"If she plays that way she gives us a chance to be a much better basketball team on the offensive end. You know she is going to play defense and rebound, but we need that guard position to bring us some offense and that's what she did for us tonight. Early in the game I felt like she was trying to help run the team and look for her opportunities but also get everyone else involved."
Alexis Hornbuckle's stat line was 25 points on 9-11 shooting from the field and 5-6 from the free throw line, six rebounds, five assists, two blocks and a steal.
"I just wanted to win this game and do it the Tennessee way," Hornbuckle said. "I was very aware that I've struggled the past three times we've played against them. I just wanted to have a solid game today."
With Tennessee clinging to a one-point lead, 79-78, Hornbuckle was fouled with 13.8 seconds left as she tried to run down the clock with the ball. Nicky Anosike had grabbed a long offensive rebound and fired the ball to Hornbuckle. She hit both free throws to give Tennessee an 81-78 lead.
"She played well," North Carolina Coach Sylvia Hatchell said. "She really had a great game. She only missed two shots the whole game. That may be the best game she's ever played. She was really solid."
But Hornbuckle nearly undid her best offensive work of the season – she was just four points shy of her career high 29 against LSU last season – with an overly aggressive defensive move with five seconds to go.
North Carolina freshman Rebecca Gray got the ball near the top of the key on the Tar Heels' last possession after the Hornbuckle free throws and launched a three-point attempt with five seconds left. Gray missed long, but Hornbuckle fouled her on the arm.
"Not again," Hornbuckle said when asked what went through her head after the foul call, referring to her foul on UConn's Ann Strother on a three-point attempt with the clock winding down when Hornbuckle was a freshman that could have, but did not, cost Tennessee the game. "I did it at UConn. It's a scary moment. I am such an intense player that I think that every shot that goes up I have to contest it. Every time there's a loose ball I'm going to dive on the floor.
"I should have just let it go to see if she was going to make it or not. I would have been heartbroken if I was the reason that we lost."
Gray, a freshman, made the first free throw but left the second one well short, much to the delight of most of the 16,845 fans in attendance. She intentionally missed the third one, but the ball never hit the rim, and Tennessee was awarded possession. Anosike fired the out-of-bounds pass to Hornbuckle, who had broken free down court, and she scored a layup to secure the game's final margin, 83-79.
Another player was looking for some redemption in this game on the other side of the ball. North Carolina's Erlana Larkins was held to four points in the Final Four loss to Tennessee last April. She led her team Sunday with 22 points and 15 rebounds, 10 of which came on the offensive glass.
"I was a little bit disappointed in my play the last time we met Tennessee, so I was telling myself that I wouldn't let that happen again," Larkins said.
Tennessee, 6-0, essentially couldn't keep the ball out of the hands of Larkins, who took 18 shots and made 10 of them.
"We really didn't have the answer for Erlana Larkins," Summitt said. "They do a great job of getting on the boards and pushing tempo and getting Larkins the ball."
North Carolina, 9-1, crushed Tennessee on the boards, 57-39.
"We only had 13 offensive boards," Summitt said. "When you're shooting 43 percent (the Lady Vols shot 43.8 percent for the game), you've got to have more than that. When Nicky went out, that hurt us. I thought Alberta (Auguste) came in and played solid defense but she had defensive rebounds, not offensive rebounds. The only people that really did that were Candace and Alexis, and we have to have more people committed."
Anosike got in early foul trouble in both halves and missed long stretches of action. Her absence takes out Tennessee's most physical inside player.
"When we don't have Nicky on the court with us rebounding goes way down," Hornbuckle said. "She does a tremendous job of getting to the boards every time and being physical, and we needed somebody to match their physicality that they were presenting to us."
Hatchell noted the rebounding edge and points in the paint and said the Tar Heels should have won the game. She said the Lady Vols' edge at the free throw line was the reason why Tennessee won and her post-game remarks were a familiar refrain – implied references to the officiating.
"Anytime you win the boards like we did and score that number of points in the paint, you should win the game," Hatchell said. "Hopefully we'll get a chance to play again."
North Carolina got 60 points inside to 32 for Tennessee.
"The fact that we had 60 points in the paint and they had 32, that's sort of hard for me to figure out why they went to the foul line so much more than we did, but they did," Hatchell said.
With Anosike out with foul trouble, Tennessee played softer inside. Candace Parker contested many interior shots by standing with her arms extended, as she didn't want to draw any contact and risk a foul call. With Anosike becoming a spectator, Parker had to stay in the game.
"The biggest difference was rebounding; we had 57 and they had 39, and I was really, really pleased with that," Hatchell said. "I told my players that rebounding would be the key to the game. Hopefully, we'll get to play again like last year. We played early and then we played again."
North Carolina was 8-15 from the line. Tennessee was 20-26. Hatchell saw that as key to the game.
"The foul line," Hatchell said. "The numbers don't lie. You can look at this and read it. But we made a lot mistakes that we will correct."
In reality, the Tar Heels play a bruising and physical style of basketball that suits them well but can send the opposing team to the line. Parker, who accounted for 14 of the 26 attempts, was repeatedly knocked to the floor on her way to the hoop.
Hornbuckle went to the line six times, and the last two were because North Carolina fouled her to stop the clock. Anosike and Shannon Bobbitt both ended the game with four fouls each, and, as a team, Tennessee was whistled 16 times.
Larkins, a physically imposing player in the paint, was whistled for just one foul out of the Tar Heels' 22 team fouls. North Carolina had two perimeter players foul out in point guard Cetera DeGraffenreid and small forward Rashanda McCants, who reached around and fouled Parker from behind to pick up number four. McCants' fifth foul was the intended one on Hornbuckle. DeGraffenreid, a freshman playing on the road for the first time, picked up her fouls going head to head with Bobbitt.
It was a game of heavyweights in women's basketball who could very well meet again with more at stake – just like last season – though Hornbuckle has apparently seen too many postseason surprises in her career.
"With the NCAA you never know," Hornbuckle said. "I'll just leave it at that."
Hatchell lauded the tempo of the game and the score. She had said in her pre-game teleconference that games in the 40s and 50s were not pleasant to watch.
"I hope you were impressed with my team tonight, because I sure was," Hatchell said. "We were down several times by eight, 10 points, and we were very, very competitive. We fought back. We fought really hard, and we were in a position to win the game.
"I thought it was a great game for women's basketball. Pat and I have been coaching for a long time, and that's one thing I am doing right now, is promote the game of women's basketball. This game tonight was a national championship game. That's the way it was played. Great athletes, up and down the court, high scoring. This was great for the game of women's basketball."
Tennessee kept building leads on North Carolina – 10 points in the first half and 13 points in the second half – but the Tar Heels kept getting back in the game.
The Lady Vols were happy to get the win, but they came out of the North Carolina game with other lessons to absorb.
"We learned a lot about ourselves," Parker said. "We realized at the end we can't get frazzled. We went up on them by 10, 11 and 12 points, and we just let them come back in it and just relaxed. We can't do that. That's when you extend the lead. All of us need to be put in those situations in practice and fight through them."
Summitt cited late game management as the first order of business in practice this week. She will use Monday for weightlifting and film session and then practice Tuesday. With a game Wednesday against Old Dominion and with several players logging extensive minutes Sunday – Parker and Hornbuckle both went 39 – the Lady Vols need to save their legs.
Tennessee allowed the 30-second shot clock to tick down too low several times late in the game and either had a shot clock violation, turnover or rushed shot.
"I thought late game we had poor game management," Summitt said. "That's where I'm going to have to work with Shannon in that situation. She was not as comfortable, but it's been awhile since she's been in that situation. She handled it well against Oklahoma, but it wasn't quite the environment that she was playing in tonight.
"There was no awareness of shot clock and she said afterwards, ‘Coach, I just need to work on this.' I think she was coming down the floor as if we weren't working against the time, and we were. It was obvious that we needed to get into what we wanted to run in the half-court game, but she's going to learn. Fortunately we got a win, and she will watch the tape with me (Monday), and we're going to learn a lot. She said, ‘I need it.' It's been awhile since we've been in that situation."
Bobbitt accepted responsibility in the post-game press conference.
"Just come back to practice and work on it," Bobbitt said. "We're going to have the shot clock down to 15 seconds (in practice), and I'm going to start being aware of it."
Bobbitt played 37 minutes Sunday and seemed to get out of sorts late when the tempo slowed following what had been a track meet for most of the game.
"North Carolina is a good team, and they're going to come up here and be up-tempo," Bobbitt said. "We just had to match their intensity. That's my type of game. I'm only 5'2 so I don't play a slow game."
