In the second half the Lady Vols looked for Candace Parker, and she took over on the blocks.
"We got a lot of points in the paint, did a better job of getting the ball inside," Coach Pat Summitt said. "Obviously Parker went to work and Alexis, with her scoring opportunities, we wanted to post her up a little bit more. I thought she did a great job of finishing. Really tried to be more aggressive both in the open court and in the half court."
Alexis Hornbuckle, who took just one shot in the first half, ended up 4-8 and scored 10 points to join Parker in double figures.
Kentucky was led by Samantha Mahoney, who had 12 points. Senior center Sarah Elliott, who was not expected to play, started and had seven points and four rebounds in 18 minutes of play. Freshman point guard Amber Smith added nine points – she lofted several rainbow floaters over Parker in the lane – and six rebounds.
"She's pretty tall," Smith said. "I was looking up to her. Candace Parker is a great player."
The 5'5 Smith found herself in the unusual position of being taller than Tennessee's point guard, the 5'2 Shannon Bobbitt.
"I didn't know I was taller than her. I was thinking about posting her up, but I didn't do that," Smith said with a smile.
Bobbitt was 0-4 from behind the arc and typified Tennessee's tough shooting night in the first half. She finished the game on the bench with her left thumb in a cup of ice after slipping near the end of the second half and calling timeout from the floor.
"She got her fingernail bent back," Summitt said. "She was in pain on the bench. That's why I took her out."
Bobbitt, who is expected to be OK, wasn't the only one struggling from behind the arc. The two teams combined to start 0-13 from three-point range. Kentucky finished 2-14.
Angie Bjorklund broke through for Tennessee with 4 minutes remaining in the game for the Lady Vols' lone long-range basket. The last time Tennessee didn't hit at least one three-pointer was against Florida on Jan. 21, 1999, so the streak continues at 318 games.
"I realized Shannon couldn't shoot the ball very well tonight, and we rely on Shannon to make some threes," Summitt said. "I think we had some looks, but they didn't go down. I had a flashback of practice today. I don't think she (Bobbitt) made a shot from the corner."
Parker said Tennessee's primary problem was allowing Kentucky to set the tempo. The methodical pace seemed to sap the Lady Vols, and the sweltering temperatures inside Memorial Coliseum didn't seem to help.
"We came into the locker room and we realized that we were drained for some reason," Parker said. "We didn't have any energy. We realized the last two games that South Carolina and Kentucky have really tried to slow down the tempo and that doesn't allow us to get our easy buckets off our defense.
"We realized that we had to get out there and somehow find the energy. I think that was the answer to our so-called shooting slump."
Parker was 3-6 in the first half and finished 10-14 from the field and 3-5 from the free throw line.
"We were running at her to double-team," Kentucky Coach Matthew Mitchell said. "It's a little bit more difficult to double-team her. In the low post, when we double-teamed her they started running her to the high post and running a ball screen, getting a bad match-up (for Kentucky), and we switched the ball screen and then we tried to adjust to that, and then adjustment time was over."
Parker used an assortment of shots to get to the rim with drives to the basket, up-and-under moves and step-throughs. She also hit from the outside.
"I can talk all night long," Mitchell said about the ability of Parker to change the course of a game. "I don't want to keep you guys here all night long. I thought when she really asserted herself there in the second half there was not a lot we had as an answer.
"When they did start flashing her to the high post and getting her on the right elbow with the ball in her right hand, we were trying to force her back to the middle and she just took a couple of dribbles … . She just has the ability to not only score in the low post, but she can make contested shots outside. When she got that going we had a tough time."
Freshman forward Vicki Baugh added seven points and five boards off the bench. With Alex Fuller held out because of knee soreness, the two freshmen and Auguste comprised Tennessee's substitutes. All eight available players logged minutes and scored. Bjorklund finished with five points, and Nicky Anosike chipped in with six points. Bobbitt had four.
Baugh was the only post player available off the bench and put her 16 minutes to good use.
"She seemed more comfortable," Summitt said. "We've got to get her ready. I keep saying postseason. That means by the SEC Tournament and NCAA play. I think she's getting more comfortable, and she just needs more reps offensively."
