"Certainly we did some good things tonight," Summitt said.
"That was a long forty-minute game," Auburn Coach Nell Fortner said.
The Lady Vols, playing for the first time at home since mid-December, led in every statistical category, including rebounds (50-38), steals (15-9), assists (19-5), three-pointers (9-2) and blocks (12-2).
"Blocks are pretty," said Lady Vol guard Alexis Hornbuckle, who had two. "If it's not you getting blocked, you're going to get hyped about it."
Several made the highlight reel. Hornbuckle missed on one swat from behind, but Alex Fuller was in front to clean up and sent the shot to the courtside seats. Candace Parker led the team with three swats, including one in the second half that was so forceful it sent the ball straight down and Parker into the basket support.
"When you see Candace or Alex or myself just smack somebody's ball out of bounds, you just get excited because that's a great defensive play," Hornbuckle said. "I get extra excited because I'm a guard."
Hornbuckle's two blocks in the first half were made for TV. The rejection sent her and the Auburn player out of bounds, and Bobbitt secured the loose ball and raced down court.
But it was Hornbuckle's second block that wowed the crowd. An Auburn player was driving to the basket from the left, and Parker was moving in from the right. But Hornbuckle swooped down the middle of the lane, got well up in the air and sent the ball to the spectators.
The crowd roared, and Parker looked around for Hornbuckle, who she playfully pushed as they both laughed. Bobbitt came over for a low-five celebration.
"Candace got mad at me, but that's OK, I still love her," Hornbuckle said. "She was on the help-side, and she wanted the block. She was being greedy."
Anosike's blocks moved her past Teresa Geter (135) and into a tie with Tamika Catchings (136) for fifth place in career blocks. Anosike's play on defense and offense was the storyline in the SEC opener.
"I was really pleased to see how Nicky Anosike came out to play," Summitt said. "I thought she just set the tone for us really at both ends of the floor. I thought it was good to see her be much more aggressive offensively without any hesitation. In the last three games she has really made a difference in our basketball games at both ends."
Anosike got the double-double with 12 rebounds. Parker also had a double-double with 18 points and 11 boards, seven of which were defensive. Hornbuckle had six rebounds with four coming on the defensive end. Baugh, despite her short minutes, still managed five rebounds with three defensive. Fuller split her four between offense and defense. Of Tennessee's 50 total rebounds, 29 came on defense.
"Our point of emphasis has been on defensive board play," Summitt said. "We've been pretty efficient on the offensive glass of late but defensively that's been our biggest challenge. That's where I thought we did a much better job."
DeWanna Bonner led Auburn with 19 points, but very few of those came against Anosike, who drew the defensive assignment.
"When she came out and was guarding DeWanna Bonner, with Bonner only scoring two field goals in the first half against her I thought she was the one that established our presence on the defensive end," Summitt said. "When you have a player do that it's like having pressure on the perimeter. It really makes everyone else step up their intensity on the defensive end, and it's glaring if they don't. I think she was the one who set the tone there and then offensively with her aggressiveness."
Anosike had two steals in the open floor that she converted into and-one plays. In one case she somehow not only got a shot off but banked it in, while being clobbered by her defender.
"She did that twice, just so you know," said Hornbuckle, who championed Anosike post-game.
Anosike is a physically imposing player. Has Hornbuckle ever collided with her in practice?
"No. Why would I do that? I'm smart. Nicky is a very strong woman," said Hornbuckle, as she turned to address Anosike. "Nick, don't get mad but you're just thick out there. You do what you do. She gets on the weights, and she's serious about getting stronger and better on and off the court, and it shows when she hits the court."
Summitt sees a physical player that has learned to play with more control, especially with the ball in her hand.
"Obviously she's physically strong, but she's running the floor hard," Summitt said. "She's very active at both ends of the floor. But the thing about her offense, while she's active, she's brought a lot of composure and she's willing to freeze the defense and then make her move, where there were times early on that I thought she rushed. She would catch it and try to create something right off. Now, she really has a lot of composure."
Auburn doubled Parker and tracked Angie Bjorklund on the perimeter but seemed defensively indifferent to Anosike, especially in the first half. Anosike made them pay for that strategy with 13 first-half points.
Anosike ended up with a career-high 20 points on short jumpers, post moves and transition baskets set up by her hustle on defense. Anosike's previous career high was 19 points against Alabama in 2005.
"We were trying desperately without telling her because we told Angie Bjorklund, she couldn't shoot a BB in the ocean so we didn't want to tell Nicky," Summitt said.
Summitt was referring to Bjorklund trying to set the school record for made three-pointers against Gonzaga. She had seven but couldn't get to eight. Unbeknownst to Summitt, however, Parker had noted Anosike's numbers at the break.
