Lady Vols fall to Virginia, 83-82

Tennessee has an extensive to-do list after an 83-82 loss to Virginia and defense will likely be at the top. Pat Summitt also added physical and mental toughness and establishing go-to players on both sides of the ball – when Tennessee needs a basket and a stop, two areas in which the Lady Vols fell short Monday.

A significant part of preseason was spent on offense, and the Lady Vols did tally 82 points against a ranked Virginia team. But Tennessee, 1-1, also allowed 83 points – including a career-high 35 points for Monica Wright – and the attention will turn to defense. With seven newcomers, the Lady Vols have a lot to learn and the first loss of the season underscores exactly what.

In her post-game press conference Pat Summitt opened her remarks by noting her team's lack of toughness.

"I thought we played a team that was mentally and physically a lot tougher than us, and that's very disappointing," Summitt said. "There aren't many times in my career that I can say that, thank goodness, and I hope we can do something about it and learn from this."

"Give Virginia a lot of credit, because they maintained their composure," Summitt added. "They made the runs they had to make, and they're just a tougher team than us, as much as it hurts me to say it, it's the absolute truth. We've got to get a lot tougher."

A Tennessee team lacking wherewithal will face two options – get better or face a withering season. The Lady Vols sounded as if they were ready for option one.

"You learn more from a loss than you do a win," sophomore guard Cait McMahan said. "We'll just have to come out in practice (Tuesday) and every day from here on out and just rebuild.

"We all hate to lose on this team. We weren't supposed to lose this game and we did. To me everything happens for a reason, and we're going to come out and keep doing what we're doing and get better and hopefully we can rebound and just learn a lot. A lot. I think our freshmen saw some things. This is Virginia. You go from San Francisco to Virginia – that's a huge difference."

Virginia, 2-0, was led by Wright, who scored seemingly at will against Tennessee via long range, short jumpers and penetration. Aisha Mohammed tallied 19 points and Whitny Edwards added 13. Britnee Millner had nine points, none more important than the final one from the free throw line, which was the margin in the game.

Tennessee had six players in double figures with 13 points apiece from Glory Johnson and Briana Bass. Shekinna Stricklen and Sydney Smallbone had 12 each, McMahan added 11 points and Kelley Cain chipped in with 10.

Tennessee had enough offense to win the game – especially after shooting 51.7 percent in the first half to lead 43-35 – but the defense was porous, as evidenced by Virginia's 50 percent field goal percentage. No team shot 50 percent or better against Tennessee last season.

"We just weren't tough," Summitt said. "We just didn't have the competitive drive on every possession, and you have to. We played in spurts. I thought Virginia maintained the intensity throughout the 40 minutes."

The team will return to practice Tuesday afternoon and the to-do list will likely include in-bounds plays, late-game situations, boxing out, rebounding and immersion in defensive principles – denial, help-side, inside, outside and transition.

"We've got to change our mindset defensively and on the boards and get a lot better in that area," Summitt said.

After basically owning the boards in the first three games – one official game and two exhibitions – Tennessee had just a 39-38 edge over the Cavaliers, who tallied 18 rebounds on the offensive end to keep possessions alive. Virginia had 17 second-chance points to 15 from Tennessee.

"I think we competed in stretches, but you can't win against a veteran team like that if you're just competing in stretches and not consistently doing what you need to do," Summitt said.

But Summitt, despite her annoyance with the outcome, also knows her team is young and missing two key players. She got one player back Monday in Cain, a 6'6 redshirt freshman center who missed a week of practice with a concussion and was just cleared to play before the game.

"Kelley Cain hasn't been in practice for a number of days," Summitt said. "I thought she battled hard, but we weren't as efficient as we needed to be."

When the game was on the line, the ball was in the hands of freshmen – four were on the floor in Cain, Johnson, Bass and Stricklen – and redshirt senior Alex Fuller, who played sparingly for three seasons behind Candace Parker and has taken on a tremendous role this season as she tries to do the on-court equivalent of herding cats. Her voice could be heard throughout the game – she played 28 minutes and continued to direct traffic from the bench when out of the game – as she tried to get players in the right place on offense and defense.

"We're young, but if we use that as an excuse, we're not going to get better, so we can't use that as an excuse," Summitt said.

The other two players that were missed were sophomore shooting guard Angie Bjorklund, who is being treated for a back injury and is day to day, and Vicki Baugh, who is rehabbing from off-season ACL surgery.

