"After the Duke game I told Sidney she's got to get more available on the offensive end for scoring opportunities, and she's got to be more active and move and cut," coach Pat Summitt said. "She needs to get a lot of touches for us, because she obviously gets rid of the ball in a timely fashion, and she's got great shooting touch. I thought tonight was one of her better games as far as playing without the basketball and putting herself into a position to help this team by being able to catch and shoot."
Sidney Spencer hit 8-13 shots, including 4-6 from behind the arc, and was 6-6 from the free throw line to not only preserve Tennessee's lead in the end but also to pad it. She was in constant motion on offense around the perimeter and along the baseline. When Vanderbilt shifted point guard Dee Davis to the 6'3 Spencer to try to slow her down, Spencer moved to the low block against the 5'7 Davis and swished a turn-around jumper.
"After the Duke game I watched film. It was pretty miserable," said Spencer of her 3-13 performance in Monday's loss. "I was stagnant on offense and defense, and I wasn't running the floor very much. Basically all I was was a three-point shooter. I just stood behind the line."
Meanwhile, Hornbuckle served as an on-the-floor escort for Vanderbilt's three-point specialist, Caroline Williams, who was never able to even attempt a shot in the first half.
"It was tremendous," Summitt said. "She was like her shadow. Everywhere you saw one you saw the other. I thought Lex did a great job of limiting touches and just having a tremendous defensive presence on her."
In the end No. 4 Tennessee (18-2, 5-0) summoned sufficient offense and timely stops on defense to down No. 15/14 Vanderbilt (17-4, 3-3) in an SEC matchup of bitter rivals. Tennessee's goal of winning the regular season outright would have been hurt by a loss to Vandy, which the Lady Vols will play again this season, with games still to come against conference foes Georgia, Ole Miss and LSU, among others.
Thursday's game in front of 12,009 people at Memorial Gymnasium – a good number of whom were wearing orange – didn't play out like a typical Tennessee-Vandy game in Nashville in that the Lady Vols didn't start out by falling behind by double digits. The Commodores did lead by eight, 17-9, nearly halfway through the first-half, but then Spencer started connecting on three-pointers, and Tennessee started forcing turnovers.
The Commodores didn't score for seven minutes and trailed 28-21 at halftime. Davis' halftime stat line underscored Vandy's early woes: six turnovers and zero assists. She would finish the game with nine points, five steals, three assists and nine turnovers. As a team Vanderbilt had 27 turnovers.
"Nobody is even close to having the turnovers I had," Davis said. "It's frustrating. I don't make turnovers like that. It's very frustrating because it didn't have to be like that. I didn't have to do it like that. I could have made the easy pass. I don't know what happened tonight, but it's just very frustrating for me."
Vanderbilt was led by Carla Thomas with 16 points. Sophomore Christina Wirth had 11 rebounds to go with nine points. Williams was able to connect on two three-pointers late in the second half to finish with six points. For the Vandy seniors it was a frustrating loss.
"It's very frustrating being a point guard and turning the ball over nine times in a contest like that," Davis said. "First half we made terrible decisions, and then we were still within the game. Second half we come out we're on fire. We're trying to win each four minutes so we can have some intensity throughout the game and then just to come up short in the end is very devastating. Myself and Carla and Caroline being seniors and not beating them on their home court our senior year is very, very devastating to me."
Vanderbilt began the second half like it had something to prove. The Commodores wiped out the Lady Vols' lead and even led 35-34 with 12:06 to play on a layup by Thomas.
"I just thought that they were a lot more intense and focused than we were," Summitt said. "Don't ask me why. We definitely came out a little bit more tentative both offensively and defensively. I was contemplating calling timeout, but I was trying to get the attention of our players to pick it up on the defensive end and be more aggressive offensively. And I usually blame Lex for all that."
Summitt was smiling when she said that and Hornbuckle, who was sitting on the dais post-game with her coach, also broke into a huge smile.
Summitt brought Hornbuckle to the bench for two minutes after she lobbed a pass right to Davis on Vandy's end of the floor at the 18:42 mark of the second half.
"Like coach said we came out on our heels," Hornbuckle said. "They came out aggressive. They knew they wanted to win. The Vanderbilt-Tennessee rival is a great rival. They don't want to lose, and we don't want to lose. They knew in the second half it's basically like starting at zero-zero.
"They came at us, and we basically didn't respond too well. Coach does blame me for the defensive factors, because I'm like the defensive stopper. I'm the Energizer bunny on defense so I'm supposed to get everybody else up. It's not necessarily her pointing her finger at me, but it's like, ‘C'mon, get the team rolling. Whatever you have to do, whoever you have to talk to.' And I think our team responded very well."
Hornbuckle had some additional motivation that had been inadvertently supplied by the local media. Earlier this week in a discussion with sportswriters about the odd configuration of the gymnasium, Hornbuckle mentioned she worried about the possibility of sliding right off the court – the front-row seats are beneath floor level – while pursuing a loose ball and that sometimes she holds back a bit on defense in terms of her usual full extension. Given the fact she broke her wrist last season diving for a loose ball and landing among the cheerleaders in Knoxville this approach is probably a wise one.
