Tennessee slips past Oklahoma

TAMPA, Fla. – Tennessee closed out the first half with a steal and three shots from the free throw line. Tennessee closed out the second half with a defensive stop after two clutch free throws. Alexis Hornbuckle figured in both plays and the result – with offensive fireworks from Candace Parker and Shannon Bobbitt – was a 70-67 win Thursday over Oklahoma.

The matchup between No. 1 Tennessee, 2-0, and No. 9 Oklahoma, 0-2, lived up to its pre-game billing with All-American performances from 6'5 Candace Parker and 6'4 Courtney Paris.

Parker scored 28 points and pulled down 15 boards; Paris got her double-double with 19 points and 16 rebounds.

But the smallest player on the floor, 5'2 Shannon Bobbitt, got loose for a career-high 27 points to give the Lady Vols an inside-outside combination that was too much for the Sooners to overcome.

When Bobbitt was asked if she took over in the second half, she said, "No, I just took what the defense gave me."

Bobbitt scored 22 of her points in the second half. Parker had 18 by halftime and was the focus of more attention by Oklahoma in the second half.

"They definitely crowded Candace, and Candace did a great job of finding me," Bobbitt said. "My teammates did a great job, and I just had to knock down the shot."

Bobbitt tied her career high with six three-pointers. Five came in the second half when Tennessee needed an offensive counterpunch to Parker.

"They were guarding Candace with a player and a half and were really trying to take away our paint passes and points," Tennessee Coach Pat Summitt said. "Shannon recognized it. Candace does a great job of inside-out. I thought we managed to kick out and get her a lot of good looks. She just knocked down shots."

Oklahoma was aware that Bobbitt could get loose, especially in big games – her threes crushed Connecticut and Rutgers last season – but the Sooners also knew they had to sag inside on Parker.

"We knew that and talked about a lot of different options, but I don't think we're going to line up and play Tennessee player for player," Oklahoma Coach Sherri Coale said. "We just give up too many inches, and we get ourselves in a bad situation. So what we were doing was very effective until Bobbitt got hot and then when we tried to change where the help was coming from, it took a little while for that to kind of sink in.

"You get a player who's immersed in their game and they're thinking about their job and now you're telling her, ‘Don't do that anymore; do this.' And again, so young with freshmen and sophomores, and that was a tough situation for them."

Coale also gave Bobbitt credit for nailing some shots even after the Oklahoma defense had shifted to her.

"She made some tough threes," Coale said. "A couple of them were wide open but some of them were really deep and somebody running at her and a hand in her face, so give her credit for making those plays."

Parker and Bobbitt both went the distance for Tennessee at 40 minutes.

"They've worked hard to be in great shape," Summitt said. "We didn't have a choice tonight. We wanted them to go the distance. I told Candace we had four timeouts, and they could call timeout if they needed a break. We wound up needing our timeouts to finish out the game. I was proud of these two. They did a great job."

Although the offensive output of Parker and Bobbitt was key to the game, Tennessee's defense decided the outcome.

Alexis Hornbuckle, who came down awkwardly after a shot in the first half and tweaked her knee, was somewhat hobbled throughout the game – she was limited to nine minutes in the first half because of foul trouble – but she came up with the points Tennessee had to have at the end.

The Sooners were up by one, 67-66, with 31 seconds to go after Paris rebounded a missed layup by Danielle Robinson and scored the putback. Hornbuckle drove to the basket on Tennessee's next possession, got fouled and made both free throws to put the Lady Vols up by one, 68-67, with 26 seconds left.

"That was just Lex attacking," Summitt said.

Hornbuckle set up the end of the first half – when Parker ended up getting two points at the line – by swiping the outlet pass after a defensive rebound by Oklahoma's Abi Olajuwon. She got the ball to Parker, who attempted a three as time expired and was fouled. Parker made two of the three free throw attempts to give Tennessee a 32-29 halftime lead.

"Not a great decision there at the end of the first half," Coale said.

It was the Lady Vol players' decision to stay in the man-to-man defense in the waning seconds of the second half when Tennessee was clinging to the one-point lead.

