"I guess I should start off by saying everyone in the building and all of you probably have the opinion that we haven't worked on defense, not a day," Coach Pat Summitt said in her post-game press conference. "About the most miserable defense that a team could play when it comes to defending the three ball and believe it or not we did work on it, and we talked about it.
"But from the standpoint of finding a way to win that's always a good thing."
Tennessee, 2-1, found that way with a three-pointer from Alicia Manning that tied the game at 63-63 with 1:21 left on a night when the Lady Vols seemingly couldn't hit a jump shot or a free throw.
Manning's shot from the left corner came in transition on a feed from fellow freshman Glory Johnson, and Manning took a split second to set her feet and then launched a shot that looked good as it left her hand.
"Alicia came in and just did great," sophomore forward Vicki Baugh said. "She stepped it up big time. We definitely needed her to come out with the victory, and I think all the freshmen should look up to her for the way she played at the end of the game and also us."
Tennessee's other method for success was to get stops on defense when UTC had all the momentum and the majority of the 7,008 in attendance behind them at McKenzie Arena.
"We just came together and played tough defense like we should've since the beginning of the game," Baugh said. "We're going to have to pull that together the whole game and not just turn it up when it gets close because it should never get close."
On the possession before Manning's tying shot, Baugh blocked Jenaya Wade Fray's shot, UTC maintained possession, missed the next shot and Johnson ended up with the defensive board.
On UTC's possession after Manning's shot, Baugh blocked Bailey Dewart's shot – Dewart had been the go-to player for the Lady Mocs behind the arc – and got fouled as she came down with the rebound. Baugh hit one free throw to give Tennessee a 64-63 lead with 52 seconds left – its first lead since the 11:42 mark of the second half when the score was 49-47.
"Her athleticism," Summitt said of the decision to reinsert Baugh late in the game. "It was more for defense than offense. The main thing for her then was play good solid defense and obviously she's always been committed to being a good rebounder."
Baugh had practiced with the team at Thursday's session and got a surprise start – she has not played since the NCAA title game in Tampa – after the coaching staff decided to open the game with athleticism and a large lineup.
"I think her presence meant a lot," Summitt said. "I was on her about not making her free throws. I thought just having her on the floor was a good thing. I didn't realize she played 22 minutes."
Summitt had five freshmen on the floor at crunch time in Briana Bass, Alyssia Brewer, Shekinna Stricklen, Manning and Johnson with the Lady Vols down three, 63-60. But at the 2:26 mark Summitt opted to go with Baugh for Brewer. A minute later McMahan came in for Bass to put two sophomores on the floor with three freshmen.
"Vicki is really quick and she's got a bigger presence on defense and I wanted her in there for that very reason," Summitt said. "She's had a year of college experience. She's played in a Final Four. She understands how to compete. She's a quick jumper.
"Lyssi, don't get me wrong, she's bringing a lot more to this team every day but when you're talking about Vicki Baugh, if I had to say who's the most athletic player in terms of quickness it would probably be a jump ball between Glory and Vicki. Those two are just so light on their feet and they're so quick from point A to point B."
Baugh had some discomfort in her left knee after the game – she had ACL surgery last May – but said it was something she needed to be able to play through on the court.
"I tried not to think about my knee, just have my teammates' back, just anything that I could do," Baugh said. "Just try not to think about my knee was the main thing because coming off of an injury is difficult for some people, and I didn't want that to be the case for me.
"I'm not going to lie. It was some pain, but it's just something I have to play through. The knee just has to get used to that intense environment. I hadn't played on it that long since I got hurt so it just takes some getting used to.
"I'm definitely very excited. I'm looking forward to plenty more."
The Lady Vols struggled offensively from the start and although they built an eight-point lead, 30-22, late in the first half, the Lady Mocs connected on three 3-pointers in the final 2:40 to cut the deficit to 36-33 at halftime.
Tennessee started strong in the second half –McMahan and Brewer moved into the starting lineup for Sydney Smallbone and Baugh – and built a 10-point lead, 49-39, within seven minutes. But the Lady Mocs got open behind the arc and drained six three-pointers in the second half to wipe out the deficit and take the lead. Tennessee got its 50th point on a free throw by McMahan at the 10:14 mark and then didn't score until a free throw by Johnson at 7:43.
