"It's always good to get that first game out of the way with a win," Coach Pat Summitt said. "We knew that South Carolina would come at us, play very aggressive basketball."
When the media went into the locker room for post-game interviews, the players were munching on chocolate and candy. A few of their favorite sweets had been placed inside a basketball piñata, and Alexis Hornbuckle was given the honor of busting it open with a baseball bat.
The piñata idea came from Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick – who bought some piñatas at a party store and brought them to Duluth – and the bat was borrowed from Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood, who used it as a prop for a regular season scouting session to emphasize Basics, Attitude and Teamwork, or BAT. He had borrowed it from the Lady Vol softball team and the team has had it since the Kentucky game on Feb. 11 in Knoxville.
"It strikes a chord and connects with kids," Lockwood said, speaking of the motivational technique, not necessarily the bat.
Tennessee, 28-2, scored off the opening tip when Candace Parker tipped the ball to Nicky Anosike, who fed Sidney Spencer for a driving layup plus the foul. Spencer hit the free throw for a 3-0 start, and Tennessee never trailed. The Lady Vols led 40-28 at halftime and then opened the second half on a 16-5 run that put the game away early.
All nine players for Tennessee logged minutes, and no starter went over 27 minutes. Reserve Alex Fuller, who had tourney career highs in points and rebounds with eight in each category, played the longest at 32 minutes.
Spencer led Tennessee with 22 points and restored her shooting touch after missing practice most of this week because of stomach illness.
"I guess they'll all want to take a week off from practice, because that's what she did," Summitt said.
Of course there are no off days in this tournament as long as a team keeps winning. Tennessee's next step Friday was to begin preparation for Saturday's game against LSU, which beat Ole Miss in the second round. Tipoff is 6:45 p.m. Eastern (Fox Sports Net, Lady Vols Radio Network).
Hornbuckle set the tone for Friday's game and had 12 points by halftime. She finished with 17, the most points she had scored in an SEC tourney game since totaling 14 against Vanderbilt in 2005. Hornbuckle also had seven assists (to just one turnover), five rebounds and two steals.
"I just saw open opportunities, whether it was pull-up jump shots or getting to the hole," Hornbuckle said. "I just took advantage of them and tried to play on balance. … I guess coach is right. The more I play on balance, the more efficient I am."
The production from Spencer – her 22 points beat the 21 she scored in a tourney game last year against LSU – and Hornbuckle meant Tennessee didn't need as much from Parker, who scored 10 points on 2-4 shooting from the field and 6-9 from the free throw line.
South Carolina's strategy seemed to be to try to bottle up Parker and make somebody else score.
"She was taking obviously a lot of physical play," Summitt said. "But I thought she kept her composure. It's good to see other players step up and not stand around and watch her play."
Parker got tangled up once with South Carolina's Lakesha Tolliver – the two have been battling in the paint for most of the game – and Parker glared at Tolliver after she swung her arm up toward Parker and spun around quickly to get loose.
"I think it's just playing basketball," Parker said. "That's something we've dealt with all year is teams are very physical against us."
It certainly something Parker has dealt with all season, and this game was no exception.
With Parker busy with two defenders Hornbuckle and Spencer were able to get open looks either from the perimeter or driving into the lane.
"When Tennessee needs a basket they're going to go to Parker," South Carolina Coach Susan Walvius said. " … Was it a surprise they didn't go to Parker all night? No. Spencer does a great job shooting the ball. Hornbuckle does a great job, really takes the ball hard to the rim, can score off the dribble. They were really balanced, and that's what makes them so hard to guard."
South Carolina, 17-14, was led by Tolliver with 13 points and Melanie Johnson with 11. Brionna Dickerson was the next closest to double figures with nine points. Guard Stacy Booker was pulled in the first half – she played 12 minutes and was 1-6 from the field – after she twisted her knee. She didn't return.
"We took a conservative approach with her," said Walvius, who added that Booker would be evaluated by a doctor here and back home in Columbia.
The Gamecocks are hoping for a postseason bid, and Walvius made a case for an NCAA invite, which would be a long shot for South Carolina. She based her case primarily on the strength of the SEC.
"It's definitely a league that should get seven or eight teams in this year," Walvius said.
Tennessee is playing to not only keep its presumed number one seed in the NCAA Tournament but to also position itself to be considered for better placement in the regionals in terms of travel distance.
The opening game, though uneven at times in terms of offensive execution, was exactly what Tennessee needed to do. There also were plenty of offensive highlights.
Spencer scored first at the start of both halves with drives to the basket. Parker used one of her five blocks to start a fast break in which she controlled the swatted ball and found Hornbuckle for an outlet pass. Hornbuckle drove toward the lane but then fired the ball to Shannon Bobbitt in the corner, who hit a three.
Bobbitt later hit another three-pointer as the shot clock was expiring. Just as the first half ended, Spencer grabbed a tipped ball off a Hornbuckle shot and put it in to give Tennessee a 40-28 lead. In the second half Hornbuckle drove to the basket, left her defender flat-footed with a crossover move and hit the driving layup plus got fouled.
