In the second half Hornbuckle and her teammates found Candace Parker inside and Sidney Spencer on the outside to set the tone early – play from the inside-out – and Tennessee quickly turned a halftime lead of 27-21 into a 15-point margin of 38-23 at the 16:22 mark that forced Georgia coach Andy Landers to call a timeout.
Spencer – "waiting like a coiled cobra to strike," Landers said – hit a three in transition on an assist from Shannon Bobbitt right before that timeout and then Georgia threw the ball away right after the timeout. Spencer hit another three on an assist from Hornbuckle to push the lead to 41-23 at the 15:36 mark, and the game was essentially over much to the delight of a crowd of 9,893.
Tennessee (21-2, 8-0) was led in scoring by Parker, who recorded a double-double with 22 points and 11 rebounds. Spencer had five rebounds and nine points – the two three-pointers from 20 feet and one layup on a baseline drive with a converted ‘and one' from the free throw line.
Sophomore forward Alex Fuller added 11 points off the bench – she was a perfect 4-4 from the field and hit a three-pointer – and was part of 20 points contributed by Tennessee's bench compared to six points when the two teams played three weeks ago.
"We really don't look to go in the game and score," Fuller said. "That's not really our main motive. We come into the game to bring energy to the five people who are out on the court to elevate where we are defensively and offensively."
Junior guard Alberta Auguste (six points) and freshman point guard Cait McMahan (three points) also contributed scoring from the bench. Senior Dominique Redding didn't play because Summitt wanted the younger players to get more minutes.
"Obviously I was pleased with the bench overall in terms of bringing more energy," Summitt said. "I thought Alex had some really good efficient play as well. Pleased with Cait. That was good to see Cait pushing tempo. Actually she probably did the best job consistently of just running the ball up their backs. We wanted to do that. I thought she handled the press well. Obviously wanted to get Alberta some more minutes and just decided not to play Dom tonight, just wanted to get the other players some more minutes."
No. 9 Georgia (19-5, 6-3) was led by Tasha Humphrey with 17 points and 10 rebounds and Ashley Houts with 11 points, six of which came from a perfect night at the free throw line.
The recent games between these two programs have been closely contested affairs so a double-digit win – Tennessee led by as much as 23 points in the second half – wasn't expected. Tennessee started slowly – the score was 6-2 early in favor of Georgia – but the Lady Vols never let up defensively.
Tennessee, led by Hornbuckle, pressured Georgia full-court and forced Houts into five turnovers – Georgia had 19 for the game – and also caused the Lady Bulldogs to burn a lot of shot clock just to get the ball past half court.
"Obviously very pleased with our defensive intensity," Summitt said. "This is one of our best efforts. Alexis Hornbuckle set the tone for how we were going to play on the defensive end. I thought everyone really played off of her effort and just her leadership and intensity and by example was pretty contagious for our basketball team. If you look at Alexis's game overall she's really elevated it. That was good to see."
In terms of publicity the attention mostly goes to the inside-outside attack of Parker and Spencer. But it is Hornbuckle who commands the most attention from the game's insiders, such as coaches, because of her play on both ends of the floor.
"You hear it all the time, but with this team it probably suits her more than many of the times that people try to apply it: She's the straw I think that stirs the drink," Landers said. "You've got Parker on the inside, you've got Spencer out there waiting like a coiled cobra to strike, and then you've got her mixing it up in the middle, drawing people, kicking out, drawing people, laying it off, or just feeding it in to Parker. She's that in-between person that negotiates the defense as to whether it's going to Parker or whether or not it may be going back out to Spencer.
"I'll tell you what I appreciate about her: I think she's an excellent defender. She's obviously much more than an excellent defender, but she's perhaps the best perimeter defender in the league. If you watch as much tape as we've watched of her, you really come to appreciate that about her. To play defense I've always said that you've got to be really unselfish to be a great defender, because you're not going to get any credit for it. She's really a spectacular defensive player."
Hornbuckle knew Georgia wanted to avenge an earlier loss this season and open up the SEC race by saddling Tennessee with its first conference loss.
"We knew they were going to come in here with a vengeance because we beat them on their home court, and the SEC was pretty much up for grabs if we lost this game," Hornbuckle said. "We knew that this game was very, very important. They had a lot to lose and they had a lot to gain, so they were going to come out hard. We came out here, and we didn't rely on our offense tonight, and I think that's what got us off to our good start."