Summitt called timeout after Hornbuckle's free throws to talk about how to defend Oklahoma's last offensive possession.

"Our defense had to stand up," Summitt said. "They wanted to stay man to man. I thought they did a nice job. We switched up our defenses a little bit. I thought our zone gave us some good possessions, but I thought our man to man was our bread and butter."

The Sooners were unable to get off a shot. Nicky Anosike brought pressure on the perimeter and when Oklahoma found a small seam and tried to bounce a pass to Paris, Parker deflected it, and Bobbitt tied up Jenna Plumley in the scramble for the loose ball.

Coale second-guessed herself after the game for not calling timeout as the shot clock wound down with Oklahoma having trouble getting into the play it wanted.

"We had a set play called," Coale said. "I expected more of a press than we got. Jenna, anticipating the press, got the ball out of hands, then she had a hard time getting the ball back. If I had it to do over again I'd call timeout and bail them out of it. Just about the time I started to call the timeout I saw … a gap in the middle of the floor and thought here we go.

"They're going to come to her (the Oklahoma player with the ball), and she's going to bounce it to CP. Hindsight is 20-20, but I should have bailed our young guys out of that. We had a set play called, and it would have worked."

Coale meant Courtney Paris, but it was Tennessee's CP who got her hand on the ball.

"Nicky Anosike played great defense, and they tried to force it into Courtney," Parker said. "I was able to get my hand in there, and then Shannon was able to tie it up. We knew we had the possession arrow."

"Our whole team, all five of us, committed on defense at crunch time," Bobbitt said. "That's what we did and that's what we do best."

Oklahoma was able to find some holes in Tennessee's defense at times with its high-low attack and outside shooting in the second half (13-26 for 50 percent).

But the Lady Vols also recorded nine blocks with five players, Parker (4), Hornbuckle (2), Anosike (1), Alberta Auguste (1) and Alex Fuller (1), getting rejects. Anosike's swat made the Top Ten plays on SportsCenter after she sent a Paris offering back and Paris fumbled the ball out of bounds. Hornbuckle sent Plumley's fast-break attempt into the seats, and Parker managed to secure the block on Amanda Thompson and push the ball down the floor. Bobbitt hit a three-pointer before Oklahoma could match up. Fuller blocked a layup attempt by Olajuwon, and Alberta Auguste sent back a Carlee Roethlisberger jumper.

But the Sooners did not back down. The lead changed hands 14 times. The score was tied 10 times. Oklahoma led by as many as seven in the first half. Tennessee got its lead up to eight in the second half.

"Obviously good win for us, tough win," Summitt said. "Obviously proud of this team. I saw what I would call really strong character and commitment. We had to go with our veterans. Our freshmen played like freshmen, but that's OK. One game at a time. They're going to get better. With the schedule we have they don't have any choice. I thought our veterans hung tough and played well down the stretch when they had to."

Coale, after losing her veteran backcourt from last season, had to deploy her freshmen. Danielle Robinson stepped up with 14 points, four assists and four steals. With the Paris twins, Courtney and Ashley, in foul trouble at the end of the first half, Coale had to keep her three youngsters on the floor together to close out the first 20 minutes.

"Well, I'd better be. I don't have a lot of options now do I?" Coale said with a laugh when asked if she were comfortable with the trio. They're good basketball players, and they've been quick learners. They're hard workers. They have a great feel for the game. We haven't seen yet what Jenny Vining's capable of. She's still got the freshman jitters going on. We see what we have right here (motioning to Robinson). Carlee gave us good minutes when she was in tonight. She's going to be an impact as well. All three of them will play a bunch. Nobody we face is going to look quite like these two squads we've faced right out of the box so we'll be just fine."

Coale was proud of her team for not folding when Tennessee extended its lead in the second half. Anytime the Lady Vols started to muster a run, the Sooners found a way to answer back.

"I thought we played very, very hard," Coale said. "A couple of junctures in the game it could have easily gotten away from us in the first half when we had Courtney and Ashley both on the bench in foul trouble, and our bench was terrific, and they didn't let it get away.