"Overall I'm pleased," Summitt said. "It was probably good for Candace to be in the situation she's in where she was taking a lot of physical hits, had to fight through a little adversity. All in all it was good."
The newcomers shed their postseason anxiety, and the veterans want to defend their tournament trophy.
Bobbitt said she felt some "urgency and little nervous. I knew it was going to be a great experience for me and exciting moment for me so I was just playing through it."
"Anxious, excited," McMahan said. "We came out and stayed focused."
"I was pretty nervous, but I got through it," Auguste said. "I picked up three fouls in the first half. I had to calm down when I came in in the second half. It's different because we're playing for a championship. If you lose you go home and that's something we don't want to do."
Curry, who is a walk-on after serving as a team manager last year, is taking in the tournament from a player's perspective this time.
"You worry about the game and the play as compared to the logistics and the operational side," Curry said. "Coming from regular season to postseason you've got to try to keep the same mentality, but it's win or go home. We've just got to stay focused and play the way we have all season. The postseason has that extra little flair, but at the same time we always remind ourselves that it's what we've been doing all year long, and we don't have to change that. We just have to keep playing aggressive and keep playing Tennessee basketball to continue on."
Hornbuckle certainly came to Duluth with that approach. She hustled after loose balls, broke down the defense on offense, fought for rebounds and pressured the ball.
"I wanted to set the tone, and I realize that my team needs me to be productive on the offensive end, whether it's transition layups, whether it's hitting jump shots, pull-ups, whether it's just getting to the hole in the half-court set," Hornbuckle said. "My jumper was on and I stayed with it. I missed three but I never felt the next one wasn't going in.
"And when you have a mindset like that – and it's not a mindset, ‘Lex, you need to get this many points. It's what can I do to help my teammates?' – and tonight it was scoring from the outside. So every night that's my mindset from now on – to be efficient, play on balance and knock down open shots. I think the farther you advance into the tournament the more important it gets, because the teams get harder. The opponent's motivation starts to set in. You might not get the same open looks. I might not get 10 shots. I might get four. It's going to be important to knock down those four shots so efficiency is very important."
Spencer saluted Hornbuckle's effort and said it made her want to work harder to help. Thirteen of Spencer's 22 points came in the second half.
"It does feel good coming off several games that shooting-wise weren't great," Spencer said. "I felt like Lex was really carrying the team in the first half so I felt like we needed to step up and help her. I just tried to step up with Alexis because Alexis was carrying the load."
Spencer had been fighting a stomach illness all week but said she felt better, though she's not quite all the way back yet.
"I've just been trying to push fluids because eating has been hard, getting re-hydrated," Spencer said.
Spencer was wielding the baseball bat when the media was allowed into the locker room. Given the physical style of play in the postseason she might wish she could take it on the court.
Officials called 40 fouls in the game and could have whistled a few more. Spencer got hit with an intentional foul after jostling with a player for a ball, and Parker, who had been on the receiving end of several body shots, stared down Tolliver after the two became entangled on the baseline. Shortly afterwards she scored over Tolliver and drew a foul. That also brought a stare.
"I think lately a lot of SEC teams have been trying to play more physical with us to stop us, especially on the inside, because Candace is going to get double teamed so they bring two players at her, extremely physical, just trying to beat us up," Spencer said. "I noticed a lot of (body) shots when we were trying to go to the basket, but that's just a part of the game.
"We're really competitive and when emotions get going things happen."
Fuller still shows the signs of how physical some of the games have been in the past two months. Her right eyelid is open – it was swollen shut after she took a blow to the eye last month – but it is still somewhat droopy.
"It's better," Fuller said. "There was never any problem with my vision. It was just that my eyelid wouldn't open."
Fuller has had a much bigger role this season and with 32 minutes logged Friday her role in the postseason won't be reduced. Her eight rebounds came via positioning and out-hustling people for the ball.
"I just go out and play," Fuller said. "That's all you can do. It's nothing I think about. Instinct I guess."
As the players chatted with the media they unwrapped a few pieces of candy. The remains of the piñata were at their feet. The coaches select a player of the game – Hornbuckle in this case – and then the piñata is tied up in the locker room. Spencer claimed that Hornbuckle whiffed once – she actually hit it, but it didn't bust open – but the second shot shattered it.
"I hit it in one hit, and it came down," Hornbuckle said. "That's the power shot. It was a great idea, a fun idea."
The significance of the bat, much like the Lady Vol Pact made in January, is being kept secret. Lockwood brought the aluminum bat into the Kentucky film scouting session last month as a prop and a reminder to the team that when in trouble "always go back to your bat" of basics, attitude and teamwork. He got the idea from a West Point friend, who advised his troops to "take your bat into every mission," Lockwood said. But the bat has additional meaning for the players. That, however, is staying within the team.
