No. 3 Tennessee (20-2, 7-0) came out with energy – South Carolina was held scoreless until it was 16-2 at the 10:12 mark and that basket could have been waved off as Alberta Auguste was in position for the charge – and maintained the intensity until the game mercifully ended with Auguste dribbling the ball along the sideline to run out the clock.
"We realize that we need to bring energy every night and wherever that energy comes from, we just have to have it," Parker said. "We realized at times in the game it was kind of dead and so we just got hyped off of stuff like a rebound, a steal or something like that. We were just trying to make it fun. I was having fun."
That was apparent. The players chest-bumped. Parker low-fived the entire bench as she ran down court. Parker and Alexis Hornbuckle encouraged each other with shouts of, "Let's go!"
The noticeable display of energy brought a smile to Summitt's face after the game.
"They don't tell me all their secrets," Summitt said when asked what led to the infusion of energy. "And I don't ask. I don't want to know. At least they were having fun."
When Parker went to the bench for good – she finished with 13 points and 12 rebounds – she continued to lead the celebrations. When Auguste made a spin move to the basket and converted, Parker fell out of her chair and spun on the floor while Shannon Bobbitt shook a towel up and down. When Sidney Spencer, who had been held scoreless from the field, hit a free throw with two minutes left for her first point of the game, Parker bowed down from her seat. Spencer smiled and drained the second one.
The crowd, which started at 7,175 – a forecast of ice and sleet that never materialized likely kept fans away – and had dwindled to at least half that late in the game also got into it and applauded the players' energy as much as their baskets. When senior walk-on Elizabeth Curry hit a free throw at the 1:27 mark, she got one of the loudest ovations of the night.
"Overall, we did some good things," Summitt said. "Our defense in the first half was definitely a bright spot even if we didn't shoot the ball as well as we would have liked. Overall just the defensive intensity, getting a lot of people some quality minutes, which was exactly what we wanted to do once we extended the lead."
No starter played more than 26 minutes and the longest time was logged by backup freshman point guard Cait McMahan, who played 27 minutes and scored six points.
Summitt had hoped the game would unfold in such a way – an early and comfortable lead – that she could substitute early and often. She got her wish.
South Carolina struggled to score and ended the half with 11 points, the fewest ever scored against Tennessee by an SEC opponent. It also tied the fifth-fewest first half points ever scored by a UT foe. The others were: Memphis (1989), also with 11; East Tennessee State (1986) and Florida Atlantic (1992), both with 10; and Stetson (1989) and Maryland (1994), both with eight.
After Spencer picked up a foul early in the first half, Summitt inserted Auguste to field a very quick lineup of Auguste, Hornbuckle, Parker, Bobbitt and Nicky Anosike.
"I think when we went to what I call our athletic lineup – when you've got Bird and Alexis and Candace and Shannon and Nicky Anosike – that's obviously players that have the speed and quickness and can cover a lot of ground," Summitt said. "That's a great pressing team for us. While we weren't as sharp on the offensive end I just thought we got a lot of opportunities off of our defense."
The offensive shortcomings – Tennessee shot 37.9 percent for the game – were a drawback for the Lady Vols, but Summitt has been trying to teach this team that defense and board play will make up for offensive slumps.
Spencer struggled to get open and was 0-5 from the field – her four points came from a perfect performance at the line – but she grabbed nine rebounds and tied a career high set against DePaul in 2004. Seven of her boards came on the defensive end with five in the second half.
"We talked about it at halftime," Summitt said. "I just didn't feel like we rebounded as well on the defensive end (in the first half). In particular we've got to get our guards a little more involved, but overall I thought we were aggressive to the boards."
South Carolina (13-10, 3-5) came into the game leading the SEC in rebounding. Tennessee prevailed on the boards, 41-32. The Gamecocks were averaging 17.6 turnovers a game. They had 18 at halftime and finished with 34.
"You all watched it," South Carolina coach Susan Walvius said after the game. "That's probably the poorest display of basketball I've seen from our team as far as poise and execution. We've really made great strides in that area this year. I don't know that we've played that poorly in all the years we've come here, to tell you the truth. Maybe when these guys were freshmen or that group that evolved into an Elite Eight team when they were freshmen.
"But when you turn the ball over 34 times, that's an ugly game for the fans. It's certainly a frustrating game for everybody, especially on the team that's turning it over. Individuals trying to do it one-on-two, one-on-three, forcing passes that aren't there. A lot of freshman teams do that. We've got some veterans on our team and really surprising that they didn't play with poise. That's something we've addressed and have played some great basketball this year. I came into this situation very confident today. I like our team; I like our team a lot."
