Tennessee, 8-0, was whistled for 20 fouls. Middle Tennessee, 3-5, compiled 31 infractions with nearly half of those, 15, coming from trying to guard Candace Parker, who tied a career-high with 34 points.
Three Blue Raiders, Emily Queen, Brandi Brown and Angelique Burtts, fouled out. Two Lady Vols, Angie Bjorklund and Nicky Anosike, ended the game with four fouls. In the late minutes of the second half, rather than fight for a loose ball, Bjorklund just backed up and held up her arms.
The most-serious incident of the evening left Shannon Bobbitt with seven stitches in her forehead and, oddly enough, no foul call. She left the floor with a blood-soaked towel on her face and was taken directly to the locker room for an exam by the team's physicians. Four people were needed to wipe the blood off the floor under the basket. The fans, already ready to draw blood because of the persistent whistles, lustily cheered every time a Middle Tennessee player fouled out and booed the officials with abandon.
Bobbitt got hooked by a defender under the basket while battling for a rebound and took a shot to the forehead.
"She's going to be fine," Summitt said. "Right now she's a little dizzy. I didn't see it happen, but she had a pretty tough blow to the head and a pretty good little gash there. I'm sure she'll probably have a headache."
Parker benefited the most from the plethora of whistles. Middle Tennessee didn't have a defender who could guard her one on one, and she took the ball to the rim with two players draped to her like ornaments on a Christmas tree. Brown, who had four fouls in the first half, Queen and Burtts all fouled out trying to guard her.
Middle Tennessee Coach Rick Insell had no complaints post-game.
"I'm not going to say a whole lot about that because we're very aggressive, and we do foul," Insell said. "They knocked down their free throws. They got more opportunities than us, and they probably deserved more opportunities than us just to be honest with you. We've had games that went that way with us, too."
Parker tied a school record for made free throws with 17, and now shares that place in the record book with Bridgette Gordon. Parker broke Gordon's record for free throws attempted with 21. Gordon's records (17-20) were set March 25, 1989, against Long Beach State.
"We knew that we had a significant size advantage coming into this game," Parker said. "They're a team that is real feisty, likes to press, likes to run. We knew that we wanted to get paint points whether passing down into the posts or the guards penetrating. So I think we did a good job of that. Free throw shooting came in handy."
"We just wanted to come off the bench with energy," Fuller said. "Pat's been harping on us in practice that we need to do more. We need to give more to our team when we come in. So we just wanted to keep the energy up."
Insell noted the contributions that Tennessee got from the bench during his post-game remarks and made a comparison to Maryland, a team that Middle Tennessee lost to earlier this month by five points.
"Maryland's got a great team, also," Insell said. "The thing Tennessee does is they throw 10 players at you. Maryland threw five players at us. When they put their second-line players in we were able to kind of do more with them.
"Tennessee puts a kid in, they're as good or better. And that's what you hope you get when you bring someone off the bench, and Pat's got that luxury. You've got to have some luck, of course, and you've got to stay healthy, and if they do they're going to make it hard on people."
Tennessee actually only has nine players on the playing roster – Cait McMahan and Kelley Cain are rehabbing knee injuries – but when Fuller, who is 6'3, and Vicki Baugh, who is 6'4, come off the bench it might seem like more. Baugh didn't attempt a shot but pulled down five rebounds and had a nifty assist to Fuller with a sideways flip pass.
Summitt thought Tennessee's height advantage and the bench play were keys to the outcome.
"The size and also the fact that we spread our minutes out," Summitt said. "I liked the fact that (Sydney) Smallbone had 15, Vicki Baugh had 14, Alberta (Auguste) had 21, Alex had 21. I thought the staff did a good job of keeping the players fresh, and that really helped us being able to press as much as we pressed and obviously push tempo."
Tennessee's press was effective in disrupting Middle Tennessee's offense. The Blue Raiders sometimes lost half of the 30-second shot clock trying to get the ball across mid-court. Summitt said the intention was to keep them from getting comfortable.
"I think it put them in late-second situations, and they played pretty well out of those late seconds, but I think also when we keep the pressure on, it does start to wear on teams," Summitt said. "I just felt like we had to because if they can push it and get in their half-court offense they have been very efficient from the three, and they've got good penetration players.
You look at Amber and what she's able to do. She can create not only for herself but other players. They shoot the three ball, and they're very committed to it, so that stretches your defense. So I think it did help us to be able to slow the ball down and get the clock down."
Amber Holt led Middle Tennessee with 28 points, five assists, four rebounds and two steals. She also played the entire game. WNBA scouts from the Connecticut Sun and Seattle Storm were on press row, and Holt was one of the players they were watching.
