Most of the crowd of 13,270 stayed until the end – and weathered bone-chilling temperatures to get to the game – to see if Angie Bjorklund would break the school record for made threes in a game. For the third time she came tantalizingly close.
"My teammates were trying to get me the ball," Bjorklund said. "I just didn't, once again, knock it down. I still have a lot more games left so we'll see."
Pat Summitt smiled and put her arm around the freshman as they walked courtside to do post-game television interviews with UT men's coach Bruce Pearl, who provided color commentary for the area broadcast.
"We were trying," said Summitt, who told Bjorklund that "we tried every way we could to get you open shots. She was fine. She's just a freshman, so at some point in time she'll break the record. I have to believe that."
The crowd knew Bjorklund needed one three-pointer to break the single-game record held by Shanna Zolman and were directing her teammates to pass the ball. They didn't need the reminder. Alex Fuller got an offensive rebound, passed on a wide-open shot under the basket and fired the ball to Bjorklund behind the arc. The crowd rose in anticipation and groaned with the miss.
Bjorklund had the crowd on their feet to open the game, too. She hit her first three 3-point attempts and hit two more before the break. By the first media timeout, Arkansas had yet to score, and Tennessee led, 18-0 at the 15:52 mark of the first half.
"That was our goal of ours to get out to a great start," Candace Parker said. "Our shots were falling, but our goal was to play defense and get a lot of steals. I was really proud because we held them scoreless through the first timeout, and that is a testament to how hard we worked defensively. We knocked down shots, but from the defensive standpoint we really did buckle down and keep them scoreless."
Tennessee (17-1, 5-0) was led by Bjorklund's 29 points. Parker's offensive efficiency was on display with 24 points in just 21 minutes of play. Parker now has 1,707 career points and moved past Shanna Zolman (1,706) into ninth place all-time. Her four free throws gave her 424 for her career and into fourth place all-time past Bridgette Gordon (423).
Arkansas (16-4, 1-4) was led by Sarah Pfeifer with 16 points, Ayana Brereton with 13 and Brittney Vaughn with 11.
Pfeifer, a sixth-year senior because of two severe injuries, had a philosophical approach to the drubbing by the Lady Vols.
"Been here done that," Pfeifer said. " It's happened to us before. "I think Ayana and Whitney (Jones) didn't really play a whole lot of minutes last year when we had success against them at home.
"To come here it's just kind of shell-shocking the first time. I remember the first time I came here and you're just kind of in awe because there's a huge crowd, and they're loud and you're playing against people that you used to watch on TV. I think that's kind of what was going through their head and we just couldn't get settled down.
"We got settled down a little bit, and then they made another run. The game was over at the beginning."
The beginning was the perfect start for the Lady Vols, who were playing without Hornbuckle, who was out for this game to undergo a diagnostic procedure. Tennessee led 56-28 at halftime, shot 50 percent overall and 43.3 percent behind the arc, scored 30 points off of 21 Arkansas turnovers, out-rebounded the Lady'Backs, 48-31, and stayed intense from tip to finish.
"It's always good to me to get off to a great start," Summitt said. "We always want to be the team to set the tone at the beginning of the game. We always talk about playing in four- and five-minute segments, and I thought they responded. They had a chance where they could have let down, but I thought they really tried to be very efficient in what they were doing at both ends of the floor in this game."
Tennessee had 17 steals and seven blocks on the defensive end. Parker positioned herself at the top of the full-court press and swiped three balls. She had six assists to zero turnovers. She also had six rebounds split between the offensive and defensive glass. She did all this in 21 minutes of play – 14 in the first half – and would have spent even less time on the court but Vicki Baugh wasn't cleared to play in the second half because of a stomach illness.
"Candace played a solid all-around game, and I think she is a very unselfish player," Summitt said. " She draws a lot of attention, but she does a great job of keeping the ball moving against the double teams and finding open players and handling the ball, getting on the boards, getting to the free throw line.
"Right now the one place that Candace has probably improved the most in the last couple of games has been on the defensive end. It can change how we play on defense when Candace is really aggressive and denying and defending the high-low action."
