"If they play like they played today in terms of just the effort we're going to win a lot of basketball games, and we're going to be alive and well in postseason," Coach Pat Summitt said. "It's got to be a habit. It can't just be a one-game situation."
For now, one game is a start. Summitt had been seeking 40 minutes of basketball since the season started, and hadn't gotten it, minus a game or two among 24 played before Sunday's rematch with Vandy. It appears her message has finally gotten through, two weeks before the regular season concludes, after the players met among themselves without the coaches.
"It was kind of like a now-or-never kind of meeting," said Candace Parker, who led all scorers with 23 points and also added 10 rebounds, three blocks and two steals. "We said that we can't wait like we did last year until postseason to turn it on and expect to win a national championship."
Parker got help in this game from the bench, none more so than from fellow redshirt junior Alex Fuller, who scored 14 points on 6-8 shooting, including two 3-pointers.
Summitt challenged the bench to produce after it contributed four points in the 78-62 loss to LSU, and Fuller responded as a role model to the freshmen, Vicki Baugh, Angie Bjorklund, Sydney Smallbone and the rehabbing Kelley Cain.
"I took it to heart because I'm an upperclassman, I'm a leader on this team, and if she's not getting from me what she wants then I have Vicki and Angie and Syd and Kelley all looking at me wondering why I'm not doing my job," Fuller said. "So after our meeting I went home, thought about it for a minute and reassessed my game and what I had to do to help this team."
Bjorklund also was in double figures for the Lady Vols with 15 points. The odd configuration of Memorial Gym didn't seem to bother the freshman.
"Well, first of all, it was great walking in and seeing all the orange, just the fan support we've had on the road has been awesome," Bjorklund said when asked about the setup. "It's a little different subbing in on the side and having our bench on the end. I think having our shoot-around helped a lot. You kind of got a feel for the gym and the settings."
Parker had three assists in the box score, but she picked up an un-credited one post-game when Bjorklund wasn't sure how to answer a tongue-in-cheek question about not having Summitt in her ear for what amounts to a half of basketball. Is that a good thing, bad thing or nothing?
"Umm … ," Bjorklund said. "I don't think you should answer that," Parker said. "I mean … ," Bjorklund said. "Nope. Don't answer that," Parker said as she took the microphone and pulled it away from Bjorklund as the reporters in the room roared with laughter.
Bjorklund had been teased good-naturedly by Summitt a few minutes earlier for leaving three-point shooters open.
"Angie likes to shoot the three ball," Summitt said. "She doesn't necessarily see people that like to shoot it, but she's getting better. She's going to learn from this game because we'll get to watch some good tape."
No. 25 Vanderbilt (19-7, 8-3) hit 10-20 from behind the arc with Christina Wirth shooting 4-8 from three-point range. Wirth led the Commodores with 14 points but drew the defensive assignment on Parker and was in foul trouble in the second half.
"I was guarding Candace Parker a lot and they go to her a lot so that's a lot of opportunities to pick up fouls," Wirth said.
Merideth Marsh added 11 points for Vandy and hit three 3-pointers. Lauren Lueders drained two from long range, and Jence Rhoads connected once. Wirth picked up her fourth foul at the 13:37 mark of the second half trying to guard Parker on the perimeter right away hitting the three that drew the Commodores to within one point of Tennessee.
"I think we had the momentum going," Vanderbilt Coach Melanie Balcomb said. "We got within one and then Tina Wirth got her fourth foul and I think everything went downhill from there. We just didn't stick together and didn't adjust really well when that happened."
Summitt stayed with matchup zone for most of the second half to try to disrupt Vanderbilt on offense. The zone also was necessary because Tennessee's post players, Parker and Nicky Anosike – who was sporting two black eyes after taking a shot to the head against LSU – were in foul trouble. The zone was used some in the first half and quite a bit in the second.
"We got in foul trouble early, so we went zone," Summitt said. "Vanderbilt runs so many great offensive sets, and they're hard to defend. I think Melanie is one of the best offensive coaches in this league. We wanted to guard their action, but when Nicky and Candace got in foul trouble, then I thought let's protect the paint. That's when I thought we were a little lax on covering the three ball.
"We also went to our full-court defense, back to our half-court zone. I thought taking time off the clock was very effective for us on a number of possessions. That would probably be the two reasons in particular (for using the zone)."
The zone look didn't surprise Vandy. But the amount of time Tennessee – man to man is a Lady Vol staple – stayed in it did.
"I have never had that much zone," Balcomb said. "She always throws some zone out there and if it works, they continue to run it, and it worked. Probably the biggest surprise was playing that much when we were shooting the three very well. We didn't have an inside presence, and we were relying on the three way too much, and then they went zone."
Vanderbilt responded by losing its composure and ended the game with 24 turnovers. Some were the result of Tennessee's defense. Others were just poor decision-making with the ball.