"She's just a competitor," Summitt said. "She's got a lot composure, even in late seconds. I thought Amber made good decisions. She a tough player to guard. The best way to guard her is to limit touches and limit what she's able to do offensively because she is a very efficient player. Only one turnover in that game. That says something about her game."
Holt is clearly the go-to player on her team, but Insell said it was important for her to work with her teammates to ensure her success.
"Amber trusted them," Insell said. "That's one of the things we talked about is for her to have trust in them and then they've got to reward her when she trusts them. I thought they all did a good job."
Holt made 2-3 shots from three-point range. She also got to the free throw line 11 times and made 10. She can put the ball on the floor and drive to the basket or hit the short jumpers.
"Like Coach said, I have to trust in my teammates," Holt said. "When I come out to shoot the three they have to guard that and when they shut that down, that's when I can drive or pass to my teammates."
She smiled about Summitt's remarks that the best defense is to try to keep the ball out of her hands.
"That's the best thing to do is not to let me get it because something is going to happen," Holt said.
Insell added, "And most of it is going to be good. Sometimes there's a little negative in there, but we're proud to have her."
The final score was not indicative of how close the game was for the first 34 minutes. Middle Tennessee jumped out to a 14-6 lead after hitting its first four three-pointers.
"Mental breakdowns," Hornbuckle said with a shake of her head. "I know I had a couple of them, like helping off in the paint. Post player has the ball, and you're trying to help – it's an instinct – and they kick out to a great shooter. Really scouting report defense, we could have paid closer attention to it, me personally."
Starr Orr drained her first three 3-pointers – she finished with 11 points and was 4-7 from long range – to open the game. She came into the game 1-5 from behind the arc.
"We've been waiting for Starr Orr to break out," Insell said. "She came out and shot the ball as smooth as she did early, we thought this is going to be a great night. She's got to continue that. She's the leading scorer in the history of Alabama high school. She scored 4,000 points in high school, and we've got to get her doing that here. She can score.
"We've just got to get her taking more shots. Great quickness also and a good team player. Sometimes she's too unselfish. We'd like for her to be a little selfish."
Lanning ended up having to play 23 minutes and went inside to try to help handle Parker. She ended the game with four fouls.
"We asked Anne Marie Lanning to go inside and do some things that we haven't worked on and she hasn't worked on, and she doesn't need to be in there," Insell said. "Our young ladies played hard. I'm proud of them. They didn't quit. They didn't give up. Tennessee's got the best team in the country. What can you say? They played hard and I'm just really, really proud of our players at Middle Tennessee State."
Tennessee's lead at halftime was a slim 39-30. Orr had 12 points for the Blue Raiders at the break on the strength of four 3-pointers.
The Lady Vols opened the second half by getting called for five fouls to none for Middle Tennessee. Bjorklund picked up her fourth foul while blocking out and having a Blue Raider tumble over her from behind. Later in the game a Blue Raider was called for an intentional foul on Parker that baffled everyone. Those calls epitomized the way the game was officiated – haphazard and with no discernible pattern.
"You know that you definitely have to go up strong and you have to protect yourself," Parker said. "You have to stay low and play aggressive. That's what we did. I think we did it better in the second half in terms of getting to the free throw line. Defense-wise we had to adjust how we played because of how the game was called. I think we did a good job adjusting to the early fouls (called in second half)."
Middle hit six 3-pointers in the first half and five more in the second half to finish 11-24 from long range. Overall, the Blue Raiders shot 20-55 (36.4 percent).
"We had a lot of breakdowns defensively in our switches and not really covering three-point shooters as tight as we needed to," Summitt said. "Let's give MTSU credit because Middle Tennessee does a great job with their spacing. They managed to take advantage of that with their ball movement, inside-outside action.
"But I thought in the second half our defense really picked up the intensity and guarded the three-ball a lot better. Really pleased, too, we got some good minutes off our bench. We're going to have to have that as we move forward and take the road here next week."
Tennessee was 4-10 from behind the arc and 26-55 overall (47.3 percent). The Lady Vols dominated on the boards, 47-26. Their overall plus margin on the boards went from 0.7 before the game to 3.1.
"Good effort," Summitt said. "We had a size advantage so I would have been really disappointed if we hadn't have had an edge in that aspect of the game. Overall I thought we made an effort to rebound the basketball. I know from the defensive standpoint just getting our players that particularly play on the perimeter to do a better job, that's where I think we can get a lot better."
Bjorklund only had two boards, but foul trouble also limited her to 18 minutes. Hornbuckle had four rebounds, two below her average, but she had to play more minutes at the point position with Bobbitt in the locker room getting her forehead closed. Anosike also went to the perimeter some on defense to pester the three-point shooters. Overall, Summitt lauded the board play.
