had a chance to really work on some variations of our defense both in the half court and full court and obviously some zone and man action."
Summitt was able to do what she wanted – go to the bench often and stay with the substitutes for most of the second half. No starter played more than 25 minutes – Nicky Anosike and Shannon Bobbitt played the most at 25 minutes – and the subs tallied a lot of time. More importantly the lead grew with bench players on the floor, and although the Lady Vols could essentially finish the game on cruise control, they didn't lose too much focus or intensity, as has happened in the past. Anosike, a post player, set the tone by moving out to the perimeter on defense and completely disrupting Alabama's offense.
"Usually I would say yes, but actually I was surprised and happy with the way we handled the lead," said Tennessee junior guard Alexis Hornbuckle, who had four steals and now has had at least one in 50 consecutive games. "We kept it going; we kept our intensity. Nicky did a great job of keeping her intensity up, and it allowed us to follow in her footsteps. No matter the lead we're working on us. We have a big game coming up on Saturday so it wasn't about Alabama. I think we made it a point of emphasis and just came out and made it about Tennessee."
Alabama's Navonda Moore was held to five points on 2-8 shooting. In the last two games against Tennessee she dropped 57 points on the Lady Vols. Kate Mastin came in the game averaging 13.8 points. She was 0-2 and held scoreless.
"Well, that was interesting," Alabama coach Stephany Smith said of the 6'4 Anosike chasing the Crimson Tide's guards. "I saw that immediately. Well, what's so sad about it is you'd have thought we could have gotten open against that, but we couldn't. That was one of the things that hurt us, trying to enter the ball and get in our offense. She's guarding Navonda Moore, and if Navonda Moore can't get open, who can? She (Anosike) did a great job on the perimeter. It caused us some problems."
Those problems were compounded by 35 Crimson Tide turnovers and three freshmen – six overall on the team – in the starting lineup playing in front of an orange-clad crowd of 9,349.
"We're very young," Smith said. "We have six freshmen. We start three freshmen, and all six freshmen play double-figure minutes. We are a work in progress. I had no idea how we would be walking into our first SEC basketball game. You compound that by your first SEC basketball game being Tennessee and then you compound that with it being in Knoxville, Tennessee.
"We didn't respond as well as I thought. I talked about, probably to a fault, composure, composure, composure, in preparing for this basketball game. I think they heard the word composure as walk the ball up the court, don't run an offense. And it just kind of put us in freeze frame. Tennessee can go on a run and turn a game into not a game in a very short period of time."
Tennessee sophomore forward Candace Parker led all scorers with 15 points. She was joined in double figures by Alberta Auguste with 11. Shannon Bobbitt, Alex Fuller and Alexis Hornbuckle had eight apiece. Sidney Spencer and Anosike chipped in seven points. Dominique Redding had two, and Cait McMahan added six, including the most-talked about bucket of the game.
McMahan drove the middle of the lane in the second half, dribbled behind her back to the left, spun away from the basket and threw the ball up in a scoop shot over her right shoulder between two defenders. The ball somehow banked in, and Spencer, Parker and Hornbuckle exploded off the bench. Spencer waved a towel, and Hornbuckle and Parker walked the length of the bench – Hornbuckle went to the corner and Parker headed in the direction of the coaches – as if they couldn't believe what they had just seen.
"I planned it out the whole game. I knew what I was going to do," McMahan said to much laughter from the media and from Hornbuckle and Parker, who were at the post-game press conference with her. "No, I just saw it open, shot through the lane, and I guess I just shot it."
"Great response, Cait. Great response," Hornbuckle said.
When Hornbuckle was asked for her reaction, Parker provided the sound effects by humming the introductory notes to SportsCenter.
"That's SportsCenter right there," Hornbuckle said. "I couldn't believe the shot went in. I got up and walked to the end of the bench, and I just stood there for a second. It was time to go to the locker room after that. You don't see that shot go in too often. You might see players take some crazy shots – or as coach calls it dipsy-dos – but you don't see them go in too often. I got excited."
Tennessee's post-game mood was understandably light-hearted. Although Summitt saw some troublesome things – the 20 turnovers, a passive post defense at times and a 34-32 rebounding margin for the Crimson Tide – she also got to do what she wanted, which was play the bench a lot of minutes. The bench accounted for 27 points, and UT generated 28 points off of turnovers.
"First of all Nicky Anosike played terrific defense for us and played a lot of minutes," Summitt said. "Once we extended our lead I wanted to get Alex more minutes, I wanted to get Dom some minutes, certainly Bird, Cait. With that said I thought we had a number of different looks, but all in all we maintained our intensity. I had anticipated going that route if we had an opportunity to do so, so it was good to give them a chance to get some quality minutes, especially when you look at Alberta. I thought she needed just to play through some things. She got 23 minutes, which was good. Alex got 21. We didn't get her, Alex, as many good looks as I would like to, but certainly to get her some quality playing time was important.