But a headline in The Tennessean, Nashville's daily paper, on Thursday declared: "Lady Vol scared of Vandy's gym."
That is not what Hornbuckle said, and she took exception to the implication.
"I was lot more focused in this game for some reason than I've been even in the Duke game, and I guess it was because I was kind of misquoted in the paper saying I was scared of Vandy," said Hornbuckle, who had four steals and now has at least one in 56 straight games. "I just wanted to come out here and send a message that basically I'm not scared of anything, and Tennessee's not scared of anything. I just wanted to lock down the best shooter on their team."
That she did, and Vandy coach Melanie Balcomb said it was Tennessee's full-court pressure that took the Commodores out of their half-court game.
"They pressed," Balcomb said. "We couldn't run half-court offense, because in half-court offense we were successful. You saw us run half-court at the end of the game, and she (Williams) got threes. What they did – and that's why they got the lead in the first half – they pressed full court, and we didn't attack their pressure and did a poor job breaking the press and therefore you take Caroline Williams out of the game. You take our half-court offense out of the game, and that's what they did. So you're not in half-court, and you can't execute things to get her threes and then they just chased her around. They did a great job until the end.
"And we did a very poor job on Sidney Spencer. We should have made Spencer put the ball on the floor and we never did. They didn't let our best three-point shooter get it off, and we let theirs, and she had 26 points and killed us."
Interestingly enough it was another three-point shooter that hit a big shot when Tennessee needed it most. Despite Spencer's offensive output, the game was closely contested during the second half. Tennessee's lead never exceeded five in the first 16 minutes of the second half, and the Commodores managed to seize the lead, 48-47, on two free throws by Thomas with 3:41 to play.
On the Lady Vols' next offensive series Hornbuckle curled a pass into Parker on the high post. She was immediately doubled and found Bobbitt tucked in the corner. Bobbitt had missed her three previous shots from long range but drained this one to give Tennessee the lead it never surrendered again with 3:20 to play.
"Obviously at the end of the game I think we do a great job of coming together and running our offense well, and you've got to take something away," Parker said. "They came and doubled, and I have the utmost confidence in the world in Shannon and her ability to hit the three. So we dished out, and she hit. It was a big play."
Balcomb essentially said the same thing but from the defense's point of view. At that critical juncture of the game Parker and Spencer will draw the attention.
"At that point you're focused on Spencer and Parker and stopping them," Balcomb said. "Obviously every time we've played Tennessee that's really what's hurt us is somebody else steps up and makes a big shot whether it was (Shanna) Zolman (last year) or whether it was Hornbuckle or whoever it was always stepped up and made a big shot.
"That's what has to happen with us. Two teams that know each other that well it's not going to be Dee, Caroline and Carla; it's somebody else has to have a big game. And I felt like somebody else had to step up. I thought Jess Mooney stepped up well tonight for us (eight points from the freshman from Nashville). Somebody has to make a big play that's not expected to. I think in a rivalry like this everybody is keying on somebody else, especially in the last four minutes."
Tennessee was able to manage those last four minutes in efficient fashion.
"I thought Candace really stepped up big for us during that time," Summitt said. "I thought we played well together as a team. Certainly Spencer did a great job. Lex. We had a number of people stepping up and making plays. Bobbitt finally got into more of the attack mode, which we desperately needed at that point and position. It was a great team effort. I thought our defense did a great job. We broke down some in the high-low action, but they do a great job of executing there, and then I thought we recovered and then closed out with great defense."
Balcomb saw her team do what it had done all night long – surrender the ball. Tennessee didn't do much better in terms of ball security – 25 turnovers with some of those on three-second calls and hustling for balls out of bounds – but none came when it mattered most with the game on the line.
"We turned the ball over and that's what we had done all night," Balcomb said of her team's execution as the game wound down. "With 27 turnovers you're not going to beat the number four team in the country. And we turned it over again, and then we didn't get a stop. They scored, and then we didn't get a stop, and after those two possessions the game was over. Those were two really big possessions."
Tennessee also hit some crucial free throws down the stretch. The Lady Vols were 17-22 from the line – Vandy was 9-13 – and 12 of those attempts came in the final 1:15 when Tennessee was up by seven and the Commodores were fouling to get the ball back.
Spencer and Hornbuckle (4-4) hit all of their free throws down the stretch. Parker was 5-10 for the game. Her five makes and two of the misses came in the final 2:33.
When a question was asked about making free throws when it mattered most, Parker smiled politely and said, "I don't think I should comment on free throws."
Her remark drew chuckles from Spencer and Hornbuckle, who were at the post-game press conference with Parker, who was 1-7 in the Duke game, which Tennessee lost 74-70.
"We knew we didn't want to be in the same situation as the Duke game," Hornbuckle said. "Not saying the Duke game boiled down to free throws, but it's a big factor, especially when the game is close. We stepped up, and we hit the free throws (Thursday) for the most part. I think we did well."
The players were relaxed and jovial after the game. There seemed be a sense of relief, too, because before this game the Lady Vol players said it would be a test of their character to see if they could bounce back from the Duke loss. Last year a defeat by Duke was followed by a loss to Kentucky.
