With Sidney Spencer holding her own on the defensive end and Candace Parker pouring in those points – a career high in the NCAA Tournament on 13-16 shooting – the Lady Vols deflected every challenge – along with six blocks, including a volleyball spike by Parker – that Pitt summoned before a rowdy crowd of 8,791 at the Petersen Events Center.
Pittsburgh scored the first basket to go up 2-0, Tennessee's Shannon Bobbitt nailed a three in the deep left corner, and Tennessee, which led 40-24 at halftime, never trailed again. The Panthers kept clawing their way back in, but Tennessee never left the lead drop below eight and repeatedly pushed it into double digits every time Pitt threatened to get closer.
Tennessee, 30-3, moves on to face Marist, 29-5, in the Dayton Region this weekend. Oklahoma, 28-4, and Ole Miss, 23-10, will also pair off in Dayton, with the winners to meet for a berth in the Final Four in Cleveland.
Bobbitt, who started out in this sub-region reminding questioners that she was new to this show, sounded like a tourney veteran late Tuesday night.
"We don't work hard to lose in the first or second round," said Bobbitt, who added the same policy applies as the team advances in the Big Show.
And because of that approach on a weekend when high seeds – including Maryland, the defending champions – fell by the wayside, Tennessee will be back at work Wednesday in Knoxville on the practice court.
Spencer had her hands full in Pittsburgh.
Assistant Coach Nikki Caldwell devised a plan by which Nicky Anosike would defend on the perimeter, and Spencer would drop inside to take Pitt's best post player in Marcedes Walker. Needless to say it was an unexpected matchup. Anosike can defend inside or out, but Spencer hasn't really had to take on a center since high school in Hoover, Ala.
"That was Caldwell's call," Coach Pat Summitt said. "That was her scout. I thought Sid did a nice job and I thought it allowed us to go a lot more athletic on the perimeter. That worked to our benefit. When she said it I was thinking I don't know and then I thought why not. If we're going to face guard her then we can put Anosike on the perimeter. It made us big and athletic on the wings."
Spencer smiled when yet another sportswriter sat down in front of her locker stall to ask about the matchup. Both players are 6'3, but Spencer gives up considerable bulk inside. Walker also has been a force for Pitt this season, both on the boards and scoring.
"Yesterday we were telling everybody (privately) it's going to be interesting when you see our matchups," Spencer said as she placed the food aside to answer more questions. "The strategy with the other four, with Lex and Nicky and Candace and Shannon, was pick them up (the other Pitt players) out wide, give me time to get down there and all I was to do was just face guard her.
"Look her in the face and just try to prevent contact, move around her, dance around her because if I created contact I was dead. She could seal me out, move me out of the lane."
Spencer wanted to avoid contact to prevent Walker from feeling the defense, which allows the offensive player to decide how to move to the basket.
Walker was held to four points on four shots and three rebounds in the first half. She got loose in the second half and ended up with 19 points and nine boards, but the early struggles allowed Tennessee to build a 16-point halftime lead and neutralize a big part of Pitt's offense for 20 minutes.
"The whole point was to try to face guard," Spencer said. "The second half she started running around screens, which if it's post to post we switch but if it's guard-post I got hung up a couple of times. Once you are behind her it's hard to get around. It was very tough."
Anosike and Alexis Hornbuckle are considered the defensive stoppers on this team. Spencer taking that role was a surprise to say the least.
"Sid was outstanding for us," Parker said. "We know that she's a tough-minded player and when you give her a challenge she's going to live up to it. I think she did a great job. She took one for the team today. I'm really proud of how she played."
Spencer smiled when asked how long it had been since she had to defend so deep in the paint.
"In high school I played against a girl bigger than her and taller than her so it wasn't like I hadn't ever done it before," Spencer said. "So I drew from that knowledge and just tried to remain calm and just play basketball and keep moving and beat them down the court."
Spencer also managed to find some offense. She had 11 points and one assist. She also added three defensive boards, one block and one steal.
Parker led all scorers with 30 points – surpassing the tourney high of 28 last year against Rutgers – and added 12 boards to get her 19th double-double of the season. She also went over 600 rebounds for her career (607).
Bobbitt and Anosike had 10 points apiece to give the Lady Vols four players with double figures. They shot 50 percent as a team and shared the basketball with 19 assists on 26 field goals.
"Very, very inspired, a lot of energy both offensively and defensively and shared the basketball, played well together," Summitt said. "It's exactly what we would have hoped as a coaching staff that we'd see from our team. They provided the energy and brought the intensity and the execution, played very well together."
Pitt, 24-9, proved to be a formidable foe. The Panthers were led by Walker's 19 and Shavonte Zellous' 18 points. Xenia Stewart added nine points. Point guard Jania Sims had five assists.
Alexis Hornbuckle had six assists to go with five points, four boards and two steals, but she had her hands full with Zellous, who got her points but also needed a lot of shots (7-18). Still, Hornbuckle wasn't at all happy with her play.
