The environment was festive well before tipoff as the fans flowed through the turnstiles. The Lady Vols descended the steps through the student section and then went into their floor warmups. They were followed by Bruce Pearl, who was painted orange from the waist up and was wearing shorts, socks, tennis shoes and a headband. He had a white "V" painted on his chest and helped spell out "GO VOLS" along with some of his players, including Ryan Childress, Wayne Chism and Steven Pearl. He gave Pat Summitt a kiss on the cheek before tipoff and was later replaced as the "V" by men's player Jordan Howell.
The student section was packed and in the ears of the Duke players well before tipoff as the Blue Devils came out for pre-game shooting.
For once the Lady Vols might have been too fired up.
"We said that at halftime, looked almost like we were too overanxious early on," Summitt said. "That could have been. It was a great opportunity for us to see how we would stack up against the number one team in the country, coming off losses to them in the last two years. Obviously we didn't lack for desire to be on the floor and play in this game. I think everyone was looking forward to it. But then we start out the game and things didn't go well for us early, dug ourselves a hole."
It was a stunning start. Duke, led by the three-point shooting of Abby Waner, leaped out to a 28-7 lead. Tennessee managed to cut the deficit to 38-27 by halftime, but Waner had already scored 21 of her team's 38 points.
She would get just three more in the second half and finish with 24 points as Tennessee adjusted defensively, and she was joined in double-digit scoring by Lindsey Harding with 21 points and Wanisha Smith with 15.
Tennessee was able to tie the game at 48 all at the 10:48 mark of the second half, but then Duke (20-0, 5-0) pushed the lead back out to five on two Alison Bales' free throws and a layup and one by Harding.
The Blue Devils increased the lead to nine points, but Tennessee continued to creep closer and had several chances late in the game to tie it again or at least cut the lead to two or one, but couldn't get a bucket when it mattered most.
"Obviously, we're very disappointed in the outcome of the game," Summitt said. "I thought this past week, we had some of the best practices that we've had this season. And particularly our design was to work on transition defense knowing Duke does a great job of pushing tempo and hitting open players in transition. I though we started out really flat and on our heels. Waner was obviously big in the first half. Disappointed in our defense. We did not do a good job of guarding the best shooter on the floor. She gets 21 in the first half; she hit six threes. You've got to guard three-point shooters, and we didn't.
"The thing I told our basketball team is we're very undisciplined in our transition defense, which is disappointing. Good lesson for us to learn. We played against a great basketball team. There's a reason they're ranked number one in the country. Their guard play was too much at times. They managed to run the offense, get open shots for other players as well as for themselves. Obviously free throw shooting for us was very costly.
"And then we had three starters who went 5-for-25. You have to have real good defense when you don't shoot well from the line, when you don't shoot well from three positions on the floor, and our defense obviously did not have that much influence. But I was pleased with the fact that we never quit. We made a lot of good runs, had our opportunities late in the game and obviously they came up with an answer with some big plays, and we fell short."
Tennessee was 8-17 from the free throw line with Parker making only one of seven.
"That's my fault," Parker said. "If I had hit my free throws, we maybe would have won. I take full responsibility for that, and it won't happen again."
Free throws could have been the difference in the game, but the goose egg start ensured that the Lady Vols would expend a lot of effort just to make a game of it.
Summitt said she couldn't recall a start like the one against Duke.
"Not in my coaching career," Summitt said. "I hope it's the only one."
Duke coach Gail Goestenkors couldn't recall being on the scoring end of such a start.
"No," she said. "People have started that well against us before."
She told her team that Tennessee would make some runs, and the Lady Vols finally started to get in sync in the final two minutes of the first half. They managed to erase Duke's lead before the second half was halfway over.
"Their intensity I thought on the defensive end went way up," Goestenkors said. "They started denying our entry passes and denying reversals. We were starting our offense too far out. We were supposed to look for our backdoor cuts, and that's an area where we will need to improve upon, because we weren't able to get those. And you need to when you're being pressured the way we were pressured. I thought they just really increased their energy level on the defensive end.
"Offensively I think they started to get into a groove. They've got so many great players. Alexis, she started hitting some big shots for them, and Candace started hitting some big shots for them and then in the second half Sidney also came through and hit some real nice shots for them. You're not going to hold them down for 40 minutes I don't think. They've got too many great players."