"I definitely wanted to see what we were doing off of the bench, because that's been a little iffy. We haven't played particularly well off the bench consistently. I just felt that going into a game like Connecticut and into that environment that we needed some quality minutes for Shannon and for Cait, Dominique, Alex. Alex has played quality minutes for us but just to be able to get them so comfortable and obviously confident in their game."
Connecticut was a recurring theme throughout the post-game press conference. That was due both to the fact it's the next game and because the outcome of this game was never in doubt. Tennessee led 25-5 halfway through the first half. Parker's night was done before half of the second half was even completed.
So the questions from the media were as much about Connecticut as they were about the game just played.
"I thought we played with a lot of energy on the defensive end," Summitt said. "We had some breakdowns in our high/low game. I think we have to be much more disciplined at times to take away maybe the best players or their best action offensively, which was out of their triangle trying to go high-low. Again, I just thought Nicky Anosike was terrific on the perimeter, but we could have been a little bit more efficient in the post play. It's good. You still get some opportunities to teach because of the action that they run. We see a lot of that and being able to deny the middle of the floor is a priority for us no matter who we're playing."
Parker had said the SEC opener would set the tone for that part of the season and overall she was pleased with how the team played.
"I think our defense really was key tonight," said Parker, who had a career high five steals. "We set the tone defensively, allowing I think 14 in the first half. We definitely set the tone. The SEC schedule is going to be hard, and teams are going to be coming after us. We just have to bring defense and rebounding, and we'll be fine."
The lopsided game allowed Summitt to try different lineups by pulling most of her starters, but she did leave Bobbitt and McMahan on the floor together for a stint in the second half. Since they are the team's point guards they are usually substituting for each other in a game and in practice they rotate in and out and lead different sets of players.
"We both share it (point guard duties)," said McMahan, who is recovered from the stomach flu that slowed her last week. "It was exciting when she (Bobbitt) came on the floor. I don't know if anybody saw it. We just looked at each other and smiled because we never usually get to play with each other. We share the point guard. She can play two; I can play one and that works on the defensive end, too."
McMahan managed the game well in her 21 minutes of play and added two assists, a steal and a rebound to her six points.
"I think Cait feels a lot better," Summitt said. "She's got her energy back. She stayed very aggressive, and I think she's very comfortable now with our defensive schemes, our offensive schemes and more back to herself, which is good. It's good to have those two players that can complement each other, as well as play together. It was good to see them play together, Shannon and Cait. Hadn't used it that much."
Summitt attributed the 20 turnovers to the pace of the game. Also, normally sure-handed Hornbuckle had four, the most of anyone.
"Four of those were my fault," Hornbuckle said. "Personally I would see something and I didn't throw the type of pass that it took to get there; I didn't put enough on it. You could say it was kind of a lack of concentration, at the same time frustration. But we can't have 20 turnovers Saturday. It won't be good. It won't look good at all if we have 20 turnovers. We have to take care of the ball. I think coach will make that a point of emphasis in our shoot-around on Friday."
The Lady Vols will get a day off Thursday to travel to Hartford – Wednesday was the eighth-consecutive day of games/practices – and then hold a practice session Friday.
"I think we're as prepared as we can be at this point in time of the season," Summitt said of Saturday's game. "Just watching this Connecticut team they're physically very imposing, very aggressive. They are instinctively a better rebounding team than anyone we've seen, including ourselves. I think that's going to be our big challenge – how we really work the glass at both ends."
Although the Lady Vols were out-rebounded they did show more fight on the boards. Fuller had six and three players – Parker, Anosike and Hornbuckle – had five apiece.
"I thought it was a lot better," Summitt said. "We were more focused on it. We talked about it. We're trying to find five people that will work to make the commitment to rebounding on the defensive end. A lot of people will instinctively go to the offensive glass, but it's hard to find people that just want to grind it out on the defensive boards, and that's something we're looking for, not having just one or two players, even getting our guards more involved.
"This is a place where there's so much room for this team to grow. We're not where we need to be, but I do think we understand a little bit better, and hopefully we'll continue to improve because it will continue to be a point of emphasis and a lot of repetition goes into it in practice."
Tennessee also cut into its chance to get more defensive rebounds by taking Alabama out of its offense.
"Any team feeds off of turnovers, especially Tennessee," Smith said. "Tennessee is a team that can take advantage of another team's mistakes and really compound the situation for them. Please don't get me wrong. Tennessee is a great team, and their pressure did bother us. But we gave it to them no matter what. Maybe that has as much to do with the banners flying from the ceiling as it does with the actual action taking place on the court."
With Summitt and two players having to take care of a television interview before they came to the media room, it took longer than usual to get to Alabama's turn with the press.
