The Lady Bulldogs had a chance to earn a first-round bye in the SEC tourney – Kentucky lost at home Sunday against South Carolina and a Georgia win would have meant the No. 4 seed – on top of the motivation of playing against Tennessee on Senior Day at Stegeman Coliseum.
"Matthew better send me a fruit basket or something," Pat Summitt said of Kentucky Coach Matthew Mitchell. "First of all Georgia always plays inspired and tough against us. We've had some really tough matchups. And knowing if they win this game they're probably going to be taking that first day off – and that's a great advantage – and we were thinking we don't want to put ourselves in any chance of losing a number one seed or putting that in the hands of the committee for question.
"If we can keep playing the way we're playing I think we'll like what we see in the end."
Summitt wasn't particularly pleased with how her team played in the first half, but she did like how her team responded in the second half. Seeding was also on Summitt's mind – not the SEC placement but the NCAA selection committee.
"You never want to put it in the hands of anyone else," Summitt said. "You want to keep it in your own hands. A lot of things can happen here in these tournaments as well."
Summitt was concerned that a loss to Georgia could cost the Lady Vols a number one seed.
"We lose here and we don't win the SEC, honestly we could," Summitt said. "There's a lot more games to be played. You want to control what you can control, and we did that by playing the way we played in the second half."
Georgia Coach Andy Landers talked post-game about squandered chances, but he wasn't speaking of seeding.
"Was I aware that Kentucky lost?" Landers asked. "Yes. But who sits around and thinks about that when you've got a chance to beat the number three ranked or whatever they are team in the country?"
Landers' game plan was to handle Candace Parker one-on-one for the most part and let her get her points. Parker led all scorers with 30 points and one Georgia post player, Angel Robinson, fouled out with 5:59 left in the game.
The plan was working well – Georgia led at halftime, 29-26, and the game was tied 41-41 with 11:47 to go – but then Shannon Bobbitt erupted for eight points in two minutes.
"The idea was let's play each player a certain way," Landers said. "Where we broke down on that was when Bobbitt got to the basket. We didn't want to give up a lot of threes. We were reasonably good with that until Bobbitt hit a couple of those. Bobbitt hurt us in the second half.
"She broke our plan, but Parker got too many. We still could have won had we not made a lot of the turnovers (17) and the other mistakes that we made, but our idea was that we guard everybody a certain way and keep them from doing certain things and if Parker scores 25 points, that would be OK with us as long as others didn't do their thing. But Bobbitt did so that's the deal breaker."
The Lady Vols were 2-10 behind the arc with Angie Bjorklund misfiring three times from long range. So Bjorklund got on the boards – she ended up with six – and got two steals in the second half.
"You look at Angie's stats," Parker said. "She didn't have a good shooting night, but she really got on the boards. I think we've really taken that into account that we do have to rebound."
Tennessee prevailed on the boards, 38-29, in a battle that was really that close. Georgia got just six offensive boards, despite shooting 43.1 percent and had two second-chance points. Tennessee shot 51.7 percent and still had 14 offensive rebounds to keep possessions alive.
There was no bigger offensive rebound than the one grabbed by Alberta Auguste after Parker missed a baseline jumper with the Lady Vols ahead, 62-56.
Auguste slipped past the 6'3 Megan Darrah, grabbed the ball and stuck the putback. The basket pushed the lead to 64-56, which mattered even more when Tasha Humphrey nailed a three to get Georgia to 64-59 with 3:30 left in the game.
"Pat put it in my head that I have to rebound so when I saw the miss and I saw number 24 (Darrah) go for the boards I knew some kind of way I could grab it from her so I grabbed it," Auguste said.
"It was a huge play," Parker said. "Bird stepped up and coach harps on us about going to the offensive rebounds, and so she did a great job of cleaning up the glass. I was really proud of her. Our guards are capable of doing that.
"Our post players got kicked on the boards," Landers said. "Call it whatever you want. Most of the time we're backpedaling watching them rebound. Tenacity. We needed more of that in the last four or five minutes on defense. We didn't deflect. We didn't make them turn it over. We were pretty good the first half with that.
"(In the second half) we're puppy-dogging them. We're following them around, watching them catch balls and then letting them throw the ball over us inside to Parker. Just no defensive presence. I don't think it crossed some of our kids' minds."
Exploiting that passive defense was definitely on Summitt's mind. She spent the first half substituting frequently to keep fresh players on the floor – Parker was coughing post-game and Hornbuckle also wasn't completely healthy – and the second half imploring the guards to get to the rim.