Senior Alberta Auguste also played a key role in overcoming the absence of Hornbuckle. Auguste had a rough night offensively – she did score on a drive to the basket – but she had eight rebounds, four assists, three steals and a block. She also played 34 minutes after coming into the game averaging 18 minutes.
"Bird did a great job of stepping in," Parker said. "Obviously she didn't shoot the ball well but just her energy and her presence. I was watching her with Shannon on the bench. She came down, and was mad she missed a shot and then came down and got a steal.
"That's how Bird plays. I was really happy with her energy. It didn't seem to affect her, her missing her shots. Your shot is going to be on, going to be off some nights, but one thing that's constant with her is she is always going to bring you energy and she is always going to bring you effort."
Shannon Bobbitt brought the pace at the point guard spot that Summitt wanted. She scored just six points – from two three-pointers – but had five assists, three steals, a block and an eye-popping and SEC-high six rebounds. She also got the crowd involved by jumping to the rim to try to dislodge a stuck ball on an Arkansas shot attempt. The 5'2 guard missed the ball – by a lot – but the fans applauded the effort. Smokey the mascot knocked the ball loose with a broom handle.
"I thought Shannon did a good job of pushing tempo," Summitt said. "She's a very unselfish point guard. She told me her shot hadn't been falling, and I said, ‘Just keep pushing tempo. Something good is going to happen.' I really felt like everyone responded well to the challenge."
Summitt made good on her intent to play Bjorklund and Smallbone at the point position when Bobbitt, who played 29 minutes, needed a breather. The freshmen managed to get the team in its offense and then waited for the ball to come back to them.
Smallbone hit four three-pointers to account for her 12 points and help the team finish the night at 13-30 from behind the arc. The 13 threes tied the record set Feb. 6, 2005, against Ole Miss, and Nov. 30, 2002, against Army. With Bjorklund's seven three-pointers, the newcomers accounted for 11 of the 13.
"In recruiting, we identified what we thought were two of the best shooters in that class," Summitt said. "They were a priority in our recruiting. We expected both to come here and add to what we wanted to do in the backcourt and particularly to their three-point game. Obviously they both can play off the dribble, but we want to them to constantly look for threes. I am really pleased with where we are with both.
"Sydney is still trying to get much more comfortable with her defensive system. That is probably her biggest area for improvement and growth as a basketball player. You can teach someone how to play defense. I don't know that you can bring them in and teach how to be the type of scorers that these two young ladies are, which is a tremendous advantage for us."
The 30 attempts were a tad high – though inflated by a team-wide effort to get Bjorklund that elusive eighth three-pointer; she missed on her last five attempts – but Arkansas opted to deploy a zone defense, and Tennessee's shooters found the seams.
The attempts welcomed by Summitt, too, because the team had struggled behind the arc in the last three games with a combined 7-37 output.
"To get as many threes off as we got off is good," Summitt said. "We look for it, and it goes back to the inside-outside game. We don't necessarily set a goal for how many threes that we want to take or make every game. We do talk a lot about spacing and making people pay for double teams and getting our perimeter people much more active and being in a position to catch and shoot from the double-team situation or inside-out action.
"That's made a difference for us when we have had players knocking down threes. It's not only helped us with three-point scoring but it's helped us with our inside play as well."
Summitt had been none too happy with Bjorklund's lack of shooting Sunday – she took three attempts and missed each one – and made it clear to the freshman that she was to pull the trigger.
"I told her right before the game she's got to hunt her shots all the time," Summitt said. "There's a reason she's in the lineup and it's not because she's the best defender on the team or the best rebounder. But she is a very efficient offensive player. I think what she has to learn to do all the time is work just as hard on the offensive end to get open as she has to work to defend. We're looking for her. It's not like our team is not in tune with Angie.
"She takes so much pressure off of our offense when she's scoring. She helps extend and open up the inside game. She has to understand that's her role."