Baugh got a vote of confidence from Parker, who has been helping the forward this season. Baugh never played in the post in high school.
"I love Vicki Baugh," Parker said. "She's got a lot of heart, a lot of effort. I think she's doing a great job of being active and when she gets the ball in the post turning and making a move quick."
Tennessee needed a spark in the second half, and Hornbuckle provided it with defensive pressure. With the Lady Vols hanging on to a 10-point lead, 44-34, with just under 10 minutes to go in the game, Mahoney stole the ball and scooted down court with only Hornbuckle back. Hornbuckle stripped the ball as Mahoney drove to the basket and an opportunity to reduce the lead to single digits was squandered.
Within six minutes, Tennessee led 57-38 with 4 minutes remaining after Bjorklund's three that came off an assist from Hornbuckle.
"I thought Alexis played well at both ends," Summitt said. "She did some good things defensively but looking at what she did offensively she got us going. We ran some sets to her. I liked the fact that she was efficient when we did that.
"She's the type of player when you need the ball she's going to come up with it. I told her, ‘Lex you've got to get us going on the defensive end.' She certainly did. I thought she was really big in that regard."
Hornbuckle was credited with one steal for the game. That moved her into a tie with Chamique Holdsclaw for third place in the record books with 305 steals. She needs 29 more takeaways to break Bridgette Gordon's record of 333, which has stood for 19 years.
"Alexis always seem to, whenever we need her to, make a spectacular play on the offensive end or defensive end," Parker said. "That sparked a run. We needed to find energy from something, and I think we found it from that.
"I felt like in this game, especially in the first half, 10 points was a large lead, with the way the game was going. In the second half we got out to a big lead and starting scoring buckets easily and pressuring them defensively."
Tennessee got its third conference win to remain undefeated in SEC play – the average margin of victory has been 23.7 points – but the rebounding remains sporadic. The Wildcats won on the boards, 36-28.
Parker had six rebounds at the break and added one more in the second half to finish with seven. The rebounding opportunities were lessened by Tennessee's 58.1 percent in the second half – the Lady Vols finished the game at 50 percent – and Kentucky's 25 total turnovers, but Tennessee continues to break down when it comes to boxing out.
"I thought they played good defense on us and kept us off the glass," Summitt said. "I'm not convinced that we were really persistent in going to the boards hard. Sometimes we stand around and watch Candace Parker play, and we watch her rebound. That's something we have to get better effort out of our team across the board. Our guards have to rebound better."
Mitchell agreed his team could look at the board totals as a positive, but the turnovers also stood out to him.
"I guess when you step back and look at it, but we clearly want to be a good rebounding team," Mitchell said. "There are three things in this conference: You have to give great effort for 40 minutes. You have to rebound in this conference to be successful. You have to take care of the basketball.
"We wanted to win tonight and we wanted to come out and execute at a level to win the game; rebounding was a part of it. That part of it we did pretty well in. But we didn't take care of the basketball with 25 turnovers. You can't beat the No. 2 team in the country when you turn it over like that. I didn't think that we gave enough effort over 40 minutes. About 32 minutes is what it looked like to me so that's not going to get it done."
Summitt also is seeking sustained effort; however, Tennessee's short roster means the players have reverted to the habit of pacing themselves, much as they did last season. That team turned it on in the NCAA tourney, but Summitt doesn't want to live on the edge. She expected Kentucky's best shot. What she watches is how her team responds.
"Everybody plays hard against us," Summitt said. "The challenge for coaches is to make sure you don't pick and choose when you play hard. Anytime we take the court we bring out the best in everyone. We know we're going to get their best shot because we are Tennessee.
"As coaches, we try to convince players and inspire players to play hard regardless of the opponent and not play the scoreboard. We've had some situations this year where I didn't feel like we were playing hard for 40 minutes. That's because we know at times we're in situations where we can get away with it. I'm just trying to get our team to understand come postseason you're not going to get away with it and if you're not on your ‘A' game for 40 minutes then you may go home early. We're constantly trying to stress that point."
The Lady Vols were well received in Lexington with Summitt getting a sustained ovation from the Kentucky crowd, which numbered 7,278, when she walked onto the court. Mitchell was a graduate assistant under Summitt at Tennessee in 1999-2000.