"They have a very good backcourt," Hornbuckle said. "Zellous, she's a great player. And she's only, what, a sophomore? So she has room to grow and get better, which is kind of scary. It was a very tough defensive assignment for me. It was probably one of my toughest that I had all season because she can shoot inside out.
"The three if it's open she's taking it. She's going to take you off the dribble. It was a great challenge and personally I don't think I lived up to that challenge as well as I wanted to coming into the game, but that's just motivation to get better in the next few days of preparation going into the Sweet 16."
Pitt came out in the second half and scored the first eight points to cut Tennessee's lead to 40-32, and Summitt called timeout at the 18:06 mark to settle down her team. Tennessee had jumped out to a fast start in the first half – leading 23-9 at the 9:09 mark – and had sucked a lot of enthusiasm out of the home crowd.
"It was a great way to start," Summitt said. "Going into a game you never know how a team will start. Shannon, this is a big stage for her that she hasn't been on, and I was just really pleased. She channeled her energy in a very positive way."
"It was very important," Bobbitt said. "We know we were in a hostile environment and we had to get the crowd out of it early, and that's what we did."
But the second half start had the crowd on its feet and the Pitt team feeding off the energy.
"We said at halftime they're going to come out with a run, answer the run," Hornbuckle said. "We didn't expect an 8-0 run, but we knew it was going to be some type of run. We took a timeout and basically said, ‘Look, play basketball. Calm down and play basketball. Do what got us into the game the first time and what got us our lead. Get the ball inside, push tempo, be the aggressors, don't be on your heels.' And that's basically what we did."
Tennessee came out of the timeout and took the ball inside to Parker. The lead quickly went back to double digits, but Pitt wasn't done. The Panthers got the lead down to nine, 54-45, with 8:18 to play.
"The team really came together during those runs and we had Tennessee on their heels," Zellous said. "But, they found their best player, Candace Parker, and got the lead back up again."
The lead once again swelled to double digits and stayed there that time. Parker got her final bucket and the 30 points on an offensive board off a missed Bobbitt three-pointer with the shot clock nearly at zero and the game clock at five seconds. When Tennessee needed offense in the second half – 18 of Parker's points came in the final 20 minutes – the ball went to Parker.
"I feel like if we get one bucket, here comes two, here comes three, here comes four," Parker said. "We're a team of runs. I just felt it, and my team did a great job of getting me the ball."
Parker's first field goal of the game didn't come until the 7:01 mark of the first half. But Bobbitt drained three 3-pointers, and Anosike was 4-6 in the paint. Anosike also was harassing perimeter players on defense to try to prevent the ball from going inside.
"I think whenever my team tells me or shows me that they really need me on the defensive end and when there's really a lot of talk about it beforehand I just feel a greater sense of urgency to do that for my team because they actually came to me and told me they need me," Anosike said. "Like anyone else on the team when we say we need you, we need you, and I really took responsibility tonight."
Pitt, like every other team, opened up the game by doubling Parker to try to limit her touches. That left either Anosike open underneath or Bobbitt alone on the wing. Parker had four assists in the first half.
"We know facing this next couple of games that everybody thinks that it's just a one-man show, and it's not," Bobbitt said. "We have to take advantage of them leaving us open and doubling on Candace to make us more of a threat."
"It is huge for us," Parker said of offense from elsewhere on the floor. "We have a lot of different weapons and like Nicky said we ask people to do different things during different games. They have the green light because Shannon's capable of hitting the outside jump shot and Nicky is capable of posting up down low and scoring consistently. I have all the confidence in the world in how our offense is working and how we're moving the ball."
Parker also was ready to put the memory of her poor performance in the loss to LSU in the SEC tourney behind her.
"I thought coming into this game and coming into this tournament I let my team down by not bringing energy," Parker said at the post-game press conference. "Tonight my goal was just to bring energy, whether it was on the defensive end, whether it was offensively, just rebounding, blocking shots, just have a presence, because your shots aren't always going to fall so whenever they made a run I feel like my team needs me to come back and at least demand the ball and demand attention.
"If I don't get the ball then my teammates will have open looks or a drive to the basket. I feel like we did a great job tonight doing that."
Pitt Coach Agnus Berenato expressed her appreciation for her "magical group of young ladies" and the Pittsburgh community and school for the support of the team in its first NCAA Tournament.
She also expressed appreciation for Parker's game.
"Who's the best guard in the country? Candace Parker. Who's the best forward in the country? Candace Parker. Who's the best center in the country? Candace Parker," Berenato said. "I want to get one for me. How's that cloning coming?"
Summitt also expressed appreciation for Parker's performance, especially in terms of momentum heading into the Sweet 16, but she also pointed out how well Pitt played.