"Absolutely," Summitt said. "You've got Angie Bjorklund and Vicki Baugh, and we're not relying on those freshmen to make the big plays for us. Hopefully it will help us, though, hopefully just being in this situation."

The storyline for Virginia was the play of Wright, who nailed a three-pointer with 1:32 left in the game after Tennessee had pushed the lead to five on two Cain free throws. A steal by Edwards on the next Lady Vol possession resulted in a tie game at 80-80.

"We knew Monica Wright was a great go-to player," Summitt said. "We did not limit touches. She pretty much had her way and Mohammed went off as well."

The scouting report on Wright was not to leave her open, but the 5'11 junior forward found free spots against Tennessee no matter who was guarding her and whether the Lady Vols were in man to man or matchup zone.

"I think going into this game my biggest concern was our defense," Summitt said.

The performance didn't take McMahan by surprise. She played with Wright when both participated in the USA Youth Development Festival.

"She played outstanding," McMahan said. "I played USA with her in high school and I knew that she was going to be a great player. We knew that coming in and for some reason we just didn't execute. That's our fault. It was in the scouting report so we as players have to take the blame for that."

Wright played the entire first half and had 18 points by the break. She missed one minute of the second half and finished with 35 points, eight rebounds and five steals.

"I was just trying to play relaxed and not force anything," Wright said. "Coach Ryan settled me down a couple times. I was doing a little bit too much. She said, ‘Relax, play your game, play within yourself,' and it came to me. I didn't force anything and I had my team there to rebound for me if I missed."

Virginia took a six-point lead in the first half, but Tennessee got both its running and long range game on track and burst to a 13-point lead, 43-30, with 2:04 left in the first half.

Bass had perhaps the crowd-pleaser move of the game when she got a steal, went nearly the length of the floor, hesitated just beyond the arc, crossed-over her defender and finished with an up-and-under bank shot to break a 17-17 tie at the 11-minute mark.

With the crowd energized Tennessee went on an offensive flurry, but Wright and Mohammed answered with enough offense to cut the halftime deficit to eight points. Still, the Lady Vols had 27 points off 17 Virginia turnovers by the break.

"I reminded my team before we started the game that we really couldn't afford to have a lot of turnovers like we did," Virginia Coach Debbie Ryan said. "We were just out there doing things that were very uncharacteristic of this team and even our veteran players were doing that. I really just wanted them to settle down and stop the live turnovers.

"We only had six in the second half, and that was the difference in the game. I knew that once we settled down and didn't give them 27 points on turnovers that we would have a chance to win the game. I felt like down eight was not that bad and we knew that it wasn't that bad and we came back out with a renewed sense of where we wanted to be to start the second half."

Tennessee only got five points off turnovers in the second half to finish with 32 for the game.

Turnovers were the ultimate difference in the game as Tennessee had two in the final two minutes that allowed Virginia trim the lead and then tie the game at 82.

"Those make and break the game," Smallbone said. "Obviously the game is 40 minutes long, but when it's a crucial time like that you've got to be able to make the plays. We always run four-minutes segments in scrimmages and practice and so we've been in those pressure situations against our practice team.

"But now that we're on that big stage and in that actual game it's something we need to mature a lot more in, and those turnovers broke us. We need to learn from those and fix them."

The final margin came after Tennessee set up a final play intended to go inside. But that option was shut down, and Stricklen curled around the left side and missed an awkward offering.

"That was an option for us to look to go to her, but we were looking to get the ball inside either off a pass or off penetration, try to get to the free throw line," Summitt said.

Stricklen was called for her fifth foul while trying to trap Millner on the sideline, and she buried her hands in her face on the bench. Millner hit one of the two free throws, Fuller got the offensive rebound, and Bass called timeout. But Tennessee couldn't get a shot off as time expired before Bass could get the ball up court.

"Britnee is nothing but a ball of energy," Ryan said. "I could have left her in the whole game and she'd still have enough to walk home. She's a player that you've got to coach because she wants to do everything all at once and you have to get her to take one step at a time, but I thought she did a really nice job on Bass at the end of the game.

"Bass is a speedy little player, not many guards are going to be able to contain her. I thought Britnee did a fairly good job on her tonight."

Bass electrified the crowd of 11,627 with her speed and two 3-pointers, especially the one at the 2:46 mark to give Tennessee a 78-73 lead. She also had two defensive boards, five assists, three steals and just one turnover.

