No. 3 Tennessee (23-2, 10-0) played like it had an eye on getting ready for the postseason with a stifling defense that forced Kentucky (16-10, 5-6) into 16 first-half turnovers and 25 miscues for the game. The Lady Vols led 48-25 at halftime because of their defensive pressure and the offensive attack of Parker, who had 22 points at the break.
"I thought our basketball team started strong," coach Pat Summitt said. "I thought Candace Parker really established her inside game, and her aggressive play set the tone on the offensive end. Defensively I thought our full court pressure was very effective. That's one thing that we rely on, and we went to it early today just to really get out team going and make sure that we were ready with great intensity at both ends of the floor. Overall, really pleased."
Kentucky coach Mickie DeMoss, who was an assistant coach at Tennessee from 1985 to 2003 and also was honored before the game with the 1987 team, said the Lady Vols' pressure created forced turnovers, which were compounded by unforced ones.
"I think it was probably about half and half," DeMoss said of the turnovers caused by Tennessee's pressure and Kentucky's subsequent loss of poise. "Their pressure did bother us, and then once it gets in your head, then you start throwing the ball places where there's no one to catch it. I think that once we turned it over a few times, we got a little rattled with that press. We made it bigger than life. They've got just such good team speed and quickness it was difficult to get it up the floor a few times."
Although the Lady Vols played like they wanted to avenge the loss last season to Kentucky, the presence of the 1987 NCAA championship team – all fourteen players plus a former student manager made it back for the 20-year reunion – seemed to have more of an effect on the team.
The former players were honored before the game and the current Lady Vols stood near their bench and applauded. The 1986-87 team was introduced one by one and each player was given a commemorative basketball. DeMoss and Summitt greeted and hugged each other at center court instead of at the traditional pre-game spot of the visitor's bench.
When the former players took the floor to applause from the 16,946 people in attendance they high-fived the current players. As they left the floor they pointed at the 2006-07 players to acknowledge them. Shelley Sexton Collier, who is now a high school coach at Webb in Knoxville, implored the players with a forceful directive: "Let's go! Let's go!"
"Today we got to meet a lot of players, especially the '87 team and former players that won championships and just played for Pat and before Pat for Joan Cronan," said Spencer, who scored 12 points and was a perfect 2-2 behind the arc. "We got to see them, and that was really special to us to see the tradition, because tradition is very important in this program. They've left a legacy that we've grown up watching and that we want to follow. So getting to see that and just being in the presence of champions was really awesome."
Hornbuckle spent the first half finding Parker and Spencer for baskets and swiping the ball from Kentucky. She had five assists and four steals by halftime. She added two more assists in the second half to zero turnovers for the game. Her four steals moved her into ninth place on the career list (240) and past Michelle Marciniak, who had 237. Hornbuckle also now has at least one steal in 61 straight games.
Tennessee's pressure often caused Kentucky to either turn over the ball or consume a lot of shot clock to get the ball past half-court.
"I think the way they attacked our press, they had some of what I would call long diagonal passes and long sideline passes," Summitt said. "I thought we did a good job of covering those deep passes. I think, too, the pressure that we brought was I'm sure as much them as us at times, but I think just keeping the pressure on defensively was beneficial for us."
Those "deep passes" were picked off by Hornbuckle, who once intercepted the ball, came down with two feet in bounds along the sideline near mid-court, spun and then – right before falling out of bounds – threw the ball to a teammate. Hornbuckle roams on the press much like a free safety in the secondary on a football field.
"I never put on pads and played football," said Hornbuckle, who was amused by a question asking if she had ever played the game. But she managed to answer it while Parker laughed so hard that she had to pull the hood from her shooting shirt over her head.
"I played football with the guys (growing up)," Hornbuckle said. "I just want the ball. If you anticipate the ball, you kind of watch the player's eyes, you watch where they're about to throw it, you see the open man, you show something that they think is open, and then you just take it away at the last moment."
DeMoss certainly noticed Hornbuckle's play.
"She just anticipates so well," DeMoss said. "You think the sideline is open, and by the time you throw it, if it's not a crisp pass and you're not meeting that pass, she gets her hands on a lot of those passes. (Shannon) Bobbitt's athleticism, just down the line, Parker, everybody…they just make that press very difficult."