"I've known Matthew for a long time," Summitt said. "He worked with me at Tennessee and he's a great friend. We talk occasionally and I'm here for him if there is anything that I can ever do to help him other than give him a basketball game. I thought his team played really hard and I think he has to be proud of the intensity and the effort they brought. I want to see Matthew be successful here at Kentucky. This is obviously a state where they love basketball."
Mitchell, who is in his first year at Kentucky, has gotten the same advice from Summitt that she gives other young coaches: Go get the best players you can. Summitt learned that Mitchell had a way with words when he was tardy for a session at one of her summer camps.
"When we work camp I have a policy of if you're late, you're fired," Summitt said. "And he was late. I knew he could really talk and convince people to do things that they normally wouldn't (when) I didn't fire him. I didn't make him go home. Since then I've fired a lot of other people but Matthew was very convincing, so I'm sure he'll be a great recruiter if he can convince me to not send him home when he's late."
The last time Tennessee played in Lexington in 2006, the Wildcats prevailed 66-63. This game was never really in doubt, although Kentucky did stay within striking distance for about 32 minutes.
"We're very disappointed with how the game ended up obviously," Mitchell said. "We came into the game wanting to win the game and didn't get that done tonight. But Tennessee has a heck of a team and I just wish we could have competed a little bit harder down the stretch and given ourselves a chance to win, and we really didn't do that tonight."
The loss two years ago – the first for Kentucky over Tennessee in 20 years – made headlines for the rest of the season. That defeat, combined with a later loss to Florida, was believed to have cost Tennessee a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tourney.
"We realized a lot was made out of that," Parker said. "A lot of us remember being on the court watching them celebrate. I think we came in in the second half and said, ‘We can change that now. We don't have to see that again.' We just found the energy."
On a night when a cold rain was falling outside, the temperature inside Memorial Gymnasium was stifling.
"It might have bothered them," Summitt said. "Did that bother you Candace?"
"A little bit. It was hot," Parker said. "As a basketball player I would rather it be hot than cold. The ball gets harder when it's cold so I like it to be hot."
The temperature and the tempo seemed to be to Kentucky's liking, especially in the early going.
"I thought we got the tempo where we wanted it to be," Mitchell said. "Twenty-seven, for them, in the first half was where we would want it be for a team that averages over 80."
Summitt told her team that it needed to establish the pace.
"Coach says it's our fault because we're not out pressuring," Parker said. "It's five of them and five of us. We control the tempo. We control how the game flows and if we want to push tempo or if we want to slow it down.
"We realized that going into the second half. It was a whole different game in the second half."
Kentucky may have found a leader for the SEC season in Smith, who had five turnovers, but didn't back away from attacking Tennessee.
"She played with some moxie, and she played with no fear," Mitchell said. "She provided us with some offensive leadership. She took it to Candace Parker a couple of times and made shots over her. I thought she was aggressive. I was very pleased with Amber Smith. I think we have a very, very good one for this season and the future."
Smith also delivered a shot to Parker's stomach as she cut through the lane, but Smith said after the game that she didn't mean to hit her in the midsection. She just knew she couldn't be intimidated by the Lady Vols.
"I'm usually watching them on TV but now I'm actually playing them," Smith said. "It felt all right. They come down the lane I'm going to bump them just like the posts are supposed to do. I'm low to the ground, and she's pretty tall. I hit her stomach, but I didn't mean to."
Kentucky and Tennessee will play again Feb. 3 when the Wildcats come to Knoxville. Mitchell said his first matchup with Summitt is memorable for the wrong reason.
"It's always memorable when you get whipped real bad," Mitchell said. "I wish we had played better. We'll try to learn from it and see if we can do better next time with them. They're mighty tough."
Parker was happy with the win in Lexington and ready to head home. The Lady Vols will take off Friday and then return to practice Saturday. Archrival Vanderbilt comes to Knoxville on Sunday. Parker also sounded happy that she played for Summitt.
"Coach is a very intense coach and I think that what allows her to keep doing what she does is her passion and love for the game," Parker said. "Somebody who helped put women's basketball on the map and allowed it to be where it us, I count my blessings every day that I play for her."