"Tell her thank you," Balcomb said when told of Summitt's remarks about her offensive acumen. "We were doing a good job executing against their man, and we were getting great shots. There's no doubt that's why she went to it originally. We were executing definitely better on offense than we did at their place."
The zone had a wrinkle in that Summitt replaced Shannon Bobbitt with Parker, who teamed with Fuller and Baugh to create considerable size on the back line of the 2-3 matchup. Bjorklund and Alexis Hornbuckle, who had six steals – four out of the zone in the second half – handled the top. The reach and height were bothersome for the Commodores.
"Absolutely," Balcomb said. "There's no doubt the height bothered us. So does the athleticism and the strength. But you've got to play the game. You've got to play to win. That's why you're the underdog going in because everybody on the floor is bigger than you. You have to bring your ‘A' game, and we didn't.
"You look at this great crowd, and I don't think we showed the game and the kind of team that we are right now. I'm proud of the team that I have coaching right now. We're a very good team, and Tennessee made us look bad."
The crowd of 14,316 contained an abundance of orange, and the Tennessee fans made their presence known with their cheers. The Vandy players also appreciated the turnout.
"I felt like we were at home," said guard Jennifer Risper, who had nine points, four assists and three steals. "Yeah, their fans came, but it doesn't matter. We were playing on our home court. If anything you just hear people cheering. I know there are times when Tennessee people are at our games even when we're not playing Tennessee."
"It's fun to play in front of a crowd whether they're for you or against you," Wirth said. "If it's loud, it's fun."
The outcome wasn't fun for Vandy, and Balcomb turned her focus after the game to getting better and getting ready. With the SEC Tournament less than three weeks away in Nashville, the teams could even meet for a third time this season.
"I talked to them about being disappointed that we didn't bring our ‘A' game," Balcomb said. "I'll give Tennessee all the credit in the world. They're a great team. That's why they're number one in the country. They've got a lot of talent. They're bigger and stronger at every position, but at the same time you've got to bring your best game, and we didn't do that tonight.
"And we'd been working extremely hard. We are very young. We have people accepting their roles and working very hard at it. It just was disappointing to the point where I'm mad because I'm a competitor, but it's hard to get mad at these kids. They work their tails off every day. It's more important to talk to them about not having a letdown. We want to get better from this loss instead of getting down from it."
Tennessee was seeking some redemption after the past week in which its lost the top spot in the SEC – and in all likelihood the conference championship – and had the coach questioning what direction her players wanted to take their team. When the coaches left the meeting room Friday, Summitt knew exactly what she wanted to happen.
"That they take ownership for the rest of their days at Tennessee because players when they do that it's so powerful because they hold each other accountable, they can decide how they want to play, and they can commit to it," Summitt said.
"If they all have an agreement and they make this pact and somebody's not doing it then, trust me, their personalities are such that they will call each other out. Sometimes a voice of a player to a player is so much more electrifying to what happens. They'll listen to each other. I think they've done a better job this year maybe of trusting our coaching staff. I think you have to have that. I think this group there's no question in my mind they want to win."
Summitt could confidently say that Sunday because she saw effort. Execution needs some work in some areas, but the players were clearly ready to make a statement. Tennessee jumped out to a 15-2 lead, as has been their wont this season.
"Tennessee has been starting like that against everybody," Balcomb said. "That's how they start. I think that it was really important for our girls to fight right back. I thought we did a good job of fighting back and got within six points at halftime.
"I thought we did a good job of attacking them and getting them in foul trouble. The problem was we couldn't stop them defensively. Us not being able to score at that point we needed to stop them and we couldn't."
Part of the reason for that is that the Lady Vols were both shooting well – 58.1 percent in the first half and 51.8 percent for the game – getting stops – the Commodores had two shot clock violations in the first half – and getting on the offensive boards.
Hornbuckle hit a three-pointer early in the game after Tennessee got three offensive rebounds on one possession.
"I just think we raised our intensity and I thought our defense started to generate some offensive opportunities for us," Summitt said. "Overall, looking at the boards, the boards look pretty even, but the thing that I was pleased with was the number of defensive rebounds we got because you're limiting their second-chance opportunities. A lot of that came off of our defense. I thought we did a great job in pushing tempo off of that and getting into the open floor and transition baskets."
Tennessee finished with 33 rebounds – 23 on defense – to 30 for Vandy. Bjorklund and Hornbuckle had six apiece. Eight players logged minutes, and each got at least two boards.
"Last year we waited until postseason to rebound and this year we're trying to fix that problem a little bit earlier and get on the backboard and rebound," Parker said. "I know I can get better at the offensive boards. You can have an off night shooting, but if you're rebounding well then you're shooting 50 percent. That's our mindset."
Tennessee had 19 rebounds by the break to 11 for Vanderbilt.