It wasn't for lack of chances – the Lady Vols took 61 shots – but everyone in orange was misfiring. As a team Tennessee shot 34.4 percent from the field overall (21-61), 9.1 percent from long range (1-11) and 23-43 from the line (53.5 percent).
Johnson led Tennessee with 19 points and 13 rebounds. Brewer joined her in double figures with 10 points.
McMahan had seven points, four assists and no turnovers. Amber Gray and Manning had seven points apiece. Shekinna Stricklen added nine points and changed tactics in the second half by abandoning her shaky jump shot and getting to the rim. Stricklen also had seven rebounds with five coming on the offensive end.
Johnson's presence was apparent all over the floor. Besides leading the team in points and rebounds, she had two assists and four steals. She also struggled from the line – 9-15 – but twice got her own misses. As the shot clock was winding down in the second half, she fired a pass to Alex Fuller under the basket and got the assist. Johnson cleaned up one teammate's miss by soaring above the rim for the board and converting the basket.
"I thought Glory Johnson was so active," Summitt said. "She's such a great athlete, but she's also a fierce competitor. And while Stricklen has been really struggling I thought in the end she stepped up and made some good plays and got some boards for us that were key."
Chattanooga was led by Shanara Hollinquest with 17 points and 11 rebounds. Dewart had 12 points on the strength of four 3-pointers. Point guard Tenisha Townsend had seven rebounds. Six different Lady Mocs hit from behind the arc – Dewart, Wade-Fray, Hollinquest, Erin Ogan, Andrea Neil and Megan Rollins.
Rollins factored into a play at the end that UTC Coach Wes Moore took the blame for when Rollins couldn't in-bound the ball with 2.6 seconds left and Tennessee ahead, 64-63. Rollins, who had Johnson fronting her, called a timeout that Chattanooga didn't have. That was an automatic technical foul – two shots and the ball for Tennessee.
"He told me to throw it long," Rollins said. "And I didn't realize that we didn't have any timeouts left because I thought the one before that was a media timeout."
"I'm very proud of our kids and I'm disappointed in myself," Moore said. "We really probably were not prepared for the full court play and that falls on me and we did not do as good enough a job stressing that we were out of timeouts. That all falls on my shoulders, and it's very disappointing to feel like what could have been."
But the Lady Vols misadventures at the free throw line weren't over as they missed two of four attempts. McMahan made one of two to push the lead to 65-63. UTC fouled immediately when UT in-bounded the ball, and Stricklen hit one of two free throws for the final 66-63 margin and rebounded her own miss as time expired.
Tennessee also prevailed with its board play – four offensive rebounds in the final six seconds and 22 on the offensive end for the game and 45 rebounds overall, to 39 for the Lady Mocs, which had just 11 on their end of the floor.
The biggest offensive board of the game came when Baugh rebounded a McMahan miss with six seconds left by extending every inch of her arm over UTC's Ogan and then getting fouled as Ogan turned for the ball. That was Ogan's fifth foul; Hollinquest had picked up her fifth with 52 seconds left.
"I thought she had pretty good position on that rebound so that was a tough call for us," Moore said. "That hurt us on the full court play as well because that's two veterans that had ran that for three or four years."
Given Tennessee's yips at the free throw line, it seemed like an odd decision to let McMahan take the clock down from 36 to six seconds before she took a shot that rolled out. Baugh got the above-mentioned rebound and the Lady Vols secured the win.
"We probably should've," Moore said when asked if he considered fouling McMahan or another Tennessee player to preserve more time for a final possession for UTC. "There are a lot of things that I'm going to look back on this game and second-guess myself over. That is something that we considered and probably should have tried to do.
"It's just tough when you're one-point down and you have a chance, you feel like, to get a stop. In hindsight we maybe should have."
UTC got the stop with the missed shot, but not the rebound.
"We've got to find a way to get that stop when we need it and get the rebound when we need it, because obviously they killed us on the offensive boards," Moore said. "That's Tennessee. That's Tennessee basketball."
Both coaches looