"That was the beginning of it," Coach Pat Summitt said with a smile at her post-game press conference.
While the six freshmen stood at center court the current team and coaches plus Candace Parker and Alberta Auguste walked onto the floor and stood before and then under the banner as it was lifted to the ceiling of Thompson-Boling Arena.
"It was a little overwhelming for some of us," Summitt said. "When we started playing, we were impatient offensively. Once we settled down, we did a better job on the offensive end. I just smiled. It beats pulling your hair out."
Tennessee started out shooting 23 percent and by the first media timeout at the 15:53 mark the lead was 4-0 on two free throws by Glory Johnson and a 17-footer from Alex Fuller. That timeout was followed by a three-second violation and a three-pointer from San Francisco's Shay Rollins to draw the Dons within one at 4-3.
The Lady Vols continued to get good looks at the basket – although they were shooting early in the offense instead of working the ball inside – but the ball didn't drop very often, and the lead swung between one and seven points.
"I think our whole team was excited – the upperclassmen to finally get to play together with us and be a game that actually counts and us freshmen just watching the banner go up and knowing that's motivation for us for the next four years," Johnson said.
Summitt was preternaturally calm and she carried that state of mind into the locker room at halftime, when the Lady Vols led 32-24 thanks to a mini-flurry of scoring from their transition game with forward Alyssia Brewer and point guard Cait McMahan getting loose for fast break baskets.
"I was the calmest that I've ever been in 35 years in the locker room," Summitt said. "That was because they were so uptight. I expected it but not quite at that level. I said to our staff, ‘Do you think maybe we need to relax?'
"They had put so much pressure on themselves. It was obvious that they were like deer in headlights. In the second half, they settled down and played much better together. That's what a young team will do. It was good to get a game like this under our belts."
Despite the first-game nerves, Tennessee was led by two of its freshmen, Johnson and Shekinna Stricklen, who both started. Johnson had 17 points and 12 rebounds, and Stricklen added 12 points and nine boards. Fuller reached double digits in rebounds with 12 and maintained nearly constant chatter on the court as she tried to calm her jumpy teammates.
"Basically I'm trying to help them as much as possible," said Fuller, the team's lone senior.
The pre-game video show even makes note of that on the large scoreboard screen and the two tucked in the upper corners.
"One Senior. 11 Underclassmen. A New Era."
Thus states the introductions – complete with dimmed lights, music and fireworks – in yet another spectacle for the freshmen to watch wide-eyed before tipoff.
"I know they really don't know our system yet, so that just puts more pressure on me to make them get into it and make sure everybody is in check," Fuller said. "Coming in as a freshman, especially on a national championship team, it's going to be extremely hard to be able to click with everybody, to be able to learn the system as quickly as they need to. So keeping everybody accountable in practices and in games I think that's the key."
On Friday, Fuller ran her own mini-practice 30 minutes before the coaches even arrived. She had most of her teammates on the floor at Pratt Pavilion and was walking them through plays, directing traffic and running shells of the offense and defense.
The freshmen have joined a team trying to defend its national title despite the loss of five starters, but two key contributors from last season, sophomores Angie Bjorklund and Vicki Baugh, remain sidelined, and a third player, 6'6 redshirt freshman Kelley Cain, also was out.
The unavailability of those players was even on Summitt's mind on Friday night as she contemplated the season opener. Baugh continues to rehab from ACL surgery and is not scheduled to try to practice for another week. Cain took a blow to the face at practice last Monday and has been held out all week. She could possibly be cleared for this Monday's game against Virginia. Bjorklund has a bulging disc in her lower back and has been out for nine days. She is not expected to play Monday.
"We had two, and potentially three, starters not playing," Summitt said. "We're hopeful that we can get Kelley back for the Virginia game. Angie is going to be out a few more days."
Sydney Smallbone, who played limited minutes last season, has expanded her role this season by stepping into the lineup for Bjorklund. She had seven points, two rebounds, two assists and a block against San Francisco.
"Sydney Smallbone has stepped in and played with a lot of poise," Summitt said. "She's a better defender than she was a year ago. She's made a difference, and I'm pleased with her play."
Summitt also was pleased with the coaching job done by her former player, Tanya Haave, who had the Dons prepared to handle the pressure of the big stage of Thompson-Boling Arena. Haave, Assistant Coach Abby Conklin, also a former Lady Vol, and the USF team stayed on the sideline to watch the banner raising.
"Tanya did a great job of getting her team ready," Summitt said. "That doesn't surprise me. She knows what to expect, but getting everybody else ready and dealing with this environment and pressure is another story."
San Francisco was led by Rollins, who had 17 points and was cheered in the stands by her older brother, Jimmy Rollins, the shortstop for the World Series champion Philadelphia Phillies.
"He is here back in the back," Shay Rollins said at the post-game press conference, where Jimmy Rollins smiled from the back of the room as his sister pointed him out. "It's really special. I was talking to him last night and I was like, ‘I never imagined that I would have the opportunity to go to Tennessee and play. To be here and have him here is really nice."
Is the California native a Philly fan?
"Definitely," Shay Rollins said with a smile as big as her brother's.
"Our whole team are Philly fans now," Haave said.
The post-game mood was jovial for both teams. Summitt was glad to get the win and get more game film for her inexperienced squad.
"Our freshmen got quality time," Summitt said. "We'll have a classroom setting (Sunday) and watch film."
The Tennessee newcomers were happy to have the first official game in the books.
"It feels good knowing you're coming on a team that has a history of wins and the championships that we've had and six freshmen coming in and people underestimating the freshmen and knowing that we just did that, and we just won and we just played our hearts out first game," Johnson said.
Haave was happy that her young team, which has the goal of making the NCAA tourney this season, competed with the Lady Vols for a half and didn't play intimidated on one of the game's biggest stages.
"Their size and length just really got to us but I think for the first half I am really proud of the team," Haave said. "We competed and that was our goal – to compete with this team, that was what we were trying to get across. We did that. I think we competed all game, but I think their physical dominance caught up with us. We never gave up. We came here, and I think we got accomplished what we wanted to get accomplished, so very happy.
"Very rare are you going to sit here and say that you're happy with a 30-point loss but you have to be realistic, too. To be back here and to do this on the floor where I played – not exactly the floor; I was over at Stokely way back in the Dark Ages – but to come back here and play in Thompson-Boling and do that is really special."
Tennessee made its adjustment at halftime after the players talked among themselves and got some instruction from Summitt about basically just taking some deep breaths.
"We went in the locker room and just said that we needed to kind of calm down and play more together," Fuller said. We were rushing our shots, rushing our offense. We needed to settle down.
"I think we were more patient in the second half. Nobody was rushing any shots. Coach told us to play from the inside out, so we got the ball inside first and once they started doubling down we started kicking out more, getting jumpers, getting threes and rebounding."
Fuller and Smallbone started the second half with an inside-outside approach that ended with Smallbone draining the 15-footer. The Lady Vols got the running game going – albeit in spurts – and was able to get transition baskets in succession.
By the first media timeout at the 15:12 mark, Smallbone had hit a three-pointer and Fuller had connected from 10 feet to give the Lady Vols an 11-point lead, 41-30. The lead steadily grew until the final 29-point margin, 68-39.
Neither player shot well overall – Fuller was 2-10 and Smallbone was 3-10 – but both were responsible for settling down the team and increasing the defensive intensity.
"I think our communication was a lot better in the second half compared to the first half," Fuller said. "That was one of our main points in the locker room at halftime was that we needed to pick up our communication, and that helped a lot on defense."
The Dons did an excellent job of taking care of the basketball – they had just 10 turnovers – but shots that were uncontested in the first half now had a defender draped on the shooter.
Rollins, who was 3-6 from behind the arc in the first half, was 0-7 from that range in the second half and finished the game 5-25 overall. She had the 6'2 Stricklen tracking her across the court.
"Shekinna is a big, long, rangy guard," Summitt said. "She takes a lot of pride in her defense."
Stricklen didn't limit her smothering defense to the perimeter. While in pursuit of a loose ball in the corner, she leaped to throw it off a Don and flattened a spectator in the courtside seats. The girl toppled out of her chair and was checked by Jenny Moshak, the Lady Vols' chief of sports medicine, who also secured a Parker autograph for the young fan.
Stricklen tumbled over a row of chairs in practice in October and injured her elbow. Saturday's airborne attempt – and she did get Tennessee possession of the ball – was the last one Summitt wanted to witness, with one exception.
"I told her, ‘Don't go over a chair again,' " Summitt said. "That's the second time she's done that. I said unless we're in the national championship game and that could be the difference.
"She said, ‘Coach, I didn't mean to.' She lays it on the line. I've been watching her since the ninth grade. I'm glad that I not only get to watch her but coach her."
"I was going for the ball," Stricklen said. "I thought I got pushed, but I'm not sure. I tried to stop, because I saw the little girls. I was feeling kind of bad because I hit the little girl. But I'm OK."
The play was followed by a timeout and Stricklen checked on the girl before the game resumed and low-fived her. Stricklen then turned her attention back to blanketing Rollins.
"It's really hard," said Rollins, a senior guard. "I'm nothing but 5'4 so to have somebody that big on me means that I have to work extra hard to get open and work extra hard to run off of screens, and by the time I get the shot, I'm tired.
"But that's really no excuse. I have to be able to play at that tempo and get open and I know I'm going to play against girls bigger than me. This is just showing me what I have to do throughout the whole year to play during the season, to get to the postseason and play. When we make it to the tournament, these are the type of teams we're going to be playing against, so it was a really good experience really early on."
"They told me you were 5'7," said Haave, who is starting her third year at USF.
"Something like that," Rollins said with a laugh.
Haave knew that Rollins wouldn't wilt, despite the venue and the orange-clad crowd.
"She's a competitor, and she competes all the time," Haave said. "She never backs down from anyone. I knew for sure this was a game she wasn't going to back down from. I thought she was a little nervous at the beginning but she wasn't. She got out there and was not. I called that first play for her because I knew she would take the shot and she would not be afraid to take the shot.
"What she developed this past summer was her leadership and now she's playing both ends of the floor, leading our team. I think that she got a little bit tired because of the physical-ness of the game, but she's going to be our go-to player all year. She's mad that we lost, and I'm glad that she's mad about that."
Rollins' three 3-pointers in the first half kept USF close, but the Dons ultimately were done in by their shooting, and they finished at 18.6 percent for the game.
Tennessee's shooting percentage, meanwhile, opened at 23 percent midway through the first half but steadily climbed as the game progressed, and the Lady Vols finished at 40.0 percent.
Johnson followed a poor shooting performance in the second exhibition game by going 7-11 from the field and hitting 3-5 from the free throw line. Johnson also was one of the few players who seemed settled from the opening tip. Her hustle and relentless pursuit of the ball kept Tennessee on track, and she and Stricklen combined for 14 of the 32 first-half points.
"She played with a lot of energy," Summitt said. "I liked her decision-making. In the second exhibition game, she tried to follow up what she did in the first game. Today was a different story. She didn't have a good practice coming into this game, and I wasn't sure whether I was going to start her, but we started her, and she played well. She is a tremendous athlete. She can cover a lot of ground, and she's a quick jumper."
Johnson had 33 points in the first exhibition game. She had nine points on 2-11 shooting in the second one.
"I learned that I need a little more work on the outside than the inside," Johnson said with a knowing smile. "I'm dominant on my inside game but I still have a lot to work on, a lot to learn."
Learning will be a central theme this season as Summitt and her staff try to get one senior and 11 underclassmen playing the Tennessee way.
