In reaction to that game situation, Tennessee (24-2, 11-0) hunkered down in its matchup zone defense for the final 20 minutes to try to slow down the Rebels' offensive attack. Ole Miss (19-8, 8-4) only trailed by five points, 34-29, at halftime despite the fact its best overall player, Armintie Price, played only five minutes after picking up two quick fouls.
"I think Ole Miss just did a great job of staying aggressive even when Price got in foul trouble," Summitt said.
Summitt opted to change Tennessee's defense from its traditional man-to-man to strictly zone. On the offensive side of the ball, Candace Parker started scoring more inside and Alexis Hornbuckle began taking advantage of seams to slash to the basket.
Parker finished the game with 25 points, and Hornbuckle added 12, all of which came in the second half. Shannon Bobbitt hit four three-pointers and had 15 points. Nicky Anosike added nine, and Sidney Spencer chipped in with eight points. Alex Fuller had six points and six rebounds in just 18 minutes of play. Fuller left in the second half after taking a hard hit to her right eye and didn't return.
"I think we did a good job," Summitt said of the second half. "We had some good runs. Our defense stepped up. I felt going to the zone defense in the second half really slowed down their offensive attack. They didn't push tempo as much, and it took them obviously a lot longer to find the shots that they wanted. I thought we played pretty well out of our matchup zone not having practiced it that much. So it was very good to us."
Fuller was hit on the same side of the face as when her right eyebrow was gashed open last month against Vanderbilt. She left the court with assistance from Summitt and a medical staff member. Jenny Moshak, the team's head of sports medicine, was in the locker rook with Cait McMahan, whose left arm was injured during a scramble for a missed free throw. Fuller joined them there.
"Cait (McMahan) has an elbow sprain," Summitt said. "Jenny said she'll treat her and try to get her (ready) – we're not going to practice tomorrow, because we look like the walking wounded – and hopefully she'll be OK. Alex (Fuller) got hit in her right eye, which is the same eye that she got hit in in Vanderbilt. She actually got hit under the eye or right here on the cheekbone as opposed to on the eyebrow."
Both players are key off of the bench – after they left the bench consisted of guard Alberta Auguste, forward Dominique Redding and walk-on Elizabeth Curry – and will be needed for Tennessee's next game Monday against LSU.
"Day to day," Summitt said of their status. "We all live that way, day to day."
Summitt said that with a smile, but she wasn't smiling much during the game – nor was Ole Miss Coach Carol Ross – as they watched a physical contest that included a lot of no-calls and hard body shots. No fouls were called when McMahan and Fuller were injured.
Parker was fouled inside in the first half without calls – one likely reason that she drifts outside of the paint – but with Hornbuckle opening up the second half with a flurry of offense via dribble penetration the inside opened up more and Parker got some breathing room.
"Alexis stepped up," Summitt said. "I told her at halftime you've got to get more involved offensively. You've got to get to the paint. And she responded. We needed her breaking down the defense and scoring points for us."
That she did. Hornbuckle was all over the floor in the second half on both ends. She ended up with eight boards, three assists, three steals – she now has at least one in 62 straight games – one block and numerous deflections and tips to keep rebounds alive.
"Coach stressed to me to look for the dribble penetration," Hornbuckle said. "They were putting so much pressure on Candace and all their focus was on Candace that we had dribble penetration, we had penetrate and kick, and I just took advantage of that."
Last season Tennessee lacked guards. This year the Lady Vols have an abundance of them, but some aren't really supposed to be guards. It's been an issue for Summitt all season – teams back off Tennessee, pack the inside or collapse on Parker and bait the Lady Vols into shooting from the outside.
"I thought Candace did a nice job once we got her to get inside," Summitt said. "We all wanted to be guards again. We have to go through this almost every game. Once we established our inside game, she was dominant. And she's got a good face-up game, but just having her go back inside and post up and get on the boards. She did a great job for us in the second half and really stepped up big. Obviously her defensive rebounding, her ball-handling, and decision making were really sound."
