"We're a lot better because you've got to run with her," Alexis Hornbuckle said. "She's going to open up opportunities. You've got to guard her, because if you don't guard her she's going to stop and pop or get all the way to the basket. When she's pushing tempo and our posts are running rim to rim and our guards are getting out wide, we're hard to guard."
It took until the second half for all five players to get on board with that game plan – Tennessee missed some good shots early and couldn't shake the doldrums – but once the Lady Vols found their focus, the shots started falling.
A 27-22 halftime lead swelled to double digits, 40-29, by the first media timeout at the 14:38 mark thanks to two highlight-reel baskets.
Nicky Anosike grabbed a defensive rebounds – she had eight boards for the game with five coming on defense – and fired an outlet pass to Bobbitt, who took one dribble and then uncorked a 40-foot pass to Candace Parker, who finger-rolled in the ball in one catch-turn-and-release motion. The next one came on an alley-oop pass from Hornbuckle to Parker, who completed the catch and shoot.
That led to the timeout in which Huff was brought to center court as the "academic achiever" of the game. After a question by the presenter about the softball team to keep Huff on the floor she was told one more person had a question. Mitchell, a senior defensive end last season, walked out from the tunnel – and while the softball team watched from the baseline – he went to one knee to ask Huff, a sophomore first baseman/catcher, to marry him. He presented the ring, and she said yes, much to the crowd, and Mitchell's, delight.
No. 3 Tennessee (25-2, 11-1) was led by Parker, who finished with 19 points – 12 came in the second half – and Bobbitt and Hornbuckle, who both scored 11.
"Well, obviously the second half was much better than the first," Pat Summitt said in her opening remarks at the post-game press conference. "At halftime, I was not at all pleased. I thought we took too many possessions off, and we can't do that. I think our basketball team has got to understand that they're going to get everyone's ‘A' game. We talk about that all the time. Mississippi State played us tough at their place and certainly came in here ready to play.
"I thought Alberta did a great job off the bench, and we need that. Vicki Baugh brought us some good things, and Alex. I like what I'm seeing from that standpoint, but I expect our starters to just be much more efficient when the game starts and for us to be much better on the defensive end, and much more committed for 40 minutes."
The Lady Vols were the source of their own woes in the first half. They were generating a lot of turnovers – Mississippi State had 10 in the first half – but they either turned the ball back over or missed shots. The Lady Bulldogs got nine first-half points off 10 Lady Vol miscues while Tennessee only got six.
"It was very frustrating because we did get out in the passing lanes," Summitt said. "We generated a lot of opportunities and could not take advantage of it. Missed a lot of easy shots, for whatever reason. I thought we got quality looks, but when the ball's not going down you've got to get putbacks.
"I think we had three points on second-chance opportunities in the first half, and that's very telling considering that we did not shoot the ball well. Typically, we've been much better on the glass. In the second half much better."
Mississippi State (16-12, 4-9) had issues of its own. The Lady Bulldogs shot 30.8 percent in the first half – and 1-9 from behind the arc (11.1 percent) – and then misfired at 27.3 percent in the second half to finish the game at 28.8 percent.
In the first game in Starkville on Feb. 7, the Lady Bulldogs hit eight 3-pointers for the game and led at halftime, 40-33.
"They were getting out to all the shooters, so we were trying to find open shots," said MSU guard Marneshia Richard, who had 11 points Sunday. "They did a good job preventing us from having those open looks. I think they did a very good job on us out there on the perimeter."
Mississippi State's defense, meanwhile, was designed to smother Parker and stop Tennessee's dribble drives to the paint. This proved to be very effective, especially in the first half, when the Lady Vols hit just 2-10 from behind the arc and 37.9 percent overall.
"They did a good job of keeping us in front and not allowing us to get to the paint," Summitt said. " We really settled from that standpoint without attacking more off the dribble. I didn't make a lot of calls to change up our screening action. I probably should. We wanted to play from three out, two in.
"In the second half, we ran a lot more of our screening sets and offensively got some much better looks. I'll take a look at that. Sometimes you almost feel like that you just want them to go play and not be so focused or married to plays. We're just going to play, and we're going to work out of our triangle offense. We were not as effective, and they did a nice job of keeping us from getting the dribble drives where we wanted them."