Fuller "had seven boards," Summitt said. "I thought she was very efficient, and to see her get on the glass is good news for us. Nicky had eight. Candace had 13, and Alexis had four. I think her being on the perimeter a little more probably took her off the boards. I was pleased overall with our rebounding."
Insell noted that his team could stay on the boards with the Terrapins but were overmatched against the Lady Vols.
"We out-rebounded Maryland," Insell said. "We can hang our hat on that. But we didn't out-rebound Tennessee. They're just so big and strong. When you send Anosike to the boards and then you bring Fuller in, you've got Parker in there, too, with her length, just so smooth around the rim.
"Our kids, we block you out but when they can jump and they are as athletic as they are it's kind of tough. We could have done a little better job, and I think a month from now, two months from now we'll be better at it but right now we were not able to challenge them inside on the boards at all. Amber's got great vertical, but she can only do so much."
Hornbuckle can always be relied on to get on the boards and defend. She also usually leads the team in deflections and tips. One of Fuller's seven boards came from a tip from Hornbuckle, who couldn't reach the ball with her hand but managed to get her fingertips on it and deliberately directed the ball to Fuller. But Hornbuckle is also becoming a steady offensive player. She was 6-9 from the field and hit both three-point attempts.
"I think Alexis is playing with a lot of confidence," Summitt said. "She's playing very much under control and when she does that we're a different basketball team because she can score for us. I like her efficiency. That makes a tremendous difference for us because you've got to guard five players."
Hornbuckle is leading the team in shooting percentage at 54.4 percent. She is hitting 43.8 percent from behind the arc.
"I think I'm playing within myself a lot more, not trying to force things and just feeding off of my teammates really," Hornbuckle said. "If I'm open I'll take it. If I have to drive I'll take it. I think the more you're unselfish, the easier it is to score."
Bobbitt was averaging double digits but was scoreless in this game. She misfired on two shots but did have four assists. She didn't return to the bench after the blow to the head.
"Shannon Bobbitt, double zero, she will be OK," Hornbuckle said. "It's just a little incident, a little blood. She's a soldier."
A little blood?
"That's an understatement," Hornbuckle said.
Middle Tennessee took several proverbial blows from Tennessee but stayed in the game. With 7:52 to play the Blue Raiders were within five points, 58-53, after back-to-back three-pointers by Holt and Abney, who assisted on each other's baskets.
"To be honest with you I really was not surprised because I felt like we had some good looks earlier and didn't knock some shots down and then we did knock shots down and got back in the game," Insell said.
"But that's when Parker took over. She's a great player. What can you say? She went in and got the job done. Anosike went to the boards and it was kind of tough going to the boards with just Amber Holt in there. They did what they had to do. That's why they are a championship team, and we're a young team. We're going to get better, and our young ladies are going to grow up."
In the span of two minutes Parker got to the line on six possessions to either shoot two or convert the "and one" play. Brown was already out. That's when Burtts and Queen fouled out trying to guard her.
Anosike, Fuller and Hornbuckle got to the line on the next three possessions and suddenly Tennessee was up by 23 points, 78-55, with 4:39 left to play.
"We had the advantage on the inside," Summitt said. "I thought we didn't settle for fall-aways and face-up game. We really went on the block and scored. Candace stepped up big for us. I thought Nicky Anosike was really efficient in her play, just passing and spacing. We got a lot of good play and some good balance from some other players as well."
One of the players providing some of that balance was Fuller, who played for Insell when he coached at Shelbyville Central High School. Fuller hugged her old coach after the game.
"I just look at it as any other game," said Fuller, whose performances in the two games against Middle Tennessee say otherwise. "Try to come in and help my teammates out."
In last season's game against Middle Tennessee, Fuller said she recognized the opponent's sets and was calling them out to her teammates.
"Not necessarily the terminology but the plays and they're pretty much the same from high school from what I remember," Fuller said.
Fuller didn't have to audible in the second game.
"They knew them," Fuller said.
"Dean is very thorough," Parker said, referring to the scouting report provided by Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood, whose attention to detail, stories and analogies are becoming team lore.
Insell said he was proud of how Fuller has performed in college. He also is a Tennessee fan when he is not playing the Lady Vols.
"I was on the second row hollering my guts out for Tennessee last year at the Final Four," Insell said. "I couldn't be there with my team, so I was there supporting Pat, Alex and the rest of the young ladies.
"We're going to shoot for it again this year. We're not going to back off. You never know what's going to happen when you get in the tournament, but if not I'll be on the second row again. I may have to borrow a ticket from somebody in here, but I will be there."