Parker had a double-double – 25 points and 10 rebounds – and tied a career high with seven assists. Some of the assists were highlight-reel worthy such as when Bobbitt, at the top of the key, found Parker on the left side of the basket, who made a touch pass to Anosike on the right side. Parker also found McMahan in transition by splitting two defenders with a bounce pass. McMahan finished with a reverse layup. No wonder Parker thinks she's a guard sometimes.
"They did a good job of knocking down open shots," Parker said. "I feel like if you take something away from this team, then we have a lot of counterattacks."
Tennessee needed a balanced attack as Ole Miss wasn't backing down before a restless crowd of 9,982. The Rebels not only matched Tennessee's intensity they exceeded it at times in the first half.
"That concerned me that they maintained the intensity and caliber of play up until halftime," Summitt said of the Rebels' performance with their best player on the bench.
"Well, they just came at us," Hornbuckle said. "They were very aggressive. At times, we weren't in a stance or we weren't over in help. It's just a matter of they came out with more intensity than we did. We both are two very athletic teams, but if we're not in a stance or we're not ready to defend, they are going to look like the better team."
Tennessee can clinch the regular season title with a win over LSU since with three games to go the Lady Vols still don't have a conference loss and every other team has at least two losses. Ole Miss is one of six teams – Tennessee, LSU, Georgia, Vanderbilt and Mississippi State are the others – fighting for the top four spots in the standings to gain a first-round bye at the SEC Tournament in Duluth, Georgia, which starts in two weeks.
The Rebels certainly kept themselves within striking distance of the upset in the first 20 minutes of the game.
"I would have felt good at halftime if we'd have gotten on the bus and left," Ross said. "But there were 20 more minutes to play. We knew Armintie had not played much at all, and we did hope that we would come out (strong). Tennessee has a history of closing hard right before the half and coming out strong out of the locker room after halftime. I was really disappointed that we didn't come out of halftime and play better and compete harder, and challenge them more. They certainly gapped it open. It took all of 90 seconds for a good ballgame to get bad. We didn't do a good job at halftime."
In those 90 seconds Tennessee extended the lead to 40-29 with a flurry of offense, including a Bobbitt three-pointer on yet another assist from Parker. Then Hornbuckle start getting inside and hitting layups or short jumpers. The Lady Vols also were hitting the boards and won that battle, 44-39.
"We've placed a lot of emphasis on rebounding," Summitt said. "I still think we've got to get better. We did better things. I think Alberta's got to be a better rebounder. I'm looking here (on the stat sheet) Fuller did a nice job for her minutes. I think Anosike stepped up. She had nine, Parker, 10, Alexis, eight. We were a little bit better in that area. I think they were more focused on it."
Bobbitt and McMahan combined for four with each player getting two on the defensive glass, something Summitt had specifically sought from the point guards.
"That's what we talked about at halftime – for now and on throughout the rest of the season is that the guards have to help rebound or else we won't be going as far as we want to go," Bobbitt said. "That's why I try to get any loose balls and any far bounce that I can get and that's what I took advantage of."
Both teams had trouble holding onto the ball, an offshoot of both teams' trapping and pressing styles of play. The Rebels had 23 turnovers, the Lady Vols, 20. Hornbuckle and Bobbitt combined for seven. Parker had four. Alberta Auguste had four in only nine minutes of play. Bobbitt had three by halftime but only one in the second half.
"They were very aggressive and athletic just like us," Bobbitt said. "I just tried to play smart and get the ball up the court as quickly as possible, not play around with the ball and just try to break down the defense like that, and that's what we did."
Offensively, Ole Miss was led by Price with 13 points, Forrest with 11 and three players with 10 points each – Awkward, a starter, and Carla Bartee and Bianca Thomas, who came off the bench. Ole Miss got 26 points off its bench.
"Very helpful knowing that when I do get in foul trouble or when I do need a breather that they can come in and be a spark off the bench," Price said. "I think they have done a great job of that."
Price didn't intend to be a spectator in the first half but ended up there for the second game in a row.
"You can get away with it at home sometimes, and certainly we were able to do that against Alabama, but you can't go on the road and play a team as good as Tennessee and have your best player, one, sitting on the bench and then she wasn't really very good when she came back out," Ross said. "So it was not her finest hour by any stretch. We don't do a whole lot of good things when she's not doing a whole lot of good things. It's unfortunate to be in a game like this and us not get her to play better. She's certainly got the heart for it, she prepared well for the game, but it just wasn't her night. It didn't happen for her."