"Well, you would think I would have a grand statement to make," Smith said when asked for an opening statement. "While y'all had the Q&A session going on I had plenty of time to gather my thoughts. But I'm a little bit thoughtless to be quite honest. Tennessee is a very good basketball team. What an awesome environment that y'all have for your women's program, but much deserved because of all the success that Pat Summitt has had with the numerous turnover of tremendous players that she has year in and year out."
Smith got a good performance out of freshman center Talisha Chandler, who had 14 points and five boards, but overall she was disappointed by her team's lack of fight.
"I think eventually we began to fight a little bit," Smith said. "But I guess that's the one thing I wish we would have taken away differently is that we would have shown a little bit more pride, a little bit more fight, and not so much of a surrender. Because at that point, you have nothing to lose, just try to get better. I think some people did things well, but all in all, we were just a bunch of freshmen playing against a very veteran, a very experienced and a great home crowd team."
That sounds like what the Lady Vols will face Saturday – a talented team on its floor with a home crowd at full volume for the Southern guests from Tennessee. The Lady Vols have won the last two games against the Huskies after Connecticut had reeled off a streak of six straight victories.
"I think it has turned in our favor, but if you remember we haven't really won by a large margin in the past two years at all," said Hornbuckle, one of only four players on Tennessee's team to have played in Hartford. "But a win is a win. But at the same time it lets us go in there and say, ‘OK, they're gunning for us even harder than last year because we beat them.' We're going into their territory so they have the home-court advantage so they should come out on top if push comes to shove, but we're going to come in there and compete for 40 minutes solid, 40-plus minutes if needed. We're not going to lay down for anybody."
McMahan, an intense and excitable sort who is also a Tennessee native and grew up following the rivalry, sounded as if she wanted to tip off right then.
"I can't wait," McMahan said, her voice rising with anticipation. "This is what you shoot in your back yard for, games like this. I'm excited now. I'm just ready. It's going to be a fun game to come with our team and their team and just battle it out. It's going to be a fun, great women's basketball game."
"She's ready to play right now," Hornbuckle said.
Can the team calm her down a wee bit before Saturday?
"It is hard," Parker said. "Calm and Cait don't fit in the same sentence," Hornbuckle said.
Summitt watched Connecticut play West Virginia on television Tuesday night. The Lady Vols and Huskies have now shared West Virginia as an opponent and after the game Mountaineers coach Mike Carey said Tennessee's post players could be scored on and if a team attacked UT's pressure, the buckets were there for the taking.
"The West Virginia coach was not real impressed with us obviously with post-game comments," Summitt said with a sly smile. "But I did get to see that game. I saw part of the Purdue game earlier in the year, but I'll watch a lot of tape the next two days."
Tennessee's two wins have boosted the Lady Vols' confidence in the series, but Summitt also noted the teams are both different personnel-wise.
"Certainly you look at the members of this team, and they have had some success," Summitt said of her team. "But at the same time these two teams have a different look from last year. I know we do, and just my perception of watching Connecticut play they're much more of an up-and-down team, they extend their defense more. Just their overall speed, quickness, athleticism, to me, has improved in the last year, and I feel the same about our team.
"I think with the addition of Shannon and Alberta and Cait, we can push tempo. I think we're a much-improved team in our frontline as far as our offensive game. Our defense and our board play remains probably a question mark as to where we are from last year."
Parker will be one of the six players for Tennessee who has never played at Hartford. She and Fuller were taking a redshirt year to rehab from knee surgeries when Tennessee played at UConn two years ago. Bobbitt, Auguste and McMahan and walk-on Elizabeth Curry will also be in uniform for the first time in Hartford. Freshman forward Nicci Moats is away from the team for personal reasons, but Summitt said on her post-game radio show that she expected Moats back after the UConn game.
"We're excited, but we're trying to keep everything in perspective and realize it is just another game on the schedule," Parker said. "I know the history behind UConn-Tennessee, but we're just going to focus on the present. Obviously we're going into a hostile environment, but we just need to bring our defense and rebounding, and we'll be fine.
"I think with our scheduling we're placed in NCAA-like atmosphere every other game. I'm really excited about playing in front of a national audience on TV and also all the fans that are going to be there wearing orange and the UConn fans as well. So I'm just really excited. I've never gotten the chance to play there."
That chance comes Saturday. The Alabama game became a tune-up and chance to tinker with lineups with the way the game unfolded, and Tennessee passed that initial test. One of the brightest spots for Tennessee was getting Auguste back on track offensively as she found success driving to the basket, was 5-6 from the line and hit an eight-footer in the first half.
"I was happy for Bird," Hornbuckle said. "She settled down. She just played her game. I don't know what it was the last two games. Players go through games where they don't play so well; they don't play their ‘A' game. … I was happy for her, and hopefully it will carry over on Saturday and give her confidence that she needs and that we need her to have on Saturday."