One of those bench players, sophomore forward Alex Fuller, moved into the starting lineup to replace Candace Parker. It was Fuller's first career start – she found out right before the team took the floor; the starting lineup on the electronic board in the arena didn't change until a few minutes before tipoff – and she made the most of it with 12 points, seven rebounds, three assists, three steals, one block and zero turnovers.
"I found out right before we ran out," Fuller said. "It really doesn't change my mindset. As a starter or as a person coming off the bench you still have to go in the game and be focused, bring the team up if we're down and keep us at the same energy when we're playing. I really didn't have a different mindset. I just knew that I had to make up for what Candace brought to us and be a leader on the court."
"Maybe they thought they needed to rebound this game since Candace wasn't there to do the work for them," Summitt said. "It's encouraging from the standpoint of players making up their mind they've got to do a better job on the boards. We've put a lot of emphasis on it, but at the same time I don't think that any player should stand around and watch a teammate rebound. I think we all have to be committed. Hopefully we can build on this. We certainly will talk about it. I mentioned this after the game. We did a lot of good things in the second half. It did take us a while to get going, however."
Parker, the team's leading scorer and rebounder, did some initial shooting about an hour before the game but then didn't return when the players stretched and went through warmups. She was examined Thursday by the team physician, Dr. Rebecca Morgan, who advised that it would be best to rest Parker, who has been battling a lower respiratory illness.
"I knew she was having some problems in practice yesterday," Summitt said. "Dr. Morgan just felt like she needed to hold her out. But she should be back. It's just a matter of getting through this.
"She always wants to be on the court. Once I talked to Dr. Morgan before the game I didn't think there was any way that she needed to play. It wasn't exactly the best news I've had today. But in turn as you look at it now, I think looking back it's probably good for our team to have to come in and respond. I think just having the bench play better, too, is encouraging."
Summitt got a scare late in the game when Fuller went down and had to be helped to the locker room with less than two minutes remaining. A crowd of 8,384 that was enjoying the romp over Mississippi State (10-8, 1-3) suddenly got very quiet. Fuller, a redshirt sophomore who had reconstructive knee surgery in the fall of 2004, went down near the basket. She tried to run down court but fell to her knees on the floor and was clearly in pain.
"I went up for a rebound and clearly I fell very hard," Fuller said. "I'm OK. It's fine now."
Jenny Moshak, the assistant athletics director for sports medicine, had just been in the stands helping a fan with a medical need when Fuller went down with what turned out to be a severe back spasm. Summitt also went onto the court to check on Fuller.
"Alex had a spasm in her lower back," Summitt said. "Jenny thought she would be fine as well. She just buckled to the floor so I didn't know if she was having problems with her legs. As soon as I asked her she said, ‘I've just got a spasm in my lower back.' "
Fuller had played 36 minutes at that point, a remarkable amount of time considering she missed one full season for knee rehab and played sparingly last year as a redshirt freshman.
"Maybe she just wanted a rest now that I look at it," Summitt said with a smile as she glanced at the stat sheet. "I didn't realize she went that long."
Fuller seemed nonplused when asked about playing so many minutes so Spencer and Hornbuckle answered for her.
"Alex is a tough kid," Spencer said. "She can go as long as you want her to go."
"Heather Mason right there," Hornbuckle said, referring to the team's strength and conditioning coach.
Parker is expected to be back – she was very active on the bench cheering and passing out water bottles in her Lady Vol warmups – for Monday's showdown with Duke, which beat N.C. State on Thursday to remain undefeated and ranked No. 1 in the country. But Summitt has referred to Fuller as dependable, and she showed why.
"She put up good numbers for us," Summitt said. "I felt like in the Georgia game, she got on the glass for us, but she didn't score well. She wasn't as active offensively. We moved her a lot (Thursday). We let her play some in the high post and tried to get her more touches offensively in her face-up game. I thought she obviously was very productive for us."
