"Statistically, we've struggled in some areas," Coach Pat Summitt said. "We haven't shot the ball as well as we'd like to, missed some free throws along the way. But I think our defense has been a key. We've been able to – when we weren't scoring – affect other teams as well. That's been huge for us."
Tennessee ended up shooting 44 percent in this game but more importantly, the Lady Vols' defense contributed to the Commodores, who came into the game hitting 50.7 percent from the field, shooting 32.7 percent. A Vandy team that led the SEC in three-point field goal percentage at 46.6 percent was 25 percent from behind the arc.
"We had to deny Caroline," Lady Vols guard Alexis Hornbuckle said. "I know that was my job. She scored twice early, and I took it personally, even though one of the shots wasn't even on me.
"That's the type of defensive player that I am. I had a mindset. Our team had a mindset. We have to make them take shots one and done. If it's a shot, make them shoot over us, contest all shots. I think our team across the board, no matter what five were in the game, did a great job of playing scouting report defense."
Defense and board play are Summitt's mantra, especially for the postseason. The Lady Vols prevailed on the glass, 43-33, led by the game-high 14 rebounds by Candace Parker. Spencer and Nicky Anosike also got on the glass with seven rebounds each. Hornbuckle added five.
The defensive rebound from the Arkansas game, in which the Tennessee had to go to overtime to defeat the Lady Razorbacks in Fayetteville, also was pleasant viewing for Summitt.
"What this team can do – obviously we saw it at Arkansas late – we can get people to turn it over and really get on a roll with our defense and our ability to create easy scoring opportunities," Summitt said. "That's been key."
Summitt started the game at center court, where she greeted her three seniors, Spencer, Dominique Redding and Elizabeth Curry, with their family members while the video board played highlights of their time at Tennessee.
Redding joined Spencer in the starting lineup and had as many rebounds, three, as points. By Summitt's calculation that's a good stat line for the senior.
"Both seniors did a good job today," Summitt said. "It was good to see Dominique now looking like she's really ready to step in and help us out. I was pleased with her defensive intensity. It was good to see Sid knock some shots down. She's obviously been in a little bit of a shooting slump. Part of that is probably my fault, because I want her to shoot every time that she's open. It thought she had good composure today.
"And then we got (walk-on and former manager) Elizabeth Curry in the game. Her dream was to wear a uniform here. We were all fishing to try to an open look, so at least she got to the free throw line and made a free throw. Her parents were here, and I know they were excited."
When Curry made a free throw with 25 seconds left to push the final margin to 20 points, 73-53, the crowd cheered as vigorously as it had the first point of the game – a free throw by Shannon Bobbitt.
Bobbitt, a first-year player at Tennessee, had her own storyline for this game. She got a high five and a hug from Summitt when she left the game late in the second half. Bobbitt had pointed into the crowd at one point in the game, and that became apparent why afterwards.
"I was excited for Shannon, because she played really well, and her family's here from New York – three of her brothers, her mom and dad and it's their first time to see a home game," Summitt said. "I didn't know if she would go out and try to do too much, and she didn't. I think she only had one possession that she kept the ball too long. I thought she stepped up and played great. We hope they're buying tickets to the SEC (Tournament) about now."
Bobbitt's stat line included 14 points, four steals, two rebounds and an assist. But in a game in which 45 total fouls were called and three Lady Vols had four fouls early in the second half, it was perhaps more noticeable that Bobbitt managed to play 31 minutes without getting whistled.
"I guess just playing great defense," said Bobbitt, as her teammates, Parker and Hornbuckle, and those assembled for the post-game press conference burst out laughing.
"I was happy that they were there," Bobbitt said of her family, who saw her play for the first time ever for Tennessee when the team played at UConn. "It just made me play with more energy, and I definitely played with a lot of energy because of my team. We wanted to close it out and go undefeated. I just went out there and had a lot of fun."
Bobbitt also had some highlights on offense. She drove the lane once in the second half, got bumped to the floor and managed to bounce in the shot off the glass. She ended up being on the receiving end of a Hornbuckle block. The Vandy player got past Parker, and Hornbuckle swooped in from the weak side and sent the shot back nearly to half-court, where Bobbitt grabbed the carom and blew past two defenders to the basket for an uncontested layup.