Parker had to overcome a slow start – she had six points in the first half on 2-8 shooting – and a poor shooting night. She finished 5-16 from the field and got most of her points by getting fouled on moves to the basket.
"It was tough," Parker said. "In the first half I was disappointed in myself because I don't think my energy was were it was supposed to be, and I think it took away from my team.
"In the second half I told myself the shots aren't going to fall, but I can rebound, I can deny, I can get out and get steals. I generated some runs. I know I have grown as a player, because I think last year I would have quit. I'm happy my teammates kept me in it and kept me involved. There was a lid on the basket, but we pulled out the victory so I am happy."
Parker had 21 points and 16 rebounds – she now is averaging double digits in boards at 10.2 per game and hit the target number for this game that Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood had set – and she also added five assists, four steals and three blocks.
North Carolina's strategy was to guard Parker with one person and then bring one or two help defenders as she got the ball and pivoted to the basket to bottle her up on the low block. Angie Bjorklund, who had five points, was being tracked on the perimeter. That opened up some shots and lanes of penetration for Hornbuckle.
"It was huge – her energy in the first half and knocking down shots," Parker said of Hornbuckle's performance. "I was really proud of how she played on both ends."
North Carolina got 19 points from McCants, though she needed 24 shots to get them; 14 points from Jessica Breland; and 10 from LaToya Pringle. DeGraffenreid added seven points but also had seven turnovers and no assists.
"I thought starting the game Cetera was very nervous and very scared," Hatchell said. "She didn't play like she had been playing. That's why I substituted her pretty early, but she settled down."
When DeGraffenreid fouled out with 6:28 to go, Tennessee led 74-61, and the game was seemingly over. But McCants scored nine straight points – including North Carolina's only three-pointer of the game; the Tar Heels were 1-10 behind the arc – and suddenly it was 74-70.
Tennessee pushed the lead back out to seven points, but Carolina clawed back and with back-to-back steals by McCants and Italee Lucas – DeGraffenreid's replacement – the Tar Heels were within one before Hornbuckle secured the game at the free throw line.
"I thought my team competed hard; we were in a position to win the game," Hatchell said. "We're going to get a lot better because I had a lot of young kids out there tonight; a lot of young players, especially at key positions. For us to come into a place like this against the No. 1 team in the country and be in a position to win and keep fighting back … we're going to get a lot better.
"There were several time-score situations that we had not practiced, to be honest with you, because of our youth, and we've also had four games in eight days. I'm not making excuses. I'm just trying to give you some information."
Summitt sees a team that is also getting the ball into the paint in the half-court game.
"They're going inside to Erlana more," Summitt said. "She's getting a lot more touches. I think that gives them an anchor. I think McCants and Pringle are really tough. Their guard play is young, but they do a great job of pushing the ball down and getting the ball in to the right people's hands.
"They did a tremendous job of getting the ball inside and working the glass. We couldn't move them inside or didn't move them. I've got a lot of film to watch. I'm sure I won't be feeling very good about it."
Anosike, the player who could most affect inside play, played 20 minutes because of foul trouble. Alex Fuller, who had nine points and two rebounds, played well in relief. Freshman Vicki Baugh played four minutes in the first half and had two blocks, but Summitt opted to stay with Fuller and then Anosike when she returned.
"She and Alex were both very efficient," Summitt said. "If it ain't broke don't fix it. Our situation in the post was we had stability with Nicky in the post game. It made all the difference in the world in our defense and our offense. I never thought, ‘I need to substitute to get somebody playing time.'
With the announcement Sunday that freshman center Kelley Cain will need knee surgery, the development of Baugh this season will be key.
"Obviously we have to have another post player, and that's where Vicki Baugh has got to get better," Summitt said. "We have to be able to play her and tonight I wasn't as comfortable to play Vicki. Hopefully we will have some games that we can get quality playing time so that Vicki Baugh can help us in postseason."
Tennessee got 18 points from the bench – the nine from Fuller and another nine from Alberta Auguste, who was 3-6 from the field and hit a three-pointer.
Summitt outlined what the team had to work on – rebounding is, once again, a major concern – but she also expressed pride in her players.
"I'm really proud of our basketball team," Summitt said. "As I told them it was a game of runs. I felt like we were getting up and North Carolina never went away. They did a great job of coming at us with their guard play. … Overall I was just really pleased with our toughness down the stretch.
"We found a way to win."