Hornbuckle had a solid offensive performance for the third consecutive game and hit 3-5 from behind the arc. She had 10 points by halftime and continued her offensive output in the second half. Five of her nine rebounds were on the offensive end. She also brought the defensive heat in deflections and added three steals. She now has at least one steal in 55 consecutive games and moved past Dena Head and into a tie with Sheila Frost for 12th place for career steals with 219.
"I thought she was going to have a really big game tonight," Goestenkors said. "When she came to Durham last year, it was a rough game for her, really rough. I felt like she was going to use this night to really play hard and play well. I was expecting her to have a big night so it really did not surprise me in the least."
Interestingly enough Hornbuckle was upset with herself after the game. She felt like she got too hyped before the game and took too long to settle down and lead the team.
"I know I was overanxious," Hornbuckle said. "It's a good thing to be nervous and excited, but I was way too overanxious. I apologized to my teammates for that. We came back and we fought. We didn't lay down. Last year when we got down it's like everybody just got down on themselves and quit. This year it's like we had something to prove. Not to the nation but to ourselves and to where we want to be at."
Hornbuckle said her heightened sense of anxiety stemmed from the Duke loss last year in which she played poorly, and the team went into a funk after the game that the players couldn't shake off.
"More so about how it went down at Duke last year," Hornbuckle said. "I feel like I was just mentally weak. I felt like I had so much to prove. You can't come in like that. You can't ever make it about yourself. I think I was like, "OK, I need to play defense extra hard, I need to do this extra hard, instead of saying Lex go ahead and play Tennessee basketball.'
"In the very beginning I put too much on myself. My teammates feed off of me. You see I'm a very emotional leader. I try to stay positive. I feel bad when I don't play well, because I feel like it carries over."
Hornbuckle, Parker and Spencer came to the post-game press conference and although they were subdued in temperament they didn't seem shell-shocked.
A quick glance of the stat sheet revealed a lot to like for Tennessee. The Lady Vols out-rebounded Duke, 46-35, with a whopping 27 coming on the offensive glass. Anosike had 10 boards, and Spencer added four. The Lady Vols protected the ball with just 11 turnovers. They had six steals and six blocks, with all six rejections coming from Parker. She moved into a tie for fifth place with Teresa Geter for career blocks with 138.
"We did some good things," Summitt said. "There's no doubt. We made our run; we closed the gap before half. I thought in the second half our defensive intensity was much better. We got more opportunities in transition, did a better job of working the boards. But the biggest thing was we dug ourselves a hole and let our offense affect our defense."
But the players can at least tell themselves they didn't quit despite the huge deficit. None of them came to Tennessee to earn moral victories but in light of last year's collapse at Duke and the fact a 19-0 hole to open a game against the nation's top team would bury most teams the Lady Vols did at least find out that they will battle.
"I think it shows our team has a lot of heart and a lot fight," Spencer said. "We came back from a huge deficit. We out-rebounded them by 11. That's a really positive thing. That's something we've been working on so we can see improvement in that. It does hurt to lose by four points. We could look at every statistic and say, ‘Well, if we would have gotten this or done this or made this.' We missed a lot of easy shots in the beginning, like layups, we weren't finishing. We could look anywhere. We've got a different mindset this year. We're going to come back. We face Vandy on Thursday, and we can't let this affect us."
Last year Tennessee followed up a loss at Duke with a loss at Kentucky. That defeat proved costly in March when the tourney seedings were announced.
"We realize that we learn from our mistakes," Parker said. "And we're going to help the newcomers learn from our mistakes. Last year, we dwelled on it, and we ended up losing to Kentucky. We're on a mission, and you can't dwell in the past. We're just going to regroup and go down to Nashville and hope we get a victory."
Summitt mentioned the upcoming Thursday game in Nashville immediately after Monday's game was over.
"I told them the game I'm really concerned about is not the Duke game, it's the Vanderbilt one on Thursday night in Nashville," Summitt said. "We discussed this in the locker room. It's the SEC, not the ACC, that's a must for us. Obviously we don't have long to dwell on this. We have to get back and be ready to play, and I have reason to believe that they will be."
Summitt saw a lot she didn't like – and she will break down the game film late Monday night – but she also saw a team that didn't quit on her despite a brutal beginning.