Tennessee's inability to hit threes early – Angie Bjorklund was 0-5 in the first half and 0-6 for the game – allowed Mississippi State to surround Parker, though she passed out of traffic and had five assists.
"We weren't scoring well from our three-point line, but that's when you've got to go inside – and even our guards," Summitt said. "We talked about that. As opposed to Angie being 0-6 from the three-point line, I'd rather see her take more dribble drives to the basket and get into her pull-up. Sometime I think people that are committed to the three – the three ball is what they do best – they typically want to play to that and they get a little bit too committed.
"That's what we talked about at halftime. We've got to get the ball to the paint. I thought Alexis did a much better job of that. Shannon pushed tempo well for us, but she's a player that it's shoot the three or drives to the basket, and I still want her to focus on her midrange game as well."
Tennessee's defense was stout throughout most of the game. Mississippi State was held without a field goal from the 18:20 mark of the first half to the 7:56 mark, and the Lady Vols led, 16-7. But then Tennessee didn't hit a field goal from the 11:08 mark to the 4:05 point of the first half – Tennessee got two free throws from Parker in that span and then got a layup by Parker that knotted the score at 18-18.
The second half saw more inspired play from Tennessee as Bobbitt continued to push tempo, the Lady Vols stayed on the boards – they won that battle, 44-38 – and the defensive effort improved. Auguste started the second half in place of Bjorklund, and Bobbitt put pressure on the ball.
"It definitely starts with the point guard and setting the tempo," Bobbitt said. "I just wanted to get up in the point guard's grill and just play defense and try to get the ball out of her hands and let the other players run the offense but not through the point guard."
Parker added four blocks to her one swat in the first half and passed Shelia Frost (1985-89), who held the school record with 246. Parker now has 247 blocks for her career – a feat she accomplished in three years – and also took down a record that had stood for 19 years.
Hornbuckle passed Bridgette Gordon, another 19-year record, for the career steals mark on Thursday and now has 339 after adding four to the tally Sunday.
"Obviously Candace has the ability to block shots," Summitt said. "She's got the size and the anticipation. She plays behind players a lot, and we allow that because it's hard for people to score over her, particularly if you've got undersized posts.
"I think Candace has really worked on not going for the blocks early but being a little bit more patient defensively, because of her size and her ability to go up and even block shots out of the air. She's been very committed to anchoring down in the paint what we want her to do from a defensive standpoint."
After the game Parker went from the bench to a whirlpool – she didn't make it to the post-game press conference – in what was another physical battle with the Lady Bulldogs. Three Lady Vols were injured the last time the teams met, and Parker was the target of a lot of attention Sunday and often ended up on the floor.
"They're a very aggressive team," Hornbuckle said. "They get in the passing lanes. They know when to double, how to double. From a wing perspective, driving, their hands are very active and very physical so if you don't match their physicality you're going to have turnovers, off-balance shots, and that's what they were making us do."
Mississippi State is an undersized team, and they make up for a lack of height with scrappy play.
"I felt good at halftime; they're shooting 38 percent from the field," Mississippi State Coach Sharon Fanning said. "If you can hold the other team to under 40 percent, and you can shoot better than 40 percent and do the other things I've said (take care of the ball, rebound and get to the line), then you can find ways to win ballgames.
"(Parker) has a lot of strengths. If you see Tennessee making layups we have not done our jobs defensively. With the size that we have, we have to create help and you have to make that person give up the basketball by your positioning. They're going to make some of the plays. You're not going to take everything away from them, but you have to make it very difficult on them. That's where work ethic and team chemistry come in, because when you do double-team, you have to rotate out of that.
"Candace had five assists. She's big and sees over you. You're going to have to make her give it up and you're going to have to close out (on the shooter she finds). Bobbitt hurt us in the second half. If you're not harassing her on that three … as good as they are it takes a lot of rotation, it takes a lot of help, it takes a lot of work ethic and it takes a tremendous amount of energy. This is a game that we have to learn how to win, on the road and in a tough environment, but that's what we're trying to do and expect to do."