Bjorklund took 20 shots Thursday and connected on 11 of them. Her 29 points tied her for fourth place with Parker for most points scored by a freshman. (Tamika Catchings holds the record with 35 points, and Parker also has claimed the second spot on the list with 34 points.) One of Bjorklund's baskets came on a nifty give-and-go with Fuller when Bjorklund received the ball back on the baseline and finished with a reverse layup.
Fuller had three assists to go with seven rebounds and six points. Before Tennessee's last possession – after Bjorklund had missed her last three-point attempt – Fuller patted Bjorklund on the back and said something that made them both smile. Fuller then in-bounded the ball.
So what did Fuller say?
"Hmm, I don't know that I should repeat that," said Bjorklund, which brought a peal of laughter from Parker.
"She was encouraging her and said, ‘Good job,' " Parker said with gleam in her eye.
"We have our own way of motivating each other," Bjorklund said with a roll of her eyes.
It didn't work because Bjorklund didn't get the record, which Arkansas Coach Tom Collen said was his team's most-focused stint of the game. He thought the crowd was so excited because it wanted the Lady Vols to score 100.
"I know the crowd got a little mad at me when I held the ball and didn't turn it over at the end and give them another chance at it," Collen said. "But I just trying to protect my kids a little bit and not worry about the Tennessee fans. No disrespect to them; they're the greatest fans in the world.
"I can tell you this, I told my kids in the locker room that we clearly weren't focused enough to get the job done. We weren't focused enough to stop her early, but with 40 seconds to go in the game and they were sitting on 98 and I had one of my subs in, Kendra Roberts. I commended her because we didn't talk about it during the timeout, but when she heard the crowd roar and she saw how hard they were trying to get the ball back to her to get the shot, she was focused enough to make up her mind that she wasn't going to let her get another shot. I give her credit for that.
"That might have been the 30 most focused seconds of any kid I had in the game, and I didn't coach her into that, she just did it. If all of our kids would had been that focused for the entire game, maybe we could have made a little bit of a game out of it."
When Collen was told that Bjorklund was trying to get an eighth 3-pointer after being stuck on seven three times this season, he raised his eyebrows in surprise.
"Making eight threes in a game that's hard," Collen said. "She's got a lot of time ahead of her and as talented as Tennessee is in all the other areas, you can't really make up your mind that you want to put all your focus on her and just stop her. She's going to get some more shots at it. She's a great player. She's one of the best freshmen in the country, no doubt."
The Razorbacks also couldn't account for Parker, who took advantage of the space created by the scorching perimeter play to find openings inside. Parker also scored in the open floor by getting a steal, dribbling behind her back to lose the defender and finishing with her left hand.
"She's a tough matchup for anybody in the country," Collen said. "She's just so versatile. She can go out and play like a guard. She's long, athletic, she's got great coordination and balance. I can't look Pfeifer in the eye and say, ‘I know you're better than Candace Parker so go out there and stop her for me.' "
"I would laugh at him." Pfeifer said to much laughter.
"It takes more than one person," Collen said. "When you make up your mind you're going to play zone, you're going to lose track of her. I think we looked at it like she was going to get hers no matter what. I think with Hornbuckle out of the game, we thought she (Parker) would get hers, and we could shut everybody else down. But obviously Bjorklund went off on us, and Smallbone made her shots. Bobbitt didn't take a lot but she made the two that she took down there in the corner."
Parker welcomed the long-range bombs – she even attempted one herself but misfired – because when the Lady Vols play from the inside-out, both the posts and wings benefit.
"I tell Angie all the time, ‘When you're hitting, that makes my life a whole lot easier,' " Parker said. "I really encourage our team to continue to go inside-out, because when they knock down shots, and me and Nicky and Alex and Vicki are working in the middle, it's beautiful basketball.
"That's the way coach is wanting us to play and wanting us to do. You can't say, ‘We're going to knock down shots today.' That's not how it works. Just continuing to work inside-out and to move the ball and made hard cuts and things like that it makes everybody's life a lot easier.
"And I think Pat sleeps better at night knowing that."
It was Bjorklund's turn to laugh then. The players, despite the pace of the game and the low numbers available to log minutes, were high-spirited afterwards. The up-tempo pace is what they prefer, and Summitt went to the bench as early and as often as she could.