Price is just seven points shy of joining an exclusive NCAA club of players who have at least 2,000 points, 1,000 rebounds, 300 assists and 300 steals. The other members are Tennessee's Chamique Holdsclaw and Tamika Catchings, Southern Cal's Cheryl Miller and Baylor's Sophia Young. Price's next shot comes Sunday at Mississippi State.
Price started out the game with two quick layups to get Ole Miss' first four points and then just as quickly picked up two fouls and came out at the 14:06 mark. Still, the Rebels led 20-17 with 7:36 to play. But Bobbitt hit a three-pointer – on an assist from Parker – at the 7:23 mark to tie the game and Tennessee never trailed.
"It's kind of like you pick your poison," Parker said. "If they start taking away the inside, then we started penetrating and getting paint points. If you take away that, then we get outside jump shots. I think we did a good job just overall game."
The antidote for Tennessee is often to get the ball in Parker's hands, not just because she can score, but because she can make things happen for herself and her teammates.
"She's got to be one of the hardest matchups in our game," Ross said. "We've been out, played people outside the league early, and thought we had some tough matchups. But she's just versatile; she does things other players can't do and don't do.
"A great example of that was defensively late we were making a little bit of a run, we had the shot clock really low, and they just flicked it inside. She tips it right in, and what goes from a great defensive effort turns into two more points for Tennessee."
That was at the 1:47 mark of the second half when Ole Miss trailed by 11 after being down by 19 at the 5:55 mark. The shot clock was down to four seconds with Bobbitt on the wing. She dribbled in and found Parker, who executed a catch-and-release shot with one second left to push the score to 81-68.
Parker was just as effective on the other end of the floor. She had three blocks, one of which caused the ball and player to bounce off the floor because of the force of the rejection. The crowd reacted as loudly for that as at any other time in the game.
"She affects the game in many ways," Ross said. "Her offense gets a lot of attention, but she swats a lot of balls out. She's a good shot blocker. Her timing is good. She affects shots even sometimes that she doesn't block, so it might not statistically show up, but she impacts the game in a lot of ways."
Ross, who was the head coach at Florida for 12 seasons before taking the top spot at her alma mater in 2003, has made many visits to Thompson-Boling Arena. Her sense of humor remains intact. When asked for an opening post-game statement, Ross said:
"Well, I could give you any of the ones I've used here before," Ross said. "Disappointing loss. You have to give Tennessee and this environment a lot of credit. It certainly seemed to have affected us. We were not the team that beat LSU or Vanderbilt or any of those other upset losses that we tacked on some of the bigger and better teams in our league.
"We were a little slow, and Tennessee is talented and good enough to make us pay when we miss our rotations or we're a step slow. That was pretty much it. They scored way too many easy baskets, and we're not going to beat too many teams in our league giving up easy points. We certainly did that, or at least they made them look easy.
"And the Big Orange rolls on."
Ole Miss did make Tennessee work for the win, and the Lady Vols were forced into a zone defense, something they don't do often but which didn't surprise Ross.
"We see more zones than probably anyone in the country, and we're more surprised when we don't see them," Ross said. "Even though Tennessee has not had a history this year of playing much (zone), I told our staff in preparation, ‘If they're ever going to play a zone, it will be against us.' It's the defense to guard Ole Miss, I guess, because everybody in the league is running it."
Summitt had watched tape on Ole Miss and saw that other SEC teams had dropped into a zone to slow them down, including Kentucky, which lost to the Rebels in overtime after being down by 16 points.
"Just watching tape on them I felt like they were much more comfortable and much more fluid in their man offense than their zone offense," Summitt said. "Obviously we're much more comfortable and confident and successful in our man defense in most situations. I just felt like if we could make it to halftime, we'd give it a look.
"I thought that was one thing that turned around the Kentucky game. Kentucky was down by 16 and went to a zone defense in the second half, which I thought really slowed down Ole Miss's offensive aggressiveness and just their execution overall. Arkansas did the same thing. So just being mindful of giving it a different look because they handled our man-to-man defense I thought better than maybe anyone has just in terms of their dribble penetration. I'm talking about specific to the league. They're not as committed to running sets as they are to being aggressive and attacking you off the dribble."