Tennessee built on its lead in the second-half, but the game didn't get away from Mississippi State until there was less than five minutes to play. It was a seven-point game, 47-40, with 7:40 to go, but then Hornbuckle and Parker had back-to-back layups, and the lead never again dipped below double digits.
Bobbitt hit a three after a crossover move that left her defender on the wrong side and within three minutes, Tennessee's lead was 16 points.
"In this league, it takes 40 minutes," Fanning said. "Against Tennessee, it takes 40 great minutes. You have to play great basketball."
Mississippi State's next game is this Sunday against LSU, the SEC's lone undefeated team in conference play.
"We're blessed to have LSU twice and Tennessee twice this year," Fanning said with a smile of the rotation system that has teams playing certain ones twice, plus a natural rival (for MSU that is Ole Miss). "That just gives you more opportunity, makes you tougher. You have to expect to win. We're going to get better, and we're going to hang in there."
Fanning and Summitt are both seeking 40-minute efforts from their teams. Summitt has seen it on rare occasions this season – and the issue seems to be that not all five players are fired up at the same time.
"We came out, we weren't too intense, we weren't really inspired as coach said," Hornbuckle said. "We just have to learn to play 40 minutes because come tournament time you have one opportunity.
"You have 40 minutes to win or lose. We don't have time to flip the switch on and off."
Some teammates did watch the No. 2 UT men beat No. 1 Memphis on Saturday night and took a lesson from that performance.
"We watched it together – me, Shannon, Candace and Bird," Hornbuckle said. "Very excited. I was hyped up two hours before the game started like I was about to play."
"I was nervous. I thought I was out there playing," Bobbitt said.
"They did a great job," Hornbuckle said. "They came out inspired. They played for 40 minutes, very intense, never got discouraged. Chris Lofton didn't have the offensive game that he usually plays and everybody else just stepped up. I'm proud of the men's team and Coach Pearl is doing a great job with them."
Summitt sees a team that she has to push. Last year the players acknowledged that they took possessions off to conserve energy. This season they have mentioned losing focus on occasion.
"I think this team has to be challenged constantly, because they'll play in spurts," Summitt said. "We as a coaching staff we think every player should bring it on every possession, and that's our challenge for this team right now and not just think that, hey, they can flip the switch come postseason.
"In the second half obviously stepped up, great intensity, made a lot of good things happen, generated a lot of opportunities off of our defense and our board play. Board play was much better."
Summitt is more at ease with the play of Baugh off the bench. The freshman forward is 7-7 in her last two games and has reached a higher comfort level on the court.
"My comfort level is a lot better, too," Summitt said. "I'm going to sleep a lot better at night knowing that Vicki Baugh is really coming into her own and been more efficient. She's very passionate about playing defense and rebounding the basketball, but the one challenge that we've placed in front of Vicki is that we want her to be more aggressive offensively, and she's responded.
"She is a player come postseason that's going to be very important to what happens when we go to the bench. We're going to need a Vicki Baugh to come in and there's going to be a game she can greatly impact the outcome. I'm proud to see where she is right now as far as her focus on being a scorer and not just a passer and a rebounder and defender."
Bobbitt also smiled when asked about Baugh's development.
"We need all players, and Vicki is definitely a key for us," Bobbitt said. "She can almost do it all, run the floor, dribble the ball. She's very athletic and we're definitely going to need her to step up her play and so far she's been doing all right and she's learning every game and every practice so she's going to be just fine."
The Lady Vols had plenty of fan support Sunday as 20,249 packed the arena – the largest turnout of the season – and Thursday will be the final home contest of the season when Florida comes to town.
"It pumps us up," Bobbitt said of seeing orange-clad fans sitting up to the rafters. "Before the game we didn't expect it to be so crowded. We were like, ‘Wow. It's going to be packed.' We can just imagine Thursday's game. It's going to be packed. We're definitely going to put on a great performance."
Bobbitt will be one of five seniors – Anosike, Auguste, Hornbuckle and Parker are the others – saying farewell to the home fans.
"I am definitely sad," Bobbitt said. "I love the hospitality here and I was only here for two years. I'm definitely going to enjoy my last game on Thursday and I am definitely going to give it my all, but I'm definitely sad. But I'm going to come back and visit so always a Lady Vol."