Hornbuckle said the players' versatility and various practice combinations allowed them to make the adjustment to incorporate a new starter. Hornbuckle can play at the point (one), wing (two) or small forward (three) spots. Fuller will practice at the three, four (power forward) and five (center) spots.
"It was an adjustment, but it didn't take any time at all," Hornbuckle said. "In practice we work with so many different lineups that we're able, if somebody goes out, to pull together and play different roles. That's why in practice I practice at the one position, the two and three. Alex might go anywhere from three through five. Everybody's able to play multiple positions."
The biggest adjustment was making up for Parker's points.
"We missed her scoring because that's 15, 20-plus points every night given, and people had to step up," Hornbuckle said. "But I think our team handled it and adjusted very quickly from the start."
The start was somewhat sluggish, but the team has been slow out of the gate on occasion even with Parker. Summitt saw Mississippi State tempting Tennessee into taking some quick jumpers. UT's shooting percentage hovered in the low 30s in the first half before a late surge boosted it to 40.6 percent and a 33-19 lead at the break.
We were open; sometimes there's a reason you're open," Summitt said. "I think they gave us the outside shot more in the first half. (In the second half), we had better ball movement. We just played much better in our half-court offense, got some good transition opportunities as well."
Tennessee was wreaking havoc on defense in both halves. The Lady Bulldogs shot 34.6 percent and turned over the ball 14 times in the first 20 minutes. Tennessee also was well on the way to controlling the boards with a 22-16 lead at halftime on the glass. The Lady Bulldogs added another 14 turnovers in the second half to finish with 28. Tennessee had 12 steals, led by Hornbuckle, who had four and now has a streak of 54 consecutive games with at least one takeaway.
"I think it's pretty simple: Rebounding and turnovers make a big difference," Mississippi State coach Sharon Fanning said. "I was pleased that we scrapped. I know that they were without a player, but we've had a couple of changes this week with kids hurt. We're an awfully young team. For us to come out and scrap and have some flexibility and adjust to that adversity, I was very, very proud of them.
"We didn't keep our focus. I think probably half the turnovers we did to ourselves but they surely forced a bunch of them. Tennessee is a great basketball team. We know that they offensively rebound the ball, and we just have to do a better job blocking out. We shot 50 percent in the second half (9-18), which is a plus, but you need more attempts. Basically, I think those two stats – as far as the rebounding and the turnovers – made a big difference in the ballgame.
"That's just an area, period, where we need to compete. Tennessee is going to play a physical game, they're always going to board, and they're finding ways to win ballgames. We have not blocked out as well as we need to. And we're not as big as most teams, so we need to get a step farther out. Spencer has more offensive rebounds than she does defensive rebounds going into the game, and they're going to rebound from the perimeter as well as the post. They're a very physical team. They're apparently finding a lot of ways to win games."
Against Georgia, Tennessee won with offense from Anosike and Hornbuckle when Parker was hounded defensively, and Spencer was held to five points. Against Mississippi State, Parker was out sick and Anosike struggled to score. So Fuller and Spencer stepped up, along with Bobbitt – 13 points is a career high for an SEC game – and Hornbuckle, who now has 297 career assists and claimed the 18th spot on the Lady Vols' career list, moving past Debbie Groover (295) and Bridgette Gordon (296). Four of Spencer's seven boards came on the offensive end.
"I think we knew coming into the game we were going to have to step up rebounding knowing that Candace wasn't going to be able to play," Spencer said. "We knew that's a big part of what she does. She plays above the rim, and she does get a lot of boards. So just stepping up and asking more of each other."
Both Summitt and Spencer credited the team's ability to move the ball for the difference in how the offense flowed between halves.
"That was the difference in the second half," Summitt said. "When you look at our offensive execution we were very unselfish, we were very aggressive and we had good ball movement. We had good reversal action, made the defense play across the floor, got a lot of unselfish play, which led obviously to good offensive looks. I thought our frontline did a nice job of keeping the ball moving."
The frontline of Spencer, Fuller and Anosike contributed nine assists with each player having three. For the game Tennessee had 22 assists on 30 baskets.