"I definitely thought we would pull out of it," Summitt said. "We hadn't been in a situation quite like that. We missed some easy shots. I kept thinking we've got to make stops. That's where your veterans have to step up. When your defense lets down – we were giving up a lot of open threes, and they were having their way on the offensive end – then it really greatly affected our defense and then we got overanxious offensively.
"We were not comfortable. We just weren't in a rhythm. We had a little bit of a panic set in early. I think this is a great game for Shannon Bobbitt to learn something because my big question was is she going to bring the defensive pressure. Harding has a size advantage over her and was very aggressive and that matchup was a bit of a challenge. I thought she did much better in the first half than the second half.
"I was much more pleased in the second half with our transition defense. I thought we identified the ball earlier. I thought our point of pickup was much better. They didn't get the long passes, they didn't get the skip passes."
Tennessee effectively neutralized the 6'7 Bales inside – she had eight points on 2-6 shooting and 4-5 from the line – and eight rebounds, none of which came on offense. But Duke's guards were able to get loose on the perimeter and drive to the basket, seemingly at will in the first half.
"Their guard play … they're very disciplined on the offensive end," Summitt said. "When we overplayed them on the wings they did a nice job of setting us up and getting some backdoor cuts on us. I think they read very well, space very well."
Hornbuckle saw a very efficient team on offense that executed its game plan.
"They're a great team," Hornbuckle said. "It was as if everyone was on the same page. If their coach called a play everybody was dedicated and determined to running that play as efficient as possible. You can't ask for much more as a coach. They came together. They came out here, and they executed. They started out with a run, and they worked on transition in the beginning. They were able to execute in the half-court. Abby Waner just gave us a show from the three-point line. They did everything they were supposed to do."
Harding got her points on drives to the basket and mid-range jump shots. She also hit a three-pointer.
"Lindsey did a great job," Goestenkors said. "She was just taking what they were giving her. We started setting some screens on the ball to either pass it in – sometimes they were trying to trap that screen on the ball, sometimes they were hedging out and sometimes they were not doing either, they were just helping off.
"Lindsey is the consummate point guard; she's going to make the read. On that particular play (her driving layup plus the foul to put Duke up by five shortly after Tennessee had tied the game) they hedged out for a second, and then she went around them and hit that driving lay-up. She just really took what they gave her, made the most of it."
Harding and Waner seemed to enjoy the crowd support and noise at the arena.
"I love it," Waner said. "Our crowds at Cameron are amazing – we have sold-out gyms – but I love coming to away games and to be able to play in front of a crowd like this. I think it says a lot about women's basketball that we can have 21,000 (paid attendance) at one game. That's incredible. I think that really gives us an extra boost."
Waner and her teammates noticed Pearl and his players, and she applauded the additional support for the women's program.
"I'm going to go suggest it to (Duke men's coach Mike Krzyzewski) and see what he says," Waner said. "I think it's great that the support is there. We get that from our men's program as well. I'm sure the women's team appreciated it. It shows a lot about the respect that women's basketball is getting. I think a school or program like the University of Tennessee it really shows a lot about them."
Pearl was directly in front of a rowdy section with students painted orange and white and wearing orange wigs. The students kept up their spirit throughout the game and were nearly deafening, along with the rest of the arena, when Tennessee made its runs to tie the game and then pull tantalizing close in the final minutes.
"Throughout the whole warmup, the student section behind us was screaming all these random things," Harding said. "So we started laughing. We're like, ‘Let's just keep them quiet, so we've got to start off strong and just keep them quiet. I would not say that was the main reason why (Duke started so well). We just wanted to start off strong and attack."
Parker, despite missing the last game with a respiratory illness, played 40 minutes. Hornbuckle played 38 minutes. But Hornbuckle said she never felt tired.
"I don't think it was fatigue," Hornbuckle said. "When you're in a situation and a game like this you're running on adrenaline. You don't even feel tired until the buzzer goes off. It's just our shots weren't falling. And when we needed a shot to fall we still couldn't get them. We can't say anything or do anything about that."
Tennessee had its chances in this game and will likely keep that in mind and then try to move on. It is imperative for the Lady Vols that they do so if they intend to win the SEC regular season crown and position themselves for the postseason.
"Obviously, nobody is happy about a loss," Hornbuckle said. "But at the same time practice tomorrow we just have to go in there with our heads up and realize we've got some things to work on. We're a lot better than we were at the beginning of the season when we faced UNC, but we're still not where we want to be. So now we've just got to work to get to where we want to be."