That press is what has made Tennessee a much more formidable team this season than last year, and that was something else that DeMoss noticed.
"I just think their athleticism, their quickness is a lot better, particularly on the perimeter," DeMoss said. "I felt like last year they had to play a little bit more zone. I haven't seen them play a whole lot of zone this year, and I don't know why they would play any zone. Their pressure is pretty brutal. I just think their overall team speed and quickness is a lot better."
Tennessee used that speed to set the tone on both ends on the floor. Kentucky's turnovers were converted into baskets on offense– Tennessee shot 57.6 percent in the first half and 53.2 percent for the game – and on defense the Lady Vols disrupted the Wildcats' offense. They shot 36 percent in the first half and missed all five three-point attempts.
Kentucky did shoot better in the second half and finished the game at 43.4 percent. Sarah Elliott led the Wildcats with 21 points and 10 rebounds. Jennifer Humphrey added 15 points – all in the second half – and six boards.
"I was very pleased with the way Sarah Elliott played," DeMoss said. "She finished strong inside; she was very confident. I thought their post people had a little trouble guarding her one-on-one. She rebounded well for us. When Jennifer got in foul trouble in the first half, Sarah had to pick up the rebounding load, and she did. So I was very pleased with the way she played. I thought she was very poised tonight, and she stepped up big for us."
Tennessee's returning players remembered the 66-63 loss to Kentucky last year in Lexington, but Hornbuckle said the pre-game focus remained on this season.
"All we did at the very beginning of the game was say, ‘You know, this isn't last year,' and left it at that," Hornbuckle said. "We knew we needed to bring energy so it's not like we dwelled on it or we built on it. We just knew that we had to make a statement this year and leave last year behind us."
Did Tennessee make that statement?
"I think we did," Hornbuckle said. "We came out with a lot of energy. We held our energy for all 40 minutes. We started out shooting the ball well and playing good defense. We broke down a few times, but we never let it break our spirits."
DeMoss has seen that kind of Tennessee start many times before in her 18 years as an assistant coach. The view from the visitor's bench isn't pleasant.
"It's a little rougher sitting on that other side," DeMoss said. "I thought Tennessee played well, thought their defense looked really good tonight. Their full-court defense was something we had trouble with in the first half. We turned the ball over too much, and they converted those turnovers to easy baskets. We got in too much of a hole; they played too good of defense to erase that kind of deficit."
Tennessee's point guards finished the first half the way it started. Shannon Bobbitt drained a 12-footer with one second left on the clock. With 49 seconds left Cait McMahan drove to the basket, faked a pass to Parker and then left her feet. She managed to release the ball while getting blocked by Kentucky's Nastassia Alcius, and complete the layup. McMahan tumbled to the floor, where an excited Hornbuckle helped her up.
"That was a great drive," Hornbuckle said. "She did the ball fake. I think it was No. 10 (Alcius) who tried to take a charge, and Cait just took it straight at her. It was a great fake. The ball went in. I was excited for her.
"Cait didn't do anything but just look at me like I was dumb or something. She had this look like ‘did that go in?' It was a great drive, and anytime you have your guards pushing tempo and getting to the hole like that, it's hard to defend."
The Tennessee players went into the locker room with a large lead and a lot of momentum. At halftime all of the former Lady Vols in attendance were honored, along with their families, and they formed two complete lines the length of the floor.
"This has been a great weekend to have all the former players back and to be able to share with them last night. They all came out to the house," Summitt said. "It's a family. Obviously with the '87 team the fact that every player managed to find a way to get to Knoxville to be a part of this is really special. I think everyone that was here was really proud for the '87 group. The ones that had bragging rights we heard a lot about it. You're not going to forget that."
Kentucky was playing in the second half for some respect of its own – the Wildcats have three more SEC games and need two wins to get above .500 in the conference – and to get ready to regroup.
"You've got to," DeMoss said. "That's what this league is all about. I don't think any team comes into Thompson-Boling Arena … every team that comes in here knows it's going to be a battle. We've got to learn from it. It's just like bouncing back from my other losses. We've got a tough game against Georgia on Thursday. You can't dwell on this; you want to learn from it. I think Tennessee can exploit a lot of things. You can learn a lot of things from playing against Tennessee, and then you've got to move forward with it."