"In the second half when they went to a zone and we failed to connect on a few possessions, it got up to six or seven and it could have gotten away but it didn't, and we fought back and made plays. I thought our young guys handled the grand stage and the pressure and everything that goes with it beautifully. I'm really, really thankful that we had this opportunity to face this team in November."

Coale agreed she'd rather start 0-2 by taking on top teams than 2-0 by laying waste to lesser opponents.

"Absolutely," Coale said. "I wouldn't trade it."

Summitt saluted the Sooners for continuing to come after Tennessee.

"They did," Summitt said. "I thought they kept the pressure on our defense trying to take us off the dribble, and they had some success with that. We broke down one on one at times. I'll have to look at the tape, but I thought 80 percent of the time our post defense did a nice job, and we did manage to limit some touches or keep some pressure on them.

"Again, I'll have to see the tape on that. At one point they had a huge rebounding advantage on us, and we managed to close in on that, but they still out-rebounded us 44-33. I think I'll take into account they shot a lot better in the second half than they did in the first."

Oklahoma finished the game shooting 42.4 percent after firing – or misfiring – in the first half at 36.4 percent. Tennessee shot 42.9 for the game – 46.2 percent to start and 40 percent in the second half.

Midway through the second half, Summitt was not pleased with the discrepancy of fouls calls, considering both teams were pounding the ball inside. She pointed out to an official that Tennessee had seven infractions to one by Oklahoma.

"Second half I thought we would never get to the free line," Summitt said. "Seemed like an eternity. We finally got there and when we did I thought that was very important for us."

Tennessee hit 9-11 free throws in the second half – two by Hornbuckle to take the lead and two by Bobbitt to extend it to three with one second remaining – and 16-23 for the game (69.6 percent).

Oklahoma got 25 chances and hit 13 of them (52.0 percent) for the game. The Sooners were 2-8 from the stripe in the first half. Parker and Vicki Baugh went up to rebound one of the misses and Parker tipped the ball, which fell through the net. Paris was initially credited with the two points, but it was changed to "team" in the final box score.

At halftime "we talked about missing free throws and how we had to take advantage of our trips to the line," Coale said. "We talked about unnecessary turnovers, which against this pressure and size it's not just the pressure in the passing lanes, it's the size of the pressure on you as well. We had to take a deep breath and handle and talked about the plays where we exploited that pressure in the first half, and that we needed to do more of that in the second. … When it's springtime, we won't be making that mistake."

Tampa is the site of the 2008 Women's Final Four in April. The ESPNU Invitational – Duke crushed South Florida in the first game, 89-52 – was intended to showcase the sport and generate some early interest. The second game certainly did that.

"The fans got an opportunity to see two icons in the sport of women's basketball go head to head on the same floor and hopefully did just exactly what ESPN and the rest of us wanted this game to do is put everybody on notice that this is the place that it's going to happen again in the spring and this is a chance of what you get to see," Coale said. "That was a pretty good basketball for the second week of the season. Courtney and Candace both lived up to their billing."

Coale had said before the game that she agreed to the games with Maryland in the Tipoff Classic and Tennessee in the Invitational because she wanted to test her team and find out exactly what the strengths and weaknesses were.

"I think we did the things we talked about in practice," Paris said. "That's our number one thing this year is trying to get better. Coach talked to us about a lot of stuff, we worked on those things, and we came out and we played better than we did last Sunday. We're proud of it but hate to lose."

The Sooners kept the orange faithful in the stands at the St. Pete Times Forum – the bulk of the 6,331 people in attendance were Tennessee fans – from ever getting comfortable about the outcome until the final seconds. Summitt appreciated the vocal support and thanked the fans.

"I didn't know we'd have that many people dressed in orange," Summitt said. "I don't know why I should doubt our fans. They're always traveling and I know we had a lot of people travel from Knoxville even.

"It was good, and obviously I think they got their money's worth. They got to see a great game and hopefully that will generate some excitement for the Final Four. I think it's a great place for the Final Four, and we hope to be back here. It's a great venue. I really like this place."


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