The Lady Vols will need the BAT method Saturday when they take on LSU in the semifinal game. The two teams just played Feb. 19, and Tennessee escaped Baton Rouge with a 56-51 win.
"Basically we have to step up our defense, step up our rebounding, play together as a team, just the basics basically of basketball," Fuller said.
After the game in Baton Rouge ended Parker did a television interview in which she correctly stated that the teams could meet again soon. She also mentioned that the next game would be on a neutral court.
"I just meant that playing down there is really hard," Parker said. "Playing at LSU and winning at LSU is very hard, and we managed to do it. I feel like in that game we didn't play well at all. I shot horrible from the free throw line. Lex didn't necessarily play all that well. Sidney didn't shoot very well. I feel like we're on a neutral floor and hopefully it will be a better story."
Chatman addressed the keys to the rematch shortly after her team's Friday night win over Ole Miss.
"I can easily tell you what the key is going to be," Chatman said. "We gave up 20 offensive boards last time. If you're going to defend at the clip that we've been defending, pick up your paycheck at the end of the week and get the rebound. You put in so much work. … You hold a team to 20 points below their average, you're supposed to win. But we didn't. That's because there's no defense with second-chance points. I think that's the first place to start.
"Then we can't allow them to turn us over. A turnover with Tennessee is a layup. We'll be ready."
Tennessee played the first game Friday – LSU-Ole Miss was the third game – so the players left the arena to get some food and get ready to scout their next opponent.
"We're going to go watch the game after we eat dinner and do a little scouting ourselves and get ready to scout with the coaches," Hornbuckle said. "LSU, always down to the wire when we play them. We just have to be mentally prepared and focused."
Ole Miss took LSU down to the wire. Two Lady Tiger starters, Sylvia Fowles and Rashonta LeBlanc, played 37 minutes, and a third, Erica White, nearly went the distance at 39 minutes.
Last year at the tourney LSU came in as the regular season champions, and Tennessee took the role of the underdog. This year the Lady Vols got the SEC trophy and find themselves as the hunted instead of the hunter.
"The underdogs usually have the edge because you have a little more motivation," Hornbuckle said. "But it also depends on the type of players you have on that team. If you're a team that likes to be on top and wants to stay on top and progress I don't think any team has an edge."
The point guards, who often have the ball in their hands, believe they can better influence how the game plays out.
Bobbitt expects more from herself in her second postseason game.
"Just definitely play better than what I played (Friday)," Bobbitt said. "I didn't feel like I was really aggressive, attacking the ball. I feel like I didn't get us in our offense quick enough and run through it. Definitely (Saturday) I'm going to have a different mindset and be mentally strong and ready and all anxiety should go away."
Bobbitt said her pregame anxiety stemmed from the nature of postseason.
"Once you lose you're out," she said. "That's the pressure thing. In regular season you lose you still have time to be number one. But here once you lose you're out. Tennessee is a team that people want to beat, and we don't want to go down."
Parker savors this time of year. She knows there are a maximum of eight games left in the season – two in Duluth and six in the NCAA tourney.
"This is what you play for," Parker said. "No matter what we do there're only eight more games that we're going to play in a Tennessee uniform together as this team. Last year it hurt so bad (to lose in the regional final). This is what you play for. Looking back it hurts me.
"You want to go through postseason again because it's so fun. I'm just having a blast. This is what you play all year for."
ODDS AND ENDS:
SENIOR MOMENT: Sidney Spencer and Dominique Redding accepted the SEC regular season championship trophy at center court before the game started. The seniors held it aloft at center court as the Tennessee fans in attendance cheered. They then scooted back to the locker room.
WISHFUL THINKING ATTIRE: Five LSU fans were wearing "Beat Tennessee" T-shirts at the Tennessee-South Carolina game. They cheered to no avail for the Gamecocks.
BEST GESTURE Pat Summitt. After guard Cait McMahan twice got knocked backwards with an elbow – and the second time she was somehow charged with a block – Summitt used her arm to show the officials what the offensive player was doing to McMahan.
LIGHTER MOMENT: Nicky Anosike, Sidney Spencer and Cait McMahan shared a laugh at the free throw line. Anosike got a pass under the basket and waited for a South Carolina defender to go flying past her before she shot the ball. The hesitation drew the foul.
"Everyone makes fun of me because they say I take 10 seconds to shoot the ball," Anosike said. "We thought it was funny at the time. I thought it was funny. It was an exaggeration."
Anosike scored eight points and has now passed the 700 career points mark.
BEST MASCOT ROUTINE: Cocky of South Carolina. Cocky had a blow-up plastic sword that had deflated. He tried to blow it up – hard when your mouth is a beak and doesn't close – and then dropped it to the floor and administered CPR. When that didn't work, he pantomimed rubbing paddles together and tried to ‘shock' the sword to re-inflate. He left the court shaking his head and dragging the limp sword.
During another timeout Cocky used two placards as wings and the court as a runway. He ran the length of the court flapping his "wings" and then took off trying to fly but landed with a splat. The crowd cheered both routines.