"I just think we did a great job of adjusting to their defenses and running and executing our offenses all the way through," Spencer said.
Tennessee also found some offense from Alberta Auguste, who had eight points, six rebounds, which tied a career high, and two assists. It was timely because Anosike struggled from the field with 1-10 shooting.
"I thought she was a little bit hesitant, and she did not shoot the ball well," Summitt said of Anosike. "She was coming off one of her best offensive games (against Georgia) so consistency is something that she obviously really has to focus on. I just thought she went to a finesse game. She has size and power. She can see the tape and learn from that."
Anosike and Hornbuckle have been on the floor before and after practice getting in extra work with the assistant coaches, Holly Warlick, Nikki Caldwell and Dean Lockwood. Hornbuckle's offensive output continued. She made 4-9 shots, including 1-2 from behind the arc. She credited the extra shots and a boost in confidence after shooting well against Georgia.
"One, trying to get more shots in whether it's before the game, before practice," Hornbuckle said. "Constant practice will help you and confidence. The Georgia game helped me out a lot, because the games before that I didn't play too well. I played hard but my shot wasn't falling.
"I knew coming into Duke, I didn't want to have the same outing as I did last year so I've been in the gym and I've been just talking to myself and trying to get prepared mentally for Duke's defense and the speed and the intensity and the strength that they're going to throw at us. Talking to Caldwell and Holly and Coach and just taking on-balance shots and looking for open shots instead of sometimes forcing things."
As a team Tennessee shot 39.5 percent for the game, but that was brought down by Anosike's shots and a 2-11 night from Dominique Redding, who had several shots rattle in and out, prompting the crowd to groan in frustration. Redding did have a season-high four rebounds and added a block and a steal.
Freshman guard Cait McMahan also struggled offensively – she was 1-6 from the field – but she drew two charges and did a smooth job of running the team with Bobbitt.
"Cait is obviously very physically tough and mentally tough," Summitt said. "She did not shoot the ball well, but she took good shots. So that doesn't concern me. I want her to be aggressive offensively.
"I thought she did a good job of running the team, stepped up and took charges. I think she made the most of her minutes with the exception of not shooting the basketball well. You always have to go back and look at shot selection and if you're not concerned about it – and I'm not – I want her to stay aggressive. She is a good shooter, and she can make shots and make plays.
"I thought Alberta did a lot of good things. The bench as a whole had a lot of energy. I thought Cait got some quality minutes of play and made the most of them."
There were some highlight reel moments throughout the game. Hornbuckle got a steal by reaching underneath a player's leg for a loose ball and then took off down court with it. She backed out of the lane and then made a spin move and banked in a 10-footer. Bobbitt led a fast break, hesitated at the free throw line, stepped back and then burst forward, splitting two defenders, who were frozen by the move. Bobbitt went in for the uncontested lineup.
Bobbitt also hit a three on some pinpoint ball movement. She passed to Fuller, who was off the block and fired a pass near the top of the key to Hornbuckle, who found Bobbitt, who had slipped into the corner. Bobbitt stroked the three.
Hornbuckle got cheated on two calls. In one case she was stride for stride with a Lady Bulldog down the sideline. The Mississippi State player lost her footing and kicked the ball, and Hornbuckle got called for a foul. That call occurred right in front of a displeased Summitt. Hornbuckle also saved a ball from going out of play and from her back passed to a teammate. Her head, shoulders and elbow never touched the baseline, but the official ruled her out of bounds. That call happened directly in front of an unhappy student section.
But the play that ended the first half had the entire Tennessee team – freshman forward Nicci Moats, who has been ill, was courtside in street clothes – and coaching staff smiling as they left the floor.
Fuller in-bounded the ball from in front of UT's bench with very few ticks remaining. She threw the ball about 65 feet in the air on a rope and it hit the backboard and rim and nearly bounced in, though it would not have counted since the ball was thrown from out of bounds. The ball caromed away, and time expired as players scrambled for it.