"One of the reasons that we got down so badly in the opening minutes was because we weren't boxing out," Wirth said. "They were getting a lot of offensive rebounds. Against a team that's as tall and athletic as they are it's not enough just to be standing next to them. You've got to create a lot space and really push them back, and we weren't doing that.
"They are good rebounders, and I know that's something they take pride in as a team. That was one of our focuses and I don't think we did a great job of it and that's something against this team you have to do to come out with a win."
Tennessee only led by six at halftime, 42-36, because of fouls and some torrid three-point shooting by Vanderbilt. But the bench did its part for Tennessee this time – scoring 13 points in the first half – including a nifty drive by Baugh the first time she touched the ball after she came in for Parker.
Vandy got the game to within a point, 51-50, with 13:58 left in the second half on a three-pointer by Wirth, but Tennessee answered with a turn-around jumper in the lane by Fuller, a transition three-pointer by Bobbitt after Parker pushed tempo off a defensive rebound and a steal by Fuller that set up a Parker layup on an assist by Alberta Auguste, who waited for Parker to get to the rim before firing a pass from the deep corner.
In less than two minutes Tennessee was up, 58-50, with 12:11 left in the second half.
"Vanderbilt is a top 25 team," Parker said. "You're not going to go out and keep a top 25 team from making runs. It's how you respond to those runs, and I think we responded well. We looked at the scoreboard and we buckled down on defense, and that's where it started.
We got steals, we got open threes, open looks, we moved the ball on offense, we got and-one plays. I'm really happy with how we responded. We didn't just play down and let what happened to us at LSU happen again."
Tennessee surrendered a 19-point lead at home and responded to LSU's run by either taking quick shots or turning over the ball.
"I told our basketball team I didn't know what to expect coming off such a tough loss against LSU at home," Summitt said. "And I'm just going to have to give them the credit because they spent time trying to figure out how they could get better. Our staff had a meeting with them, but I think the meeting that really counts the most is when the players are invested and when the players are committed to 40 minutes.
"We did a lot of good things today. I thought Candace shot the ball well. Angie shot the ball well today. Obviously, Alex came off the bench and gave us a huge lift. We did some really good things defensively. We had to play a lot more zone than we typically play. With the exception of giving up the three ball, I thought we did some good things out of it. We can learn from watching this tape in particular."
One of the best signs for Summitt was the response of the bench. Baugh had four points and two rebounds. Fuller had three boards to go with her 14 points, two assists and a steal. Auguste had three points, two rebounds, two assists and two steals.
"In the past, it's hurt us when we've gone to our bench in a number of our games," Summitt said. "Vicki did such a great job for us when we look at what she did at Duke and how she played. I think she was very open about, ‘I haven't helped this team and I've got to help this team and it's my job to come off the bench.'
"I had a short conversation to let her know that she has to feel responsibility for the outcome of games. And that's true whether you start or you come off the bench. I think she really tried to do that today. She tried to come in here and really step up and play a different role. She attacked the glass, where in the last two games I played her, all she wanted to do was pass the basketball.
"She was such a great scorer and attacked the glass so well out of high school, but sometimes, she over-passed even there. I'm wanting her to be more committed to shooting the basketball with great intensity at the basket."
Fuller showed why she is such a difficult matchup offensively. She can score in the paint – she twice spun back to the opposite side to shake her defender – and she can step behind the arc and drain a three.
"She was able to catch and shoot," Summitt said. "We got her some good touches. I think Alex is a very confident offensive player and in her face-up game she's very efficient. She had some good open looks. Our team did a good job moving the ball. I'll have to go back and look at all of her shots but really pleased with her aggressive mindset of taking shots."
Tennessee adopted an aggressive stance on defense, too – they haven't played the matchup zone that much this season and with three games this week, the two days of practice between two off days were used as preparation, not drill work – and applied basic fundamentals.
"We played with our hands up and didn't allow easy passes," Parker said. "Lex got in the passing lanes – I know she had six steals – so she was key. I think it's just helping each other out and reading off of each other and if you make a mistake having somebody that's going to have your back and make up for it with effort."
Hornbuckle now has 330 career steals. With four more she will hold the program's all-time crown for take-aways, passing Bridgette Gordon, who has 333.
"She takes an awful lot of pride in her defense," Summitt said. "Even watching her out of high school I thought she was one of the best defensive guards and one of the most athletic. She's long and rangy and can cover a lot of area and helps us in transition as well as with her on-the-ball defense. She can cause people to play a little faster than perhaps they want to.
Hornbuckle also scored eight points and had two assists. Her 454 career assists rank her fifth all-time in Tennessee's record book. Her 106th career start moved her into 10th place in the record books.
"Lex just works," Summitt said. "She's just a hard worker and makes a lot of good things happen through her effort and intensity."
The Lady Vols did a lot of talking among themselves and with the coaches in the two days leading up to the Vandy game. On Sunday they went to work as a team.
"Basically we said that we needed to stop talking about it and be about it," Parker said. Actions speak louder than words."