A very gracious Walvius – she credited Tennessee's defense and offensive versatility – seemed to be as much searching for answers as she was trying to explain what happened to the media.
"I cannot explain to you … this was a situation where everything that could go wrong did go wrong for us," Walvius said. "We did not have one individual today play well for us. We had no communication on the floor, didn't get into an offense. Lea Fabbri has been out with an ankle injury. She was back for her first time today. We really lacked communication from our point guard position. Surprised that we got out-rebounded. We lead the league in rebounding; I think we're sixth nationally. We were very weak in that area today. I thought Tennessee did a great job on the boards."
South Carolina didn't have a single player in double digits. Two players, Ilona Burgrova and Melanie Johnson, scored eight points each. Demetress Adams added six. The Gamecocks shot 34.9 percent from the field – 0-7 from behind the arc – and hit just 15 shots. They were 6-13 at the line (46.2 percent).
"They're always good defensively," Walvius said. "We knew they'd be good defensively coming in. We knew we'd face some pressure to start. This arena is a tough arena to play in. But I'm still very surprised with the lack of poise that our team showed today."
Tennessee, meanwhile, wasn't hitting on all cylinders offensively and squirted its own turnovers in the second half with 14 after having just four in the first 20 minutes. Auguste accounted for five of them but also had five steals. Parker did go to the line 10 times – she hit eight – but she was 2-8 from the field. As a team Tennessee hit 22-29 from the free throw line.
Shannon Bobbitt hit three three-pointers and finished with 13 points in just 17 minutes of play. Auguste added 10, and Anosike had eight with some power moves on the low block. Every player who logged minutes got in the scoring column. The assists, 12 in all, were spread among the team with two players, Hornbuckle and Alex Fuller, having three apiece.
"I thought Nicky did some good things, yes," said Summitt, who had wanted to see Anosike play more of a power game on offense. " I was really pleased with Candace's high post defense. I thought our post game overall did a better job with our high-low pressure and taking away a lot of their post-to-post action."
It was clearly a defensive-oriented evening. Summitt had challenged her team to show more effort on defense, particularly in the post. The message got through.
"I think she did a great job," Bobbitt said of Parker's post defense. "Thanks, Shannon," Parker said. "Definitely," Bobbitt said.
"Our goal all week was to defend the high post," Parker said. "I didn't do a good job in the last couple of games, specifically the Duke and Vanderbilt and Alabama games. "Going into this week we really worked hard and coach strongly encouraged that I deny the high post."
A successful defensive game often means Hornbuckle had a hand in the outcome, and this game was no different. She had five of Tennessee's 17 steals (and three assists with just two turnovers) and now has at least one takeaway in 58 straight games. She moved into 10th place all-time for the Lady Vols with 229 for her career. She also eclipsed the 800-point mark for her career with seven points and now has 805.
"Alexis is just a ball of energy," Parker said. "It seems like you can tell a lot about a player after they make a mistake, what they do. And Lex makes a mistake, and she gets it right back. I really admire her for that. There was a play I remember. I think she had a turnover and she hustled back and stole the ball from the girl. It's like she's constant energy, just like our defensive captain on the floor, always letting us know what we're in. She just really brings it every game."
Summitt knows she can rely on Hornbuckle to jump-start the team defensively. But she wanted to see a team effort, and she got it.
"I thought our defense definitely had an impact on how they played – our ability to extend it and also to get into the passing lanes," Summitt said. "The group that we had on the floor – there's speed, there's quickness, there's mobility and there's just an aggressive mindset. I thought Alexis, I mean she was all over the court, and she tends to be the one that kind of sets the tone for us on the defensive end. And then you bring Alberta in and that's two, really quick, long, rangy guards."
Summitt could, however, understand the anguish of her counterpart when South Carolina couldn't score to open the game.
"Well, we've seen it," Summitt said, referring to Tennessee's 19-0 hole to start the Duke game last week. "It's not something you want to live through very often if you're a coach. They got some good looks at the basket. They just obviously didn't make shots. The more you miss the more difficult sometimes it becomes for a team. We were in the same position with Duke. I didn't know if we were ever going to score."
Walvius agreed the slow start crippled her team's chances to stay with Tennessee.
"I think that's been a factor for our team quite a bit," she said. "When we get out of the gates early, we can roll with anybody. As a coaching staff, we didn't expect to see that happening today. It felt like we got tighter and tighter and tighter and tighter and went in five different directions. I really thought I would see somebody within our team step up and communicate and get the execution done, and we just didn't get it today. I think that was a factor, and just surprised by the way we handled it."