One lesson the team already seems to have absorbed is board play. They followed up dominating displays on the glass in the two exhibition games with a 64-41 edge against USF – with 42 coming on the defensive end. The teams combined to shoot 8-47 from behind the arc – 4-26 for USF, 4-21 for UT – and that created some long rebounds that allowed the Lady Vols to get out and run.
Brewer, who had eight points and nine rebounds, had one of the best coast-to-coast plays when she grabbed a board, went the length of the floor and made a nifty sideways move to avoid the charge and finish with at the rim. However, Summitt wants the forward to also look to pass before sprinting down the floor.
"Give it up to get it back," Summitt said of the process that she wants to see unfold on the fast break, although she noted that Brewer is capable of dribbling in that situation if a guard isn't coming back for the ball, but she would prefer that Brewer advance the ball with a pass.
All nine available players logged minutes and each one had at least two rebounds. Alicia Manning grabbed six, and Amber Gray had four. The 5'2 Briana Bass, who Summitt complimented for pushing tempo at the point, came down with four.
"I do like our board play overall," Summitt said. "Our guards not only can rebound, they want to rebound. And let's talk about point guard play. I thought Briana came in and did a nice job. She forces everyone to pick up the pace."
Stricklen, who got reps at point and wing, tallied nine rebounds.
"Coach tells us every day, ‘Go crash the boards. Four on offense go crash the board and on defense everyone,' " Stricklen said. "We have the heart to just go rebound. That's what she wants us to do."
Summitt joked after the game that the freshmen initially played like they wanted to get the program's ninth banner that day. It was a sense of urgency but not of the under-control variety needed to execute a game plan.
"I'm sure they were thinking, ‘That's what we're supposed to do,' "Summitt said. "All the freshmen had to be thinking that. There's no way they're going to do it right now, so relax."
The freshmen watched rather quietly at first and then burst into smiles and applause when the coaches and players were introduced one by one. When Auguste was introduced she walked out carrying the 2008 trophy and Parker, always a fan favorite, followed right behind her, not waiting for her own name to be called. By doing so the cheers washed down on both of them at the same time.
"I was excited," Stricklen said. "I think everyone was, especially the freshmen watching the 2008 banner go up. That was motivation for us, hoping that will be us next year standing out there in front of the banner."
The team posed for photos in front of and behind the banner for both sides of the arena and then watched as the official salute to the "2008 National Champions" was lifted to the rafters.
Parker, who was dressed up for the ceremony, changed into an orange T-shirt and jeans, and sat courtside to watch the game. Summitt noted that the presence of Parker, the reigning MVP and Rookie of the Year in the WNBA and Olympic gold medalist, also affected the freshmen.
The effect of Parker on the youngsters has been evident once in the past. When she stopped by practice to visit in preseason, Parker sat courtside and watched. After the session ended the freshmen, who usually bolt to the locker room, lingered. They sat down to talk to Parker, listened to everything she said and tried to act nonchalant. They clearly didn't want to leave the court as long as Parker – they were 14 when Parker began her storied career at Tennessee – was nearby, and the incident was instructive on just how young and impressionable they still are.
The Tennessee program has considerable reach, and Haave is excited about the Lady Vols making a return trip to San Francisco next season.
"I just think it's going to create buzz for our program," Haave said. "We have a 5,000-seat gym – I can't even call it an arena; it's a gym. But it's a gym with great character. Bill Russell's number is hanging up there, KC Jones,' Phil Smith's, Bill Cartwright's. You walk in, and it's got great character. It's a great place to watch a basketball game.
"Tennessee, as I well know, they travel well. I think we can sell that game out. We're going to start as soon as the season ends promoting that game. I think it's going to get our program in the Bay Area – that's what I was hired to do – get that back on the map. I told our team before the game, ‘You won't be the best unless you play the best, so you've got to find out where you've got to go, and what you've got to do to get where you need to go."
Haave, an All-American at Tennessee, also had a plug for her old team.
"I think they're going to be very, very good," Haave said. "I'm very proud as an alumnus to come back and see that. It's going to be fun watching them."