"I never really think about stuff like that, but Candace let me know at halftime so I guess I was aware of it," Anosike said.
Anosike thought she was done for the night later in the second half, but Baugh fouled out in 11 minutes of play so Anosike had to return to the game with 8:08 left and 15 points in the box score. She got the career point on a free throw.
But it was Anosike's play on defense that really affected the outcome of the game. Auburn shot 31.7 percent from the field and scored a season-low 52 points.
"Nicky did a great job just coming out with intensity and having a mindset that she was going to disrupt on the defensive end and be effective and efficient on the offensive end," Hornbuckle said.
"I think it is one of the most aggressive games that we've had and hands down it goes to Nicky. She came out here; we followed suit. She got deflections, she was getting steals, she was getting and-ones. She was an all-around player tonight and we were trying to do exactly what she was doing."
Anosike was energetic in the game but rather insouciant afterwards.
"I don't know what gets me into that mindset, but I guess I just came out and wanted to work hard and play hard, and I did it," Anosike said.
Did the conference opener get her attention?
"We definitely talked about it before the game, and we knew that this was an important game for the regular season championship, which we really want to win this year," Anosike said. "That had something to do with it."
What about guarding Bonner? Did that have something to do with it, too?
"Definitely. It was Dean's scout, and he spoke about how they needed Bonner to score big points in order for them to win," Anosike said, referring to the scouting report by Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood. "That was my assignment, and I knew couldn't let her score a lot if we were going to be successful."
Fortner noted Anosike's defense but also the length of Tennessee overall.
"She's an experienced player; she's a good defender," Fortner said. "Sometimes Pat will put her up there on the point guard. She can really change a player's game with her size and her mobility. It affected Bonner.
"I think more than anything, Tennessee's overall size and length – and when I say length, their arms and they're all 6 foot or more except for Bobbitt – and it's hard to get around that. It's hard to pass through that. We didn't do a good job of getting anything really going tonight."
Auburn did jump out to a 6-0 lead after back-to-back turnovers by Tennessee to open the game, but the Tigers were down by double digits, 17-6, with 12:29 left, and the Lady Vols were on an 19-0 run.
"I think it's very important when you play a team of Tennessee's caliber that things happen in a real positive sense for you in the first, say, eight minutes of the game so that you can get some confidence," Fortner said. "I thought things were happening like that the first four minutes of the game and then it went the other way and we couldn't get that confidence back.
"Their pressure, yes, (affected Auburn), but we missed shots. We were creating some shots, and we missed it. It affected our confidence because it's hard enough to score against Tennessee as it is, and when you create opportunities to score and you don't, then it's like, ‘Now what do we do?' Then we gave up some easy baskets to them, some open threes and offensive rebounds and it was tough."
Auburn led 6-0 at the 18:15 mark. The next basket for the Tigers didn't come until the clock had clicked to the 10:57 point in the first half. That's nearly seven minutes without scoring. It took Auburn nearly five minutes to score in the second half.
"I think it speaks to what we talked about with our basketball team," Summitt said. "First and foremost is our transition defense, our ability to commit to defending the one-on-one dribble drives. That's where I thought we started out really focused and making a lot of good one-on-one defensive stops.
"And then the high-low action and that's where Nicky really stepped up and did a good job in the middle of the floor. The other thing was doing a better job of rotating our defense. Fortunately, we didn't have to rotate as much tonight. And then the defensive rebounds. They took it to heart. We've had some pretty intense practices, and I think it's paid off. We just want to get better. We want to be a 40-minute team."
Auburn also had trouble closing out the first half. A media timeout was called at 7:30. The next stoppage in play didn't come until another media timeout with 25 seconds left.
"My bench is a little thin right now, and we got tired," Fortner said. "That last seven minutes of the first half about killed us. The last timeout was at the 25-second mark. It was tough."
Meanwhile, Summitt was getting Alberta Auguste, Sydney Smallbone, Fuller and Baugh some floor minutes. The bench scored 25 points led by nine from Smallbone and seven from Auguste. Bobbitt, Parker and Smallbone closed out the first half with three-pointers, and Hornbuckle assisted on all three.
"We're trying to get the play off the bench to be a situation that we can count on," Summitt said. "I'm still waiting for Vicki Baugh to keep herself on the court. She had a lot of reaching fouls. With that exception I thought we did a nice job off the bench.
"Alex got frustrated in the first half because she wasn't scoring, but she did much better in the second half. I thought Sydney Smallbone came in and did a nice job for us, and Alberta in terms of hitting a couple of shots off the pull-up. We're going to need our bench. It's a long season and we're going to need them ready for postseason. If by chance we have any foul situations or injuries, we have to have people ready to step in and play. If we can get them enough reps throughout the regular season I think it will help us in tournament time."