Parker also had a ferocious block and retrieved the ball as it bounced to the far corner. Two behind-the-back dribbles on a length-of-the-floor scamper ended with a no-look pass to Hornbuckle, who missed the layup.
"You watch a great block – I got caught watching Candace to be honest; that's why I missed the layup – you just get hyped," Hornbuckle said. "It makes you want to play that much harder. It gives you a burst of energy. You don't have time to be tired when you're running off of adrenaline and someone gets a block or a great steal or a great defensive play. It just makes you want to play that much harder on offense plus the next defensive possession."
Parker had 21 points. Spencer added 10 and hit 2-4 from behind the arc. Hornbuckle had nine points and also hit a three-pointer. Anosike, who had struggled from the field in the past two games, was 3-3 and scored eight points.
Summitt cited the work of the bench – which accounted for 16 points with Anosike's contribution counting there since Redding started – both for its efforts on defense and offense, specifically Alberta Auguste and Cait McMahan. Alex Fuller, who is still recovering from a blow to the eye, scored four points by hitting all of her free throws.
"I thought our defense would be a key, and it was, without question being able to identify and pick up (Dee) Davis early," Summitt said. "I thought Shannon and Cait both did a nice job in matching up on three-point shooters. Certainly, their inside game did a lot of good things. (Carla) Thomas I thought was terrific today.
"But in terms of the balanced attack I thought we were able to do what we wanted to do in a lot of aspects of the game. Really pleased with how we played off the bench. That's been an area we've put a lot of emphasis on, and I thought we did a much better job coming off the bench. I thought Alberta played within herself. Cait did some good things. I thought our starters did a good job getting us off and running early."
Vanderbilt was led by Carla Thomas, who had 23 points. No other scorer was in double figures with Williams coming the closest at seven points. Two players, Jennifer Risper and Dee Davis, had six apiece.
"Carla is playing awesome," Williams said. "If we could have stepped it up to her level I think we would have done a little bit better. She's really the only one who came in here confident, and it really showed on the court. Didn't force things and let the game come to her. We can learn from that, and learn from her."
Vanderbilt Coach Melanie Balcomb didn't see the same team that had rattled off seven straight wins since losing to Tennessee on Jan. 25.
"We've had some really good shooting days," Balcomb said. "We've been shooting so well, we've been breaking shooting records. When we get hot, it becomes contagious. And I think we had some really good looks early. We had layups frankly, and we missed those, and then it became contagious. And then we got real tight on offense; we weren't relaxed like I've seen us in the last seven games. We got really tight. They pressured the ball and took our timing away."
Balcomb noted that Tennessee's defense was better in this game than a month ago.
"It was the best defensive effort that they've had against us," she said. "I don't know if they do this every night, but against us, yes. By far. They pressured the ball better than they have and took us out farther and took us out of our timing more than they have in the past. Absolutely.
"They've always pressured the basketball, but I thought they rotated over and challenged our shots better than they have in the past. We've gotten wide-open layups in the past attacking the basket, and this time there was always somebody coming over – I don't know if it was Candace every time – but there was this big huge hand coming over every time, and I think that makes you hesitate on your drive. So I thought their rotation and their help was better."
Parker was an imposing presence on defense with six blocks, which were the most for her in an SEC game. She now has 81 on the season, good for third place on the single-season list. With five more she'll tie herself for second place. Teresa Geter holds the single-season record with 93, which she set in 1997-98, so Parker is only 12 swats away from tying that one.
Parker was also a difference-maker on offense. Summitt issued a late-season directive to get Parker on the low block and let her work from there outward instead of the reverse.
"I can see why," Balcomb said. "We didn't want to get her on the low block. We wanted to keep her up as high as possible. I'm sure everybody is trying to do that. She's deadly at the low block.
"We were going to come double at the low, and try not to double at the mid and the high because she's such a good passer. She can face it up, and that's what she does and throws it over you with her jumping and her size. It's a Catch-22, you let her go (one on one), or you double her and let her pick you apart. So you want to keep her as high as possible, and she got too low on us tonight. I don't know if Pat motivated her to do that, but that was a good game plan."
Tennessee had several motivations Sunday afternoon, not the least of which was to send the seniors out of Thompson-Boling Arena with a win, which didn't happen a year ago when Florida beat the Lady Vols in overtime to end the regular season.