"I think it's good that Candace established herself on the inside, but it also good that we had this kind of win," Summitt said. "It wasn't like Pitt ever went away. They kept hanging around, and they kept making plays. That's what's postseason is all about. It's quite different from your normal season games because there's so much more at the stake, and the intensity is really a lot more keen. It is what it is and it's March Madness, and everybody's fighting on every possession."
When a reporter phrased a post-game question to Berenato to sum up the overall lasting effect for Pitt in a game it could have "easily won," Berenato seemed taken aback.
"Ow, that's a dagger," Berenato said. "Easily won? I felt like we were fighting for our life every play for 40 minutes. I do think had we not had the first eight-minute lapse and I think that first eight minutes they were enamored, maybe felt like they couldn't compete or didn't belong.
"If we didn't have that eight minutes than I think that it would have been an even game. The second half we outplayed them. The second half we scored 30, and Tennessee scored 28. But the problem was we dug ourselves too big of a hole in the beginning, and that happens with youth. I'm just really proud of our team that we didn't fold our tent up and get blown out by 50."
Tennessee was relying on Summitt's old standbys of defense and board play being crucial in postseason. Parker's 12 rebounds led both teams, and Tennessee won on the boards, 36-24. Anosike had eight, and Alex Fuller had five off the bench.
"It's something you have to do so you know it's in your head the whole game," Fuller said. "As far as our team we know that we had to rebound to win the game, and that's going to be what we have to do to win a championship."
After two rounds of upsets all over the country over the past four days, Tennessee was glad to be headed home with two wins and a scheduled date on the practice court.
"We were fully aware as a team about the upsets, but this was more about us and who we were playing," Summitt said. "We really kept the focus more on our game against Pitt, what we had to do and the home crowd. I never really worried about the crowd. I thought the crowd would motivate us as much as it would motivate their home team because we're on the road a lot with a lot of fans coming out to see us play. I liked the fact that they were going to have a lot of fans here."
Tennessee has spent the season in hostile environments, and the team never looked rattled Tuesday.
"We've played a tournament schedule," Parker said of the Lady Vols' path to the postseason.
The team was aware of all of the early round upsets, and Spencer, a senior making her last tourney run, said "it's a great relief," to be headed home knowing the next day would be spent at practice. She also noted the Lady Vols were the second Tennessee team to make the Sweet 16. The Vols got in Sunday with a win over Virginia.
"We've got a few days of practice, just get prepared for what's ahead," Spencer said.
She then reached back to retrieve her salad. She had earned every bite.
ODDS AND ENDS
BEST STORY: That told by Agnus Berenato at the post-game press conference. Assistant Coach Shea Ralph had the scout and put together a highlight film.
"They do scout clips," Berenato said of the assistants. "All her scout clips were of Candace Parker blocking shots and then just continuing with the ball and taking two dribbles and splitting two defenders behind her back and going up and dunking!
"Amazing things. And Hornbuckle getting the ball and driving and passing behind the back and Candace Parker dunking!
"I was like, ‘Shea, we can't show them that!' "
The Pitt team got the first half of the Drake game instead.
BEST HUG: That exchanged by Agnus Berenato and Danielle Donehew, UT's director of operations, at center court after the national anthem. Donehew played for Berenato when she coached at Georgia Tech.
BEST CHEST BUMP: That between Alexis Hornbuckle and Candace Parker after Pitt called timeout with Tennessee ahead, 36-21, with 1:53 left in the first half. Parker had just scored on a backdoor cut with a precision pass delivered by Hornbuckle.
ATHLETE SIGHTING: Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward was in the crowd. Ward played at Georgia.
SIGNS EVERYWHERE: The Petersen Events Center was filled with signs. Here are some of them:
"Dunk it Candace. You're my IDOL."
"Huntsville, AL loves Pitt and ESPN2"
"I Don't Know Why They Hate Us. Is It Our Ladies? Or Cuz We Got Marcedes? Baby Baby." That one took four people holding four signs and referred to Pitt player Marcedes Walker. It was a play off the rap song "Been Around the World."
"We Love Pat But Go Pitt." That one was on orange poster board with photos of Pat Summitt and Pitt logos.
"Agnus Will You Marry Me?" That was held up by a Pitt student in reference to Pitt's coach.
"Everybody Support Pitt Not Tennessee." That spelled out ESPN.
"TENNESSEE! Summitt + Parker = WIN" That also spelled out ESPN.
"I'm From Tennessee but PITT is IT." That was in the student section.
"I Go to Pitt but my Heart is with Tennessee." That one also had "CP" and "#3" in boxes. The holder wore an orange top and sat beside the other student.
"The Lady Vols Are On The Road To Another Sweet Sixteen." That sign wasn't held up until the very end.
BEST APPLAUSE: That given to Agnus Berenato and her team as they gathered at center court and waved to the crowd before leaving the floor after the game. They were applauded by everyone, including the Tennessee fans in the crowd.