Auguste scored eight points by nailing a jumper and getting deep in the paint. Bobbitt and Hornbuckle also put the ball on the floor and went right at Georgia's guards.
"I think athletically we had an advantage with our quickness, but we didn't take advantage of it in the first half," Summitt said. "We were a little bit more passive. In the second half we went with our man defense, and it gave us a chance to really be much more aggressive and obviously more disruptive with our defense."
Hornbuckle also scored eight points. She hit a floater from the wing and also went inside. Bobbitt ended the game with 15 points – she went to work when Parker went to the bench for a rest and Hornbuckle went to the point to get Bobbitt some open looks – and had the basket of the game as the Lady Vols had the ball and an eight-point lead with 22 seconds left.
As the shot clock ticked to four seconds, she uncorked a crossover move that left her defender at the top of the key. Bobbitt cut across the lane from the right side and finished with her left hand.
"I know Shannon's known for her three-point shot, but she's just as capable of getting to the rack," Parker said. "I think she did a phenomenal job of doing that and showing her versatility. She did a great job of running the team, and I was really proud of her and how she stepped up."
Parker noted that Bobbitt's "had a lot" of highlight-worthy crossover moves, but she pointed out "the left-hand finish. It was nice. I was really happy for her."
Tennessee's first 19 points of the game came from Parker (jumper); Bobbitt (layup); Bjorklund (layup); Anosike (layup); Alex Fuller (jumper); Auguste (jumper); Parker (free throw); Parker (jumper); Parker (layup); and Hornbuckle (layup).
Tennessee needed Parker to start the second half with a flurry of offense as nearly everyone else was misfiring, especially from the free throw line, where the Lady Vols were a collective 8-20 with Parker not faring much better at 4-9.
Parker scored 13 straight points for Tennessee in a stretch early in the first half and had 22 of the Lady Vols' first 38 points. She now has 1,930 for her career and is in fifth place on the all-time scoring list at Tennessee.
"Obviously our focus was on getting Candace the ball, because when she establishes the low block presence we're a different basketball team, and I felt like we could do that," Summitt said. "She worked hard at it, and she was getting a lot of contact, but I thought she was very persistent and worked to get good seals and get herself open on some back cuts, and the team got her the ball.
"We made that a point of emphasis, and our guards did a good job of getting the ball inside."
Tennessee had 12 assists led by Hornbuckle with four. The senior guard struggled in the game but ended with a solid stat line. Her two steals gave her 344 for her career – she is the all-time leader at Tennessee and moved past former Georgia legend Teresa Edwards (342) for seventh on the SEC list.
Hornbuckle had both the steal and the block of the game – though the box score doesn't credit her with a block – in the first half. She chased down Robinson, who was loose on the fast break, and deflected the intended pass off Robinson and out of bounds to Tennessee.
She also blocked a shot off the head of the 6'1 Christy Marshall, and the ball also was awarded to Tennessee out of bounds. But Hornbuckle played in spurts and bursts and had trouble getting in sync.
"I think she was a little low energy, but she stepped up and did some good things for us," Summitt said. "It was good to be able to put her at the point and free Shannon up a little bit, too. I don't think she probably felt like 100 percent, but they have (Monday) off so they can rest."
That announcement lifted Parker's tired head up at the post-game press conference and brought a smile to her face.
"I knew they were dying to know," Summitt said. "We're going to practice Tuesday, Wednesday and decide what we're going to do Thursday because that's a travel day for us."
Tennessee will travel to Nashville on Thursday, the day before the Lady Vols open tourney play. Are the Lady Vols ready for postseason?
"I think we're getting better," Summitt said. "It's hard. I've been there. Fortunately I've been there with a number of teams coming off championships and it's sometimes hard for them to get up for each and every game.
"I've been frustrated at times with this group, but I never gave up on them. I never lost hope that they would get it all together when they needed to get it together. I think they're starting to come together now and play much better."
Tennessee also has played all season with a short bench – Kelley Cain and Cait McMahan are rehabbing from knee surgery and taking redshirt years. Cain would have provided post depth and McMahan is a point guard. Bobbitt had to play 38 minutes Sunday, and Parker went 36. Hornbuckle logged the most at 39 minutes.
Baugh's stat line of two points and one board don't reflect her defensive play. She was solid on defense and hooked up with Hornbuckle on one play to deny a baseline drive in the second half. Baugh blocked the dribbler's path and then deflected the pass, which was snared by Bobbitt. Baugh sprinted the floor, went right to the low block and Bobbitt found her under the basket for Baugh's lone field goal.