Auburn also had to play a freshman point guard, Alli Smalley, because junior Whitney Boddie has been suspended indefinitely by Fortner for academic reasons. Smalley had six rebounds, four points and four assists, but she also had nine of her team's 21 turnovers.
"It's a real tough place to open," Fortner said. "It's a tough place to play no matter when you play them, but to come in with a freshman point guard who's only started three games – this was her third start – it's tough. I think she's going to be a really good little point guard, but we have some adjusting to do to her and with the other players on the floor. We have a long way to go still."
Tennessee only had five first-half turnovers and ended with 14, a season low. Still, that number could have been less. Summitt played her youngsters a lot, especially in the second half, and moved Auguste to the point, a position she doesn't even play at practice, so Bobbitt, who still had to play 31 minutes, could get a little rest.
"Turnovers, with the exception of some late in the second half, started the first half a little shaky, I think we're being a little more efficient in our ball-handling as well," Summitt said.
Summitt will let the team take Friday off from the practice court to rest their legs, and Saturday will be used to travel to South Carolina, where the team will hold its walk-through and scout. The second SEC game for Tennessee is Sunday at 3 p.m. (TV:CSS).
Tennessee plays such a stacked non-conference schedule that some SEC games could seem like a reprieve. Summitt said the point once conference play starts is to have her team performing to her expectations, no matter if the opponent is ranked or not.
"What we're trying to do is really hold them accountable," Summitt said. "You can do that statistically. You can do that in segments. The game is typically played in four- to five-minute segments. Every time we have a segment, we want them to know, we go into the huddle, we out-scored them, say, 10-4. (We had) a situation like we got into with Notre Dame in the second half, they outscored us in a couple of those segments.
"It's accountability. Those might seem like small goals, but they are significant throughout a game when you're really trying to be as efficient as you can be. I think it's more about us. This really is more about how we come and how we play.
"We go to a zone defense, and we look like an elementary school team standing out there, not moving our feet, not being intense. So we've got a lot we can work on. We can improve in a lot of aspects of our game, particularly when we get out of our man because we're so aggressive in it."
Anosike said league play has been a topic of conversation among the team. Tennessee went through the regular SEC season undefeated last year.
"We spoke about it before the game," Anosike said. "It's another season. We get to start over. We know it was a tough loss out there at Stanford, but it's like we get to start over and go undefeated."
Fortner said her team was ready to play – she joked the best part about Knoxville was the food – but an SEC debut also causes some anxiety.
"They were really excited because they know they're going to get to eat at Calhoun's," Fortner said. "They're always excited to come here because we're going to stop at the hotel and then go eat the ribs. We like that.
"Just playing in the SEC season it always brings a little more anxiety to the team, and I would think any team, especially at the beginning of the season. You know how tough the conference is and you feel it a little bit, but we were focused and we were ready."
Tennessee was definitely ready on both sides of the ball. Hornbuckle came into this game averaging 12.2 points per game, but she only took five shots and scored seven points. But she had two steals – the first one gave her No. 300 – and she joined former Mississippi State star Tan White as the only two players in SEC history to have 1,000 points, 600 rebounds, 400 assists, 300 steals and 50 blocks.
Hornbuckle also had six assists and no turnovers – her season numbers are 58 assists to 35 turnovers – and she moved past Loree Moore into ninth place in the UT record book with 427 assists.
One of her assists came on a bounce pass to a cutting Bobbitt that split two defenders in the lane. She also got assists on feeds to Bjorklund, Parker, Smallbone and Bobbitt twice more.
"I didn't need to score. Nicky was doing it," Hornbuckle said about taking only a few shots. "If you have somebody on the floor and they're hot – any given night somebody on our team can score 20, or two people can score 20, and tonight that was Nicky and almost Candace – it's just a matter of getting them the ball and letting them do what they do.
"Tennessee is going to win at the end of the night, not Alexis. That's how I play the game."
Summitt surveys her team and sees a collection of talent that is tops in the country. She was asked about guarding against letdowns as her team moves through its conference schedule and faces both ranked teams and lesser foes.
"I think you have to be very honest with them about how you would go into a game," Summitt said. "In a situation if you think you should go in and dominate a team, you tell them. And if you don't, you're not happy, and they shouldn't be happy.
"They watch tape, and they know. There will be certain teams that they will probably get up for more than others, but we have to continue to remind them that it's one game at a time, one possession at a time.
"And if you really want to win the SEC and you want to go back and compete for a national championship, the bad habits are just as hard to break as the good ones, and we want to have good habits. Because we know in the end if we have those and we've got a very skilled basketball team – I think we are the most-talented team, and I keep telling them that – but that doesn't mean that we're the best team.
"We've got to want to be the best 40-minute team in the game."