"Yes, we did talk about it," Hornbuckle said. "We said we didn't want the same thing to happen to us this year that happened to us last year. We knew it was going to be a great game for 40 minutes and if we went into overtime we didn't want to fall short like last year. We wanted it to be special for Sid and Dom and Elizabeth."
After the final buzzer sounded the seniors gathered at center court with the team to wave to the fans. Spencer took a sideline microphone to thank the fans and ask them to come to the SEC tourney next week in Duluth, Ga., where Tennessee will open the defense of that title at 1 p.m. Friday against the winner of Thursday's Auburn-South Carolina game. Before leaving "The Summitt" floor, Redding dropped down and gave a kiss to center court.
The 20-point margin suggested a romp for Tennessee in what has been a closely contested rivalry of late. But the outcome remained well in doubt five minutes into the second half when Vandy had cut Tennessee's 40-29 halftime lead to four, 42-38, with 14:41 left in the game.
That burst of scoring coincided with eight fouls called on Tennessee – including a technical on Anosike who slammed her hand on the floor after getting called for an offensive foul. Combine that with three fouls called on Vandy, and that's 11 blown whistles in slightly more than five minutes.
"Referees are different every night and I'll never understand it, so I don't try to," Balcomb said. "We don't even let it affect us at this point."
It did affect Tennessee, which lost its composure, and it sent two second half starters, Anosike and Hornbuckle, to the bench with four fouls each. Hornbuckle ended up playing only 28 minutes and then had to be cautious upon her return. Her streak of 64 straight games with at least one steal ended Sunday.
"I think anytime you have that many fouls called back to back it takes both teams out of rhythm," Summitt said. As a result, "I thought we needed to pick and choose when we pressed. I think sometimes in the flow of the game that happens. You're going along and all of a sudden teams are fouling, and we were fouling and it's a little disjointed. As far as us just settling down after that I thought we did."
The crowd was anything but settled. Boos rained down on the floor in a deafening noise, especially when replays showed Spencer was in position for a charge and Hornbuckle was backing off and never made contact with the player she was whistled for fouling. Also, the game had not been called consistently, and Tennessee's players – after getting whistled for three consecutive fouls in less than two minutes to start the second half – were clearly angered.
Spencer had four fouls but stayed on the floor. She picked up the fourth on a call that could have been called a charge, and Risper made one free throw to cut the lead to the aforementioned four. On Tennessee's next possession Spencer drained a three to put Tennessee up, 45-38, with 14:19 left.
"I think adversity is a good thing as long as you can get through it," Summitt said. "We all have adversity on and off the court, and you've got to persevere and get through it and not lose your composure. We lost our composure, and Nicky got the technical. It was really a physical game. I think we got frustrated. We talked about that in the timeout – can't play this game on edge. You've really got to concentrate and keep your composure and stay confident, and we did that."
That's somewhat of an understatement.
The Lady Vols continued to attack the basket with Parker and Bobbitt, and Spencer hit from the perimeter again. Two-and-a-half minutes after the Commodores had cut the lead to four, Tennessee was up by 16 points, 55-39, with 12:38 to go. The lead got as big as 21 points and never shrunk under 13 points, and Tennessee cruised to its 12th consecutive victory in the series.
"I feel like we're a team that battles through adversity," Parker said. "We have each other's backs, and I feel like when one person has foul trouble other people stepped up. We just came in with energy and I feel like when they closed the gaps and hit a couple of shots, we just came right back at them, and we made big plays, and I think that's huge."
Despite the lopsided nature of the series – Tennessee now leads 49-6 – the in-state matchup hasn't lost its fervor.
In fact Balcomb said her seniors wanting so much to beat Tennessee – they have yet to do so in their careers and could meet again in the postseason – could have been an issue Sunday.
"Part of it is it's a tough environment," Balcomb said. "You guys have got a great crowd. And it's senior night. We have three seniors that will want it really bad. Sometimes that's a lot harder than just going out and playing. In the past we've given some good games that I didn't even expect; we just went out and played. I think it means a lot to my three seniors, and sometimes that is tougher and it's so mental in a rivalry between two teams that want to beat each other so badly."
The Tennessee players have been on the winning side of the rivalry – a place they don't want to surrender – and they understand the nature of this game.