For Tennessee the goal is to always establish an inside presence. Parker took it upon herself to do just that. She scored inside on post-ups and on drives. When that wasn't open she drained outside shots or found open players cutting to the basket, such as a nifty pass to Spencer, who finished the reverse layup.
"This whole year we've been focused on getting the ball in the paint," Spencer said. "We noticed that when we were passing the ball into the paint initially they weren't double-teaming. They were staying on the guards so we were like, ‘Let's get the ball in the paint.' And then Candace does a great job finishing shots in all kind of manners. That's great; it opens up shots in the end for us."
Summitt has said all season the team must become a force in the paint to be a force in the postseason. With a player like Parker, who doesn't have to start in the paint to finish a play there, Tennessee can show a lot of different offensive looks. Parker lingered at the top of the key once and then cut down the lane. Fellow post player Nicky Anosike found her under the basket for an assist and the bucket.
"I like the fact she established the inside game," Summitt said. "We moved her quite a bit. One thing that I think is important for a player as versatile as Candace is, is not to just put her on the block and leave her there but to move her and make people have to guard her at the high post and on the wing. She did a good job of starting high and using screens and sealing the defense.
"She's become much more efficient in her low post play and just her shot selection overall. Obviously she can score inside and out, but I think for us to have her as a presence early in the paint it's really good for our basketball team because they understand we want to play from the inside-out."
Kentucky had hoped to have Humphrey, a senior forward, guard Parker, but she picked up two quick fouls – an offensive foul and a hip shot to Bobbitt to try to slow her down – and only played five minutes in the first half.
"I thought that hurt us with Jennifer (Humphrey) getting in foul trouble," DeMoss said. "Jennifer was our best bet on guarding her. It wasn't a good matchup for Sarah Elliott. I looked up and I had a freshman guarding Parker a few minutes out of that first half, then I had a sophomore guarding her, so I knew we were in trouble. We started blitzing her a little bit. We started double-teaming her some at the end of the half. But she just really played well tonight, played very confident, and she's a good player. She really did some damage on us tonight."
Parker was 12-16 from the field and hit 7-8 free throws. Her nine boards led the team.
"We just have to come into the game with a mindset that we're going to have to be strong on the defensive and offensive ends," Parker said. "I think my teammates did a great job getting me the ball in a position to score. After they (Kentucky) took that away, they did a great job of moving to get me the ball. We just came in with a great mindset, and I'm really proud of our team today."
Statistically speaking Tennessee had a lot of good marks in the box score: 11 steals, only 10 turnovers and 19 assists. The shooting percentage of 57.6 percent in the first half was the highest since the 63.6 percent put up against Middle Tennessee on Nov. 26, 2006.
Spencer's two three-pointers moved her past Tamika Catchings on the career list with 123 and into seventh place. Bobbitt's two three-pointers placed her in fifth place in UT's record book for career three-point percentage at 41 percent. It was the third time this season that Parker had reached 30 points in a game.
But the rebounding margin – 40 to 24 in favor of Kentucky – was somewhat troubling. For the first time in her Lady Vol career Hornbuckle didn't have a rebound. The shooting percentage accounted for a drop in offensive boards, but the Lady Vols neglected the defensive glass as a team.
"I think in the first half we didn't rebound the ball as well on the defensive end," Summitt said. "Sometimes what happens, you start relying on your post people to do the rebounding. I'm looking at Alexis and right before halftime she didn't have a board, and she usually is one of our best rebounders. I think that, number one, was a problem for us on the defensive end. And then we shot the ball well, so we didn't have as many opportunities on the offensive end."
But what the Lady Vols weren't doing on the boards they were making up for it in the open floor both by taking care of the ball and taking it away from the Wildcats.
"I thought our defense really allowed us to force turnovers, getting in passing lanes – full-court pressure and particularly forcing them to make some long passes," Summitt said. "So from that standpoint very pleased.