Tennessee ratcheted up the defensive intensity inside and outside. The Lady Bulldogs have several excellent three-point shooters – Cori Chambers holds the school's career record with 264 – but Georgia was 0-3 in the first half and finished 2-12 (16.7 percent). Overall Georgia shot 38.0 percent.
Tennessee started slow – 36.7 percent in the first half – but hit at 54.8 percent in the second half and shot 45.9 percent for the game. That was because the Lady Vols stopped being a jump-shooting team at all five spots on the floor and started getting the ball inside to Parker.
"We opened up the game and the one thing that was not very pleasing for the coaching staff was to see how many jump shots we could take," Summitt said. "We went back to being five guards on the floor. That's not the way you're going to win against quality opponents, and I think eventually we understand it. But it bothers me a little bit that we have to keep going back and reminding everyone."
So Summitt had Hornbuckle post up on the blocks, and Hornbuckle responded with turn-around jump shots and penetration moves to the rim. From the 11:09 mark to the end of the first half, Hornbuckle hit from 14 feet, from eight feet, on a layup, from behind the arc, on a putback and on a layup off a steal and then kicked out an assist to McMahan, who hit a three-pointer.
The goal was to score inside, open up some perimeter shooters and set the tone for the second half for how Summitt wanted to play.
"No one can really defend Parker on the inside unless they do double-team her," Summitt said. "She's the kind of player who can make people pay by kicking out of the double teams. But during that time once we saw that we were going to jump-shoot then we started posting up Alexis, and I thought Alexis did a nice job of posting up on the block, knock down some turn-arounds. I encouraged her to get to the paint, because she is as good off the dribble, obviously probably better than anyone on our team at being able to create shots for herself and break down the defense.
"I thought Candace stepped up big for us in the second half. Really established herself, did what she wanted do both off the dribble and off the post-up. Just really did a great job in positioning. Obviously the team did a great job getting her the basketball."
Establishing the post game was the point of emphasis at halftime. Tennessee had 12 points in the paint in the first 20 minutes with most of those coming off steals and layups. The Lady Vols doubled that output in the second half to 24 points and finished with 36 points in the paint.
"We talked at halftime about establishing the inside game, because we felt like that was a place where we could go," Summitt said. "It's a matter of just being disciplined as a basketball team to go inside and play from the inside out and not just shoot early. We just wanted to establish our post game."
Parker said the mentality changed in the second half.
"I think we just came out and we attacked, just going to the basket, running on them and getting to the free-throw line," Parker said. "That was one of our points of emphasis at halftime was that we hadn't been to the free-throw line as much as we wanted to. So we tried to take care of that early in the second half."
Tennessee went to the line five times in the first half with Parker logging zero trips there. In the second half Parker went to the line seven times – she hit six free throws – and the team ended the game with 18 trips there.
Parker posted high and low and took the ball to Georgia, as did Nicky Anosike, who scored six points and went strong to the basket. One of Anosike's moves prompted Auguste to flex on the bench in recognition of her strength. Fuller also opened up the inside by slipping to the outside and nailing a three-pointer in the first half. She hit three more shots and that forced a defender to stick with her.
"I think I learned from the first half," Parker said. "I think Alex opened up the lane by hitting outside jump shots and Sid came in in the second half and hit some jump shots so I think it opened the lane up a little bit for me and Nicky to go to work inside."
Parker and Hornbuckle once again provided some highlight moments throughout the game. Hornbuckle's first half steals – she now has at least one in 59 consecutive games – were all over the floor – on the wing, in the lane and at mid-court. On a missed shot she had no chance at the rebound without going over the back of Georgia's Janese Hardrick so she snuck around her, swiped the ball as Hardrick turned to go up court – she never saw Hornbuckle – and then laid it in.
She found Parker under the basket by lobbing a pass to Parker's outside shoulder that she rotated for in the air and then softly laid in. Parker drove to the basket in the second half, went up, extended her arm and banked the ball in while falling out of bounds.
The inside-outside attack meant somebody was usually open on the perimeter, and Tennessee usually found that player.
"You can't really get open if somebody doesn't help you get open," Fuller said. "They drew their defense when they penetrated in, and they kicked it out to me on the three."
Spencer had not hit a three in two games – a veritable slump by her standards – so Summitt was especially happy to see the senior sharpshooter get back on track.