"It's always going to be a rivalry," Hornbuckle said. "We're two, two-and-a-half hours apart from each other. They don't like us, and we know that. We take note of that."
Hornbuckle was interrupted with the question: "Do you like them?"
"Don't (misquote) me saying that," Hornbuckle said shaking her head.
"She didn't say that," Parker said.
"We respect every opponent, and we realize they're going to bring the heat," Hornbuckle said. "They want to beat us. It's been awhile since they've gotten that victory so we have to respect them every year. We can't take them lightly."
The game started with Tennessee presenting Vandy's three seniors, Davis, Thomas and Williams, with flowers, in a gesture to honor the players.
"It's nice to see that recognition from other teams," Thomas said. "I've never been a senior before in this situation so I didn't know what to expect, but it is a nice gesture."
Davis, who had six assists in the game, got her best one before tipoff. She scooted over to the Vandy players' family section and tossed her flowers to a very grateful woman before quickly getting back to her bench.
But Balcomb didn't get enough out of her seniors, except for Thomas, to pull off an upset in Knoxville, where the Commodores have never won. Thomas also was playing on a sprained right ankle – she hurt it in the LSU game – and had missed two practice sessions.
"I think I was just trying to execute what we had been working on," Thomas said of her performance. "I've been sitting out the past two practices so I just wanted to come in and show the team I still had that confidence, and they could depend on me."
"Carla Thomas played really well," Balcomb said. "Carla does what she does, and that's what she brought tonight. The rest of our players didn't bring what they do to the table. I liked Carla's body language, and I liked (Christina) Wirth's body language tonight. And she usually even shoots the ball better, but I thought she rebounded well and I thought she carried herself very well. That's the tough part. At this point in the season, our body language has been very good. We've been gaining confidence, and I didn't see that tonight."
If the teams meet again in the postseason, her players need to change their approach from the start, Balcomb said.
"I think our body language has to change," she said. "That's what we talked about at halftime. We're prepared; the players feel very prepared. I don't think there's any question about our players' effort or their heart. This is one of the best teams that I've coached since I've been at Vanderbilt. We're very comfortable together as a team and a program and have really, really come together.
"At this point it's just disappointing, and we're looking forward to the SEC Tournament because we want to get this game back. We want to get back after it. We will recover well. I have so much faith in this team, I can't tell you."
Balcomb also noted that a loss to Tennessee isn't unusual. The team has experience bouncing back from defeats to the Lady Vols. Williams said essentially the same thing.
"It's frustrating, and this game we didn't show the team that we are," Williams said. "We've been playing so well for seven straight games and to play like this it just doesn't show who we are as a team. We understand that, and it's frustrating. You would be lying if you said it wasn't frustrating, but at the same time it's one game. We'll regroup, and we'll be fine.
"It's not going to kill us. I think we take this as a loss and we learn from it. It's one game, and we've already set ourselves up good for the tournament. This is definitely not going to kill our momentum. We've been playing too good of basketball to let this game hurt us."
Vanderbilt did get one of the top four seeds in the SEC Tournament and will get a Thursday bye. The Commodores will play the winner of the Mississippi State-Florida game.
Tennessee, meanwhile, will return to practice Monday to get ready for the postseason. The Lady Vols accomplished their first goal of the season last Monday when they clinched the SEC regular season championship. The second goal – to go through the conference unbeaten – was notched Sunday.
"That's been a goal of ours, and we've fallen short the last two years," Parker said. "We just took it one game at a time. We didn't really look ahead. We had a challenging schedule and I'm really proud of how we battled and how we came back from our game against Arkansas tonight."
With a perfect run through the conference and losses only to Duke and North Carolina, Summitt thinks her team has done what it needs to do to secure a number one seed in the NCAA Tournament.
"If we don't get a one seed now, I don't know what I'm going to do," Summitt said. "I guess (Tennessee Athletics Director) Joan Cronan is going to have to stand up and make some noise and John Petersen (UT's president). We'll just go on down the line.
"Last year we put ourselves in a position (to not get a top seed). We lost two games that were costly (to unranked teams). But right now regardless of what happens … although we want to continue the way we've been playing. We'll see how much it means to them to continue to win and win this league when we get to SECs."