"I thought we were very efficient in our ball handling and really pleased because within what we're doing offensively, everyone handles the basketball, the point guard right on through both post players. That's where I think we have to be more consistent. We do at times get careless and obviously we had a couple of combinations that didn't overly excite me with their ball handling, but I think that's what they're understanding, and that's where we have to be more efficient."
Summitt used as many combinations of players as she could. No starter would have played more than 30 minutes until Spencer had to go back in – she ended up logging 33 minutes – because Anosike fouled out in 22 minutes of play. Senior Dominique Redding only played two minutes before she was forced out because of some knee discomfort.
"Her knees were bothering her, and when she went in – I don't think anything happened on the court; I think she'll be fine – she said she was having problems and couldn't move as well," Summitt said.
Summitt got the usual solid bench play from Alex Fuller, who scored 11 points and had three rebounds. She also drained a three-point shot and had one assist and two steals. McMahan had six points to account for the bench's 17 points.
"We did some good things off the bench," Summitt said. "I thought Cait came in and gave us some quality minutes, also getting Alberta (Auguste) more minutes and her learning from the first half to the second half was good. Alex Fuller stepped up, and she's been much more aggressive offensively, and that's good to see."
Bobbitt also provided some offense. She had 12 points on 4-7 shooting and had four assists to just one turnover. Bobbitt had struggled from the field lately, but Summitt said some recent time in the gym seemed to fix that.
"Sid is always in the gym shooting," Summitt said. "Shannon was talking about her offense the other day. I said, ‘The best way to fix it is get in the gym.' Dean (Lockwood) said during the game that she was in here for like an hour and a half the other night. He was doing a weight workout, and he came back through, and she was on the Gun (an automatic ball feeder for a shooter). Sometimes players just think that it will go away. No, you have to fix it. It looks like she shot the ball a lot better because of that. No substitute for practice."
Spencer, who also had been misfiring somewhat of late, is often on the arena floor before practice shooting on her own.
"This team worked really hard all summer long just trying to keep in that rhythm throughout the year," Spencer said. "Before our practice or after the men's practice, there are always managers hanging around and the shooting Gun is always out. So just trying to work on things that I need to get better at."
Parker pointed to the first shot of the game as key to getting the team off to a good start. That made basket allowed Tennessee to immediately implement its full-court press and set the tone in the opening seconds.
"We came down and Sid hit a three to open the game up," Parker said. "It was just our defense that, I think, really took them out of a lot of things. And that is something that I think we didn't necessarily have last year. I feel like we came in with a mindset, and we just brought pressure and finished plays."
Summitt wasn't sure if last year's loss played any part in this game's outcome.
"You'd have to ask the players," Summitt said. "For me last year was last year, and this is a whole new year. This is a different team. I think this team is just a better defensive team because of their speed, their quickness and their commitment to it."
Parker acknowledged that last year's defeat played into this game somewhat, but also agreed that this team had a different mindset.
"It did to some extent," Parker said. "Every time we turned on the TV and there was a game that we were playing, it was a clip of them celebrating after they beat us. I feel like it did to some extent, but this is a new year, and we want to do new things, and it's a different team."
One of the things this team has that last year's team lacked is the speed to execute in the open floor.
"Anytime you can bring the pressure to a team full court and do it effectively, it's going to help you out," Hornbuckle said. "It's going to kind of break their spirit, because usually if you break a press, it gives you momentum in your half-court offense. But if you're throwing the ball away or you're taking so much time off the clock, now you're rushing in your half court. We had a mindset if we're not going to get a steal, we're going to take time off the clock and make them speed up in the half-court offense."
DeMoss, who knows something about motivating Tennessee teams, didn't doubt that last year's game figured somewhat into this one.
"I'm sure it was motivational," DeMoss said. "Any time a team beats Tennessee – they don't lose many games – they remember it. You look at Candace Parker's 31 points – I'm sure she had a little extra motivation. I've had some people ask me, ‘Do you think the loss at Kentucky kept them from getting the No. 1 seed?' So I don't know if coach Summitt was using that as an extra motivational tactic or not, but I'm sure they were motivated to play well against us."
Any additional motivation Tennessee might have needed was provided by the 14 players who took the floor before the game and who still carry themselves with some well-deserved swagger. Every player who wore or wears orange wants one thing: a national title.