"I think without a doubt when we started going inside obviously that drew more defensive attention," Summitt said. "When Candace had the ball you saw at least a player and a half and in most cases two players doubling. Sid did a good job of trailing on top of the floor. We did a nice job of hitting her for those open threes. Alexis did it. Candace did it.
"It was just our way of playing inside-outside basketball, and I think that's the way we have to play. If we want to be one of the best teams in the country we have to have an inside-outside mentality. And then I thought we scored pretty well in transition. Our primary attack, early offense, was good to us, and we tried to change the mentality in our transition of not being so focused on a set play early but on early offense."
Tennessee used 10 steals and 19 Georgia turnovers to help push tempo – the Lady Vols got 16 points off turnovers – while taking care of the ball on their end. Tennessee had 11 turnovers and Georgia got just eight points from the miscues.
"I think the obvious is that as far as Georgia is concerned, there's far too many turnovers," Landers said. "Tennessee puts you in a position to make choices, and if you choose incorrectly, they make you pay for that because it normally results in a turnover. And that sometimes results in quick offense for them. I thought the first half that we played reasonably well, we defended fairly well, we rebounded well. Early, we executed well in spite of turnovers. But the turnovers were too many for us to be in any better shape than we were, score-wise, at the half.
"And then the second half, Tennessee got momentum by taking the ball inside. We were poor in our efforts to keep it out of there and to defend it once it came in. That hurt us, and then they got big momentum from Spencer's threes. As that was happening all of a sudden a game that can be decided by a spurt was decided by a big spurt there in terms of the spread. We're not a basketball team right now that has the ability to create a whole lot with our defense, so we're kind of in a hole from that point on."
Tennessee, on the hand, is a team that can create offense from defense in sharp contrast to last year when the Lady Vols were short on guards.
"I think the reason we're better defensively this year than last year is just because we are quicker," Summitt said. "I think the addition of Shannon. I think she's quicker. I think Alex Fuller is a lot quicker than she was a year ago. If you look at where she is now in her mobility as a player and her ability to cover a lot of area on the floor. And then you bring in Alberta. I think Alexis is playing very inspired on the defensive end. I think Candace Parker is playing much better defense.
"And you just take those four players that means an awful lot to what we're able to do to extend our defense – to make up if get beat on traps we can play from behind. This team they like to get out after it. It's fun to coach a team that really relies a lot on turning people over, and so they're all committed."
Hornbuckle has always had that level of commitment, but she missed the last two weeks of the regular season and part of the postseason with a broken wrist last year. This year she sees a court-full of players with a similar attitude to hers.
"I think this year, we have a lot more heart about playing defense," Hornbuckle said. "We realize we cannot rely on our offense, and that showed very early in the Duke game and also in the North Carolina game – spurts where we were doing great offensively, but we couldn't stop anybody, you can't cut a lead. I don't care what type of scorers you have on your team. Our team realized that, and we've played with our heart every night."
Tennessee used that heart to take a close game at halftime and put it away within four minutes of the second half.
"I was disappointed in us coming out in the second half," Landers said. "I thought we were just flat, I thought we were dead. I thought there were some missed shots, some tipped balls, deflected balls on their end of the floor. We didn't get to any of them; they got to all of them. And that's when they were running pretty hot and usually scored. I don't understand why we didn't have a lot of energy right after the half."
It was rather inexplicable considering Georgia was coming off a big win over LSU and a win over Tennessee would have given three teams in the conference with two losses – LSU, Georgia and Ole Miss – a much better shot at overtaking or tying Tennessee for the conference lead during the last month of the regular season. But now the Lady Bulldogs have three losses, and Tennessee takes it unblemished record to Auburn for a road game Thursday evening (7 p.m. CSS).
"It's a very good position to be in, being two games up from everybody else," Fuller said.
At this point Parker and Hornbuckle, who were also at the post-game press conference, try to remember how many losses Ole Miss has in the conference. When told Ole Miss also has two, they react with surprise. Fuller, who already knew the standings, continues with her answer.
"We're very excited," Fuller said. "I think one of our first goals is to win the regular season SEC, because we haven't done that yet, not only to win the tournament, but to win the regular season."
So how important is it to not have a letdown on the road at Auburn?
"Oh we're going to keep it … we're not going to talk about that," Parker said.
Fuller looked at her teammate and then delivered her answer with a big smile, "No comment."