Walvius gave assists to Tennessee and its crowd. The numbers may have been lower than a typical Lady Vols crowd – they usually draw more than 10,000 a game – but the fan support was still a factor.
You've got to give Tennessee a lot of credit, but we had some just unforced, just throwing-to-the-other-team turnovers that are frustrating," Walvius said. "You have to also give a lot of credit to the fans here. This is a tough place to come and play because it's so unusual. The fans are a big part of the energy in this facility. The players feed off the fans.
"Most teams typically play better at home, but their record here is just amazing. I think that certainly there is a lot of energy there that is hard to play against."
South Carolina also ran into a team that had been asked specifically to play better on the ball.
"That's what we spoke about before the game is one of our weaknesses is playing defense for 40 minutes," Bobbitt said. "We talked about it about as a team. That's one of our things that we want to work on and get better at for the postseason. I think we did a great job in the first half."
Walvius commended Tennessee for its performance and said she had actually noticed Tennessee's lapses on film. She had told her team to withstand the opening minutes of each half. But Tennessee's script included a full game this time.
"I'm glad to hear Pat is challenging them, and I'm sure she is," Walvius said. "We've seen that on film. We expected to see two minutes of intense defense, and we said we were going to weather that, we're going to play hard, fight hard, look at a couple of back-door looks, which we never got into. We thought they'd come out at halftime, as they typically do, and come out strong. I do think they played hard. I thought they did a great job."
South Carolina did do a good job of denying Spencer any real good looks at the basket.
"I'm glad you're finding positives; I'm having a hard time finding them right now," Walvius said. "We wanted to make sure we did not give her an open look. I think she's really played great. Her shooting is so extremely consistent and certainly has been as of late.
"They're a tough team to guard because you've got to respect what Parker is capable of doing. Anosike stepped up and hit some shots today. I thought she did a nice job of getting them started early. They can spread you out with three-point shooting. They can attack the rim pretty well. I think they've got all the ingredients to be one of the top teams in the country, and they do a good job of it. But to answer your question I thought we did a good job on Spencer."
Summitt is scheduling a film session with Spencer to find out just what has happened – she hasn't hit a three-pointer in the past two games – and how to correct it.
"I just didn't think Sid was moving well without the ball, and they were keying on her," Summitt said. "I want to look at that on tape. I thought our last game at Alabama, they keyed on her, and she just didn't get into the kind of a rhythm that we need her to get into. We'll look at tape on her last three or four games and just see if we can't do a better job within our offense of getting her better looks. She's too good of a pure shooter not to be getting more touches and more opportunities.
"She's turned down too many shots. But that's why I'm going to watch tape with her. We're going to just pull out the last four or five games and just watch all of her action. Because she's one of the greatest pure shooters to ever play in this program and one of the best in the country, and people are going to key on her so first of all we've got to figure out a way that we can help her get more looks. She was getting a lot of attention tonight. Just like we have to move Candace Parker to get her more touches and looks, we're going to have to do the same thing for Spencer."
Tennessee will use the month of February to tweak its system to get ready for March. Getting Spencer back on track offensively is one fix. Getting bench play is another priority, and Thursday's game had to qualify as a success. The bench scored 27 points.
"Going into the game I wanted to be able to do so, but sometimes you don't know how players will respond and obviously I wanted to get our bench players in the game more just to evaluate, really assess where they are and what they're bringing and give us some opportunity to watch more game film and teach," Summitt said. "I do think that it's going to be important that we can go at least seven, eight deep."
Ratcheting up the defense will also be a February focus point.
"Our goal every game is to play 40 minutes," Parker said. "I think we got off to a great start, and I think we played as close to 40 minutes as we've probably done all year defensively. We realized that our shots sometimes aren't going to fall, but we just have to bring it defensively every night, and I feel like we got off to a big lead and we weren't really scoring as well but we were holding them. I was really proud of our effort."
Tennessee next will host Georgia on Monday as part of "Rivalry Week" on ESPN2. The Lady Bulldogs beat LSU on Thursday, 53-51, on a last-second shot and will be looking to avenge the loss to the Lady Vols in Athens last month.
Tennessee remains atop the SEC with a perfect conference record halfway through the conference slate. LSU and Georgia have two losses apiece and both programs – UT goes to Baton Rouge later this month – will be clamoring to saddle the Lady Vols with a loss.
"We know every game we play against Georgia it's a battle," Parker said. "And we know that with them coming in our house after going off a great win against LSU, they're going to be looking for the upset. So we just need to maintain our energy, keep our heads and just play."