"That's Tennessee basketball," Parker said. "Getting up and down the floor, posts running to the rim, wings running wide. I like to say pick your poison, because if run to the paint then Angie is going to get an open three. If you run to Ang then I'm going to get an open layup. I think Shannon did a great job of pushing the ball and pushing tempo and that is what Coach wants us to do night in and night out."
Summitt would have played Baugh a lot more than the seven minutes she logged in the first half, but the freshman post player was ill and clearly struggling at times.
"She wasn't feeling well, sick at her stomach and Jenny (Moshak) felt like it was best to hold her out," Summitt said. "I thought she was very active and played solid defense. Obviously I wish she could have played in the second half. It would have been a tremendous opportunity for her, but there will be other games and other situations and hopefully we can get her over this in the next 24 hours."
Baugh's numbers are impressive, especially considering how little she played. She had seven points, one rebound, one steal and three blocks, including one to snuff out the Lady'Backs last first-half shot attempt.
"Vicki Baugh, I've been saying this all year, she is a great player," Parker said. "Unfortunately she only got seven minutes but in those seven minutes she really did come out ready to play. She was aggressive. She's like Bird. She's never going to lack energy.
"I'm just hoping we can get her more minutes before it's crunch time because we're really going to need her come postseason."
Arkansas is trying to right its ship after starting the season 15-0 and then losing All-SEC center Lauren Ervin to a season-ending right knee injury earlier this month. Ervin sat on the bench in street clothes.
"Well, it was a humbling experience," Collen, the Louisville coach last season, said of the trip to Thompson-Boling Arena. "I'm probably not the first coach that's sat in this chair and been humbled quite this badly. I don't know. I've felt it before, coming from the Big East, we've wandered into UConn and played a few games in their venue as well. These are the two toughest environments in the country to play in right now."
Collen had said before the game that he wanted his team to execute against Tennessee, but the Lady Vols defensive pressure and Bjorklund and Parker's offensive fireworks to open the game took Arkansas out of the game quickly.
"It was frustrating," he said. "Obviously the last thing that needed to happen to us, coming into an environment like this, was getting off to a slow start and letting Tennessee get off to a fast start. We made the decision to play zone because we didn't really feel like we could match up with them. I don't think it was an error to play zone, but we obviously needed to do a better job of tracking shooters in it."
Tennessee also benefited from splendid ball movement to find the open players. The Lady Vols had 24 assists on 39 baskets and just nine turnovers.
"As I look at the stat sheet this is something that I think we have to expect," Summitt said. "We expect our team to keep the ball moving. I think they're an unselfish team. You look at the assists and that speaks to that aspect of the game. This team right now they enjoy the fact that we can inside-out, that we've got great ball movement.
"I think they take a lot of not only pride but pleasure in getting their teammates that are open good looks. It's such unselfish play and when you've got a lot of great players that's not always the case. Early on in the season we didn't share the ball as well as we are now."
Hornbuckle is second on the team with 65 assists – Bobbitt leads with 73 – so the ball sharing really stands out.
"You have to give Tennessee credit, and they were playing shorthanded without Hornbuckle," Collen said. "Hopefully, it's a good learning experience for us. We have to go beyond this game in a hurry. We have to get back to practice at noon (Friday) and try to figure out whether we can beat Mississippi State.
"We badly need to get a win under our belt so that we can get the same kind of confidence back that we had when we jumped out to a 15-0 start in the preseason. We just have to keep moving on."
Tennessee also will return to practice Friday afternoon to begin preparations for a trip to Durham to play Duke on Monday (7 p.m., ESPN2). Nobody on this Tennessee team has ever beaten the Blue Devils.
"I am really excited about how our team is playing," Parker said. "Obviously we will have a huge test against Duke on Monday and going into their gym in hostile territory. We're looking forward to that. I think that our team is playing well, and we are getting better, and I think that's the most important.
"We don't want to peak at the wrong time, but we want to continue to improve and continue to better ourselves from the previous game."