"She's so active defensively, and I thought we needed an active defender coming in when Nicky got in foul trouble, and I chose her over Alex just because of her quickness and her ability to move and defend whether it's at the top of the key or in the paint or on the perimeter," Summitt said. "She's very agile and obviously very athletic."
Tennessee closed out the game well by answering any Georgia run. With the shot clock running down late in the game, Anosike found Hornbuckle, who was cutting across the baseline, for the basket and a 67-59 lead. After Marshall hit a jumper to pull Georgia within six, 67-61, Parker hit a layup and Summitt called timeout to set up full court pressure.
Bobbitt got a steal and then unleashed the crossover move. That made it 71-61, and effectively ended the game.
"I think all the guards knew at halftime they had to step up," Summitt said. "Alberta knew it, Lex knew it, Shannon knew it. I liked what she was doing as far as pushing tempo, but I told her you've got to hunt your threes; you've got to hunt shots period. We can play inside-out, which she is very unselfish in that regard, but I definitely challenged her to step up and be much more aggressive."
Christy Marshall had 15 points off the bench for Georgia. Darrah added 10 points, and Humphrey had 13. Parker hugged Humphrey as she left the floor for the last time.
"I've known Candace and all of them for a long time. We respect each other's game. On the court we're going to go at each other hard, but once we're off the court we're still going to be friends," said Humphrey, who is close friends with Hornbuckle and Anosike. "That's my best friend. Her and Nicky."
Sunday was senior night for three Lady Bulldogs, Humphrey, Darrah and the injured Rebecca Rowsey.
Humphrey switched from No. 34 to Rowsey's No. 50 in tribute to her teammate.
"She didn't know until I took off my shooting shirt," Humphrey said. "It was a surprise for her. She's done so much, and she's given so much to this program and unfortunately she's had injuries that have prohibited her from playing the amount of minutes and the amount of time that she's wanted to. Rowsey and I are pretty close, and (it was done) to show her that we appreciate her and we're thankful for having her as a teammate.
"She was crying. I was already emotional and Rowsey just added on to it."
Humphrey had warned her teammates at halftime to be ready for a response from Tennessee's guards.
"For the most part they were pretty dormant in the first half," Humphrey said. "By knowing Lex on a personal level she doesn't like to be in single digits when it comes to scoring."
But it was Bobbitt who poured in 13 second-half points. Hornbuckle did add six points and three assists in the final 20 minutes of the game. Parker had 12 points by halftime and added 18 more.
"Candace is going to do what Candace does," Humphrey said. "You can't afford to help off other people because they're such a great rebounding team, especially with Candace out there and Lex out there. We just thought it would be better for our basketball team to try to play her straight up. I know Candace can do a lot of things. We just thought it would be safer to let her get hers and try to limit everybody else.
"I think when Bobbitt went off in the second half that helped them. That hurt us. She's a great ball-handler. She's just so little. I remember looking on the free throw line trying to box her out and she's at my waist."
Landers cited Bobbitt as the difference-maker in the game.
"She was the deal breaker," Landers said. "She broke (Ashley) Houts down and went to the hole. We left her open a couple of times; she hit the threes. Up to that point we were in reasonably good shape. It was just poor defense."
The Tennessee guards had told themselves that they needed to use their quickness to get to the rack. Auguste went unimpeded once in the second half.
"Me, Shannon and Lex we talked about how we needed to take the guards on the Georgia team off the dribble," Auguste said. "We made it our priority, and we did what we had to do."
Tennessee also increased the defensive pressure in the second half and mixed it a few zone looks. Georgia had two shot clock violations and also went too deep into the clock on a number of occasions.
Georgia must now put the regular season in the past and get ready for a Thursday tournament game.
"For the most part, about 30 minutes, we played pretty well, and we showed we could play with a team like Tennessee," Humphrey said. "They're a very high-caliber basketball team, and they're well coached, and I think that gives us confidence going into the SEC Tournament. Those dark spots that we had in the second half we've got to regain our focus and regroup."
Summitt had talked to her team before the game about not losing any ground in the NCAA seeding process as the Lady Vols are vying for a top position.
"We talked about our seed, too," Auguste said. "That was the main thing going through our mind. We didn't want to lose, and we didn't want to give them a break."
LSU finished the regular season by beating Mississippi State and won the SEC championship by going undefeated in league play. Tennessee's lone loss in the conference was to LSU. The tourney is a shot at some redemption for the Lady Vols.
"We're on a mission now," Auguste said. "That's all I can say. We're on a mission."