DeMoss was an assistant coach on that team and joined Summitt and current Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick for the celebration and photo.
"That was our first national championship that we won at Tennessee," DeMoss said. "It's just amazing that it was 20 years ago. It was really good seeing all the former players back, and it was a really special title because it was the first. Doesn't seem like it was 20 years ago, but it was a special team. Looking back on that, I don't think we were the most talented team in the country that year, but really played well down the stretch and played with a lot of courage."
1987 TITLE TEAM UPDATE: Every member of the 1986-87 team made it to Knoxville for the 20-year reunion of the championship squad, along with both assistant coaches, Holly Warlick, now the associate head coach at Tennessee, and Mickie DeMoss, now the head coach of Kentucky. It was the first of six national titles for Tennessee and Head Coach Pat Summitt.
Here is an update on the players and a manager from that team with information provided by the Lady Vols Media Relations staff.
Guard Dawn Marsh, No. 4: Originally from Alcoa, Tennessee, teaches at Duluth High School in Georgia and is an NCAA women's basketball official for the Big 12, Atlantic 10, Conference USA, OVC, Big South and others. Marsh carried the 1987 championship trophy to center court.
Forward/center Kathy Spinks, No. 11:, Originally from Forest Hills, Kentucky, and now Kathy Spinks Grizzell, lives in Knoxville and works for UPS, has one child, Kasey.
Center Sheila Frost, No. 12: Originally from Pulaski, Tennessee, now Sheila Frost Anderson, coaches girls' basketball at Giles County High School in Pulaski, she and husband Dean are parents to twins Tucker and McKenzie.
Forward Gay Townson, No. 14: Originally from Loudon, Tennessee, teaches at Freedom Middle School in Franklin, Tennessee, where she lives with son Max.
Guard Shelley Sexton, No. 23: Originally from Lake City, Tennessee, and now Shelley Sexton Collier, lives in Knoxville and is the girls' basketball coach at Webb School, she and husband Robbie have four children, Katey, Sidney, Casey and Brittney. Collier was one of two players on the 1987 team to come to practice last season after Tennessee lost back-to-back games to Duke and Kentucky to remind the current players about the legacy of the Lady Vols and how they represent all of them when they take the court.
Forward Carla McGhee, No. 24: Originally from Peoria, Illinois, is the director of player personnel for the WNBA and lives in New York, has one child, Chancellor.
Forward Bridgette Gordon, No. 30: Originally from Deland, Florida, works with McGhee in player scouting for the WNBA and still resides in Deland.
Forward Jennifer Tuggle, No. 32: Originally from Etowah, Tennessee, now Jennifer Tuggle Wallace, teaches math at Pellissippi State, lives in Knoxville with husband Dave, has one child, Meredith.
Guard Tonya Edwards, No. 33: Originally from Flint, Michigan, where she still lives, is an assistant coach at University of Detroit-Mercy.
Forward Lisa Webb, No. 34: Originally from Milledgeville, Georgia, now Lisa Webb Kimbrough, works for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, married to former Vol football standout Charles Kimbrough and has three children, Jeremy, Jayla and Jalon.
Guard/forward Melissa McCray, No. 35: Originally from Johnson City, Tennessee, and now Melissa McCray Dukes, lives in Knoxville and works for the law firm of Lewis, King and Kreig, married to John, two children, Stephanie and Chandler. Dukes came to practice with Collier last season to talk to the team.
Guard Sabrina Mott, No. 40: Originally from Brentwood, Tennessee, and now Sabrina Mott Mennen, stay-at-home mom to Camille, Courtney and Ellie, husband is Steve.
Center Cheryl Littlejohn, No. 44: Originally from Gastonia, North Carolina, where she still resides and works for Education Station.
Forward/center Karla Horton, No. 55: Originally from Kershaw, South Carolina, and now Karla Horton Douglas, lives in Maryville, Tennessee, financial director at Cokesbury Children's Center, married to former Vol football player David Douglas, two children, Aaron and Ashley.
Student manager Nan Schumaker: Now a special agent with the FBI assigned to Baltimore, Maryland.