Even as Tennessee built a second-half lead Summitt opted to stay in the zone. Considering the Lady Vols had played and practiced very little zone of late, they executed it well.
"I just felt like if we could keep the lead – it wasn't that we had to extend it – but if we could maintain the lead, slow down their action offensively and get them later in the clock," Summitt said. "They were shooting early in that first half. Their penetration, they were getting shots within 10 seconds. A lot of times we got the clock under 10 seconds in the second half."
Ole Miss still got 40 points in the second half, but they went from shooting 48.3 percent in the first half to 34.3 percent in the second. For the game Ole Miss shot 40.6 percent.
"Naturally, our man-to-man defense is usually our first option, but they were penetrating so much and so easily at times that we had to come up with a new plan so Coach put us in zone, and I think we handled it really well," Hornbuckle said. "It was hard for them to penetrate. They got a lot more open jump shots, but we shut down their penetration and gave them a lesser percentage shot."
Two of the SEC's best wing guards played in this game in Price and Hornbuckle. Price struggled to get her points – the zone defense disrupted her rhythm in particular – but she did have seven boards, four steals and two assists.
"They do a lot of things to help their team," Ross said. "They're both defensively excellent, they rebound the ball great from the perimeter, they can dribble drive, break down defenders and get in the paint. There are similarities, certainly. I think what separates them is that she is our go-to player and Alexis is not Tennessee's go-to player. She is one of many great players for Tennessee, but that's Parker's job. So I think that's the only separation. I think their physical abilities are very similar."
Hornbuckle took advantage of Parker being identified as a go-to player to find gaps in Ole Miss' defense that she could exploit to get to the basket. However, Ross said the intent of the Rebels was not to focus too much on Parker.
"We really didn't key on Candace," Ross said. "That was not our game plan. Maybe it should have been because she sure shot a lot (9-16 from the field). We were just trying to play the way we play, and we were aware of Candace and we have a lot of respect for her, but if you play Candace, then you're disrespecting the rest of Tennessee's players, and they've got a lot of good players.
"We weren't doing anything that we really didn't do against (LSU's Sylvia) Fowles or (Vanderbilt's) Carla Thomas. We just played our regular defense. Again, our defense wasn't as good as it was in those two games, but it wasn't that we were focusing too much on one player. It was just that we weren't playing defensively the way we should have played it."
Ole Miss' defense look pretty stout overall. If the Rebels can summon the type of defense Ross expected they could be a dangerous postseason team.
Meanwhile, Summitt's mind is on the postseason because she sees the next game at LSU as crucial to the Lady Vols' seeding in the NCAA tourney.
"The LSU game is big for us," Summitt said. "We've dropped a couple of games to them. They've had the upper hand on us. Obviously we won it at the tournament last year, but in the regular season, we couldn't find a way to beat them.
"It's a game in which I think we have to look at an SEC league championship is on the line, and in my opinion a number one seed is on the line. So the stakes are pretty high for that one. That's why I want to make sure we get healthy in the next few days, and we'll be ready to play.
"They have a great presence in the middle with Fowles. It will be interesting to see how we match their frontline game. I like the way we match up with them on the perimeter. I'm excited about it. I think it will be another great test for us on the road. We've had a lot of good tests, but I think this will be one of the toughest that we've had in conference play."
The Lady Vols will take off Friday from the court to recuperate – Moshak will definitely be busy as even the ones who finished the game will need some recovery work at this time of year – and then return to practice Saturday. Four starters exceeded 30 minutes of play with Parker playing 35 and Spencer, 36. Hornbuckle, who seemed to spend as much time on the floor – sometimes diving there, sometimes knocked down – as upright logged 31 minutes.
"A day of rest helps us tremendously, especially when we had those two key injuries," Hornbuckle said. "We hope that Cait recovers so we can get back to work on Saturday, as well as Alex. They fought hard, and when you have a hard-fought game like that, you're going to come up with injuries. We don't like them, we don't want them, but sometimes they come up."