Smallbone hit three 3-pointers and has filled in admirably at the shooting guard position for Bjorklund, who has a bulging disc in her lower back and has yet to play this season.

"Syd's been great," Summitt said. "She's done a great job for us. She's really getting her shot off a lot quicker, and has been efficient for us. She does it in a quiet way, but I don't have a problem with that. If I look at the film I thought she did a good job defensively, but you always learn more when you watch it over and over and over, which I will."

Summitt sounded as if she intended to spend the rest of Monday evening with a copy of the game, the remote and pad and pencil. But she was already clear on one thing immediately after the game: She wants her young team to grow up quickly.

"I just didn't think we had the toughness and then we have a costly mistake at the end at the game and a technical foul, which should have never happened and better not ever happen again," Summitt said.

Summitt was referring to a technical foul called on Johnson that allowed Virginia to get within one point, 74-73, with 3:38 left. Johnson and Edwards got tangled up after Edwards fouled her on a drive to the basket.

"I didn't see it," Summitt said. "Apparently he (the official) thought that she threw an elbow. But as I told her it's not about her. She's got to keep her composure. Everyone has to do that. You get frustrated and obviously she was very frustrated. But this was a very physical game, and we took a lot of physical contact in this game and I thought they were a lot more physical than we were."

Johnson seemed surprised by the call.

"I think that was a tough call," Johnson said. "I thought we were both going for the ball, and it was getting physical on both sides of the court, back and forth on offense and defense, and it just so happened that I got the technical foul. We got tied up, and I got the call."

It was a critical call in the game, but Tennessee still had the lead and was able to boost it with a free throw and three-pointer by Bass to a five-point margin.

But Virginia kept feeding the ball to its go-to player in Wright and a backup in Mohammed – who scored 14 of her 19 points in the second half – and Tennessee didn't have an answer at the end.

"Obviously, we don't have an established go-to player consistently, and we're having to do this more as a team," Summitt said. "That hurt us. They had two go-to players, and we didn't have that. I have to remind myself that we are young, and we play a lot of young players, but eventually someone has got to step up and take a little bit more responsibility."

Ryan was thankful for the presence of two on her team.

"It's incredibly easier to be able to formulate who you're going to go to and how you're going to do it," Ryan said. "When you have two players like this, one underneath the basket, one outside, you know that she has the confidence to take the shot, she has the confidence to clean up the boards and finish, which she did a lot.

"She (Mohammed) was on the weak side a lot and cleaned up our misses and made shots, which I thought were huge in the second half. It's really important that you be able to have somebody who is a go-to player and when Tennessee turns over as many players as they did last year they just haven't quite developed the go-to."

Last year the go-to on offense was Candace Parker. On defense, Alexis Hornbuckle and Alberta Auguste could shut down or limit perimeter players, and Nicky Anosike could guard inside and out.

Smallbone sounded as if she had already identified a go-to candidate for this season.

"Candace was a great player for us, and teams keyed in on her a lot," Smallbone said. "But I think with people like Kelley Cain, we've got to get her more touches, because she is a big body down low and we didn't give her the touches she needed, especially in the first half. I thought she could have set that tempo and the key was her down low.

"We didn't get her the ball, and I thought that made the difference. It's something we've got to work on as guards."

The defense will have to be a team-wide effort.

"Just getting everyone to commit to playing great defense every possession, and they're young and they'll take possessions off and that's what happened," Summitt said. "We went to our bench and they took possessions off, even early in game. It's just going to be a lot more repetitions for us, and we've just got to grow up."

Virginia became just the 10th team to win in Thompson-Boling Arena and handed the Lady Vols only the 19th loss since the venue opened for the 1987-88 season.

"We didn't know this was the 19th win," Wright said. "Now that we know we definitely feel like we're part of history.

"Coach Ryan reminded us don't be intimidated by the names on the jerseys, just go out there and play our game and focus on us. This place is definitely legendary. You've got so many players that came out of here in the WNBA or are coaching right now. It was really important for us to just play the team we were playing against right now and not be intimidated by such a prestigious place."

"We have a great deal of respect for this program and this place," Ryan said. "Like Monica said it's legendary. They've got a gazillion national championships and Pat Summitt is one of the best coaches in the whole country. This is just a great win for us."

Summitt knew her young team would take some hits this season, but she does expect them to defend the home court.

"We haven't lost that many times in this building, and we don't want that to become a habit by any means," she said.

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