"It was huge," Summitt said. "This has probably been the least amount of sleep I've had after a game coming into another game just really knowing that this game was huge for us. It's obviously important. I told them we weren't trying to win the ACC; we wanted to win the SEC.
"I wanted to see us stay in great position there, and I thought it was a must win for us to do that and also from a national standpoint to keep ourselves in contention for a number one seed. Since we obviously play the toughest schedule in the country we want to be in position to have a number one seed in postseason. It makes all the difference in the world."
This might be the soonest in the season that Summitt has made an early case for a number one seed. That is a reflection of how costly last year's seeding was when the Lady Vols got a No. 2 seed and were placed in the overall No. 1 seed's bracket. Tennessee fell in the regional final and missed the Final Four.
"Last year we definitely learned that loss could potentially or did affect us in postseason in seedings and rankings," Spencer said of the Kentucky game. "We knew that our character was going to be determined this week on Thursday and how we bounced back from that loss. I thought everyone did a great job of being extra focused on this game and making sure that we took care of business."
For Balcomb the game was the continuation of her frustration with coming close to beating Tennessee but not getting the victory.
"I'm not going to lie," Balcomb said. "It's very frustrating. I feel bad for my players. I think they were prepared for this game. I think they worked very hard. I think they have a lot of courage. I think they're as frustrated as I am. Obviously you can't deny that because we've been in this position to win and just haven't closed the deal."
Vanderbilt had been able to stake itself to double digit leads against Tennessee in Nashville and has usually executed smoothly to start the game. Last year Tennessee fell behind 33-19 in the first half before putting the game away late in the second half.
Spencer, who was playing for the final time in Memorial Gym, wanted a new script for her farewell.
"That deficit has been kind of a common theme over the last four years of coming here," Spencer said. "I thought we did a great of withstanding their runs."
Tennessee had some spectacular play overall – Spencer's overall shooting and Bobbitt's late three – but the highlight reel play came from Parker. The play-by-play sheet scored it a layup with 1:52 to play to put Tennessee up, 54-48. But that doesn't do it justice. Parker had the ball on the wing, saw one defender on her and drove to the basket.
She elevated, fully extended her right arm, turned her back to the baseline while in the air and kissed the ball off the glass for the bucket and the foul. The basket looked like a combination of layup, baby hook and bank shot. Tennessee's bench exploded, as did those wearing orange in the crowd. Parker also made the free throw to give Tennessee a 55-48 lead.
When a reporter asked Hornbuckle about the play, Parker asked for a moment to talk about a play in the first half and called a "20-second timeout" – her words – for the media.
"Alexis' behind the back pass in the first half was ridiculous," Parker said of Hornbuckle's drive to the basket after a shot fake behind the arc. When the defender collapsed, she wrapped the ball around her back to a cutting Parker, who made the layup.
"I just want you to write that down in the paper," Parker said. "Quote it. That was the best play of the year.
"OK, go ahead."
"Thank you Candace Parker. I appreciate that," Hornbuckle said as all three players on the dais laughed.
"Back to the Candace Parker question, that was a big-time play," Hornbuckle said of the second half play. "She knew the clock was running down, and she knew what she was capable of. She saw the basket, she saw one defender, and she's a great one on one player. She went straight to the hole and went straight up and was either going to be blocked, fouled or miss the shot. She made the shot and got fouled. That's a great play. I told her big-time players make big plays. She did that."
The post-game mood was upbeat to say the least. That's good for the team because Tennessee has a short turn-around to get home and then leave for an SEC game at Alabama. Parker came to the press conference with ice on her ankle and also coughed throughout the media session as she is still recovering from a respiratory infection. She had to leave the game briefly in the first half with shortness of breath.
Junior center Nicky Anosike took a hard tumble in the second half and was moving somewhat gingerly later in the game.
Sophomore forward Alex Fuller, who played some valuable minutes off the bench, left the game in the second half after taking a shot to the forehead while scrambling for a loose ball. Her head slammed into the floor, and she got called for being out of bounds, one of Tennessee's season-high 25 turnovers. She got several stitches above her right eye and did not return to the game.
Summitt opted to cancel Friday's practice in Knoxville and instead give her team a day off from the court. They must still attend class, and a few will likely need to seek some time in the training room. The Lady Vols will leave Saturday for Tuscaloosa. Tipoff is Sunday at 3 p.m. (CSS, Lady Vols Radio Network).
Summitt was clearly pleased with her players after the game. Once her media session was over she departed for her radio show and left Parker, Spencer and Hornbuckle to field questions.
"Good job ladies," Summitt said as she stood up to leave.
Summitt was pleased not just with the outcome but also with how her players responded after Monday's tough loss at home. She started talking about the importance of Thursday's game immediately after the Duke game. Beating an archrival on its home court and doing so by surviving a late lead by the home team helped restore Tennessee's sense of balance.
"Our team has talked all year about accountability," Parker said. "I feel like at the end of the game it's got to be crucial and you've got to buckle down, and I think our team did that. Everybody just held themselves accountable, and the shots were there, the defensive play was there, and the rebounding was there, and I think we need it."