Fuller, who played softball, can put some muscle behind her passes.
"That's basically it," Fuller said while Hornbuckle nodded when Fuller was asked if she fired the basketball like a softball. "I was told to throw it toward the rim so I threw it toward the rim, but it hit it."
Her remarks brought laughter from the assembled media and Spencer and Hornbuckle, who stayed with the softball theme when discussing Fuller's overall game.
"Alex did a great job of stepping up to the plate and executing offensively," Hornbuckle said. "Nicky was struggling tonight, and Alex stepped up, and she was very efficient from the field. We need that, and we know that she's capable of doing that whether she starts or comes off the bench. That's a spark that you're happy to have on your team when you know that any given night somebody can step up and play big for you."
Summitt was asked after the game if it was good to see how the team played without Parker.
"I haven't been looking forward to a game without Parker," Summitt said to laughter. "It's not a bad thing for this team, because obviously she's carried a tremendous load for us on the offensive end. It really challenges other people to step up. I thought we saw that from a number of players. Certainly Bobbitt did a better job second half pushing tempo. Her defensive intensity was better. I think Alexis is just getting better and better in her decision-making and her shot selection. Her defensive intensity is solid. So some good things happened when they know that we've got to get it done."
"Robin (Porter) has started, and she was out," Fanning said. "Then Miayorka Johnson just had surgery today, (knee meniscus) and she was in a position to probably start. We don't have a senior on the team right now. We have two juniors that have been here before. One of them has played a significant amount, then another junior college player that's new this year. So there's a lot of youth.
"We have three freshmen in the starting lineup, a sophomore and then a junior college kid. (Johnson) was playing both a three and a four position, so she'll be out a week or two. We're hoping that Robin will be back in. She hurt her knee in practice in the last couple of days, so we'll see how that goes."
Mississippi State sophomore guard Marneshia Richard led her team in scoring with 14 points on 6-9 shooting. Freshman guard Alexis Rack got the start in place of Porter and had four points and six rebounds. But the Lady Bulldogs were 2-11 from behind the arc (18.2 percent) and couldn't stay with Tennessee for two halves.
Fanning and Richard said the game plan didn't change with Parker out.
"No matter who's out there playing, Tennessee is Tennessee," Richard said. "We've got to go out there and play as a team no matter who's on the floor. We've got to go out there and play hard for 40 minutes no matter who's out there on the floor. I was just thinking about play hard and try to win a ballgame."
Tennessee's thoughts will now turn to Duke, which comes to Knoxville on Monday for a 7 p.m. game (ESPN2).
Summitt was already fretting about her team's transition defense.
"Our transition defense, I just said that this was unacceptable," Summitt said. "We've been working on our transition defense, not as much for Mississippi State because they hadn't pushed tempo that much, but to get ready to play against Duke because they're one of the most impressive teams in the open court that we've seen all season.
"Not only is it Duke but if you look at our breakdowns at North Carolina or our lapse against Connecticut when they went on that run, most all of those points came out of the transition. That's where we've really got to buckle down and identify the ball and match up and do a better job. I thought we got better in the second half, but we still had some mental lapses there. That's where we've got to be really stingy and very disciplined in our action."
Hornbuckle spoke after Summitt had left the press conference for her post-game radio show with Mickey Dearstone, but her words echoed those of her coach.
"Watching Duke play, especially in the Maryland game, we have to be mindful of their transition," Hornbuckle said. "They're a very good transition team, and we have to step up our transition defense, slow up the ball and definitely get on the boards. We made it a point of emphasis at halftime that we needed to step up our rebounding starting in the second half because we were so sluggish in the first.
"Against Duke you don't have time to be sluggish or take possessions off. So we just have to concentrate on coming out for 40 minutes solid on both ends of the court and giving everything we have."
At least Tennessee will likely have Parker back and her points and presence inside for Monday's showdown.
"Candace makes anybody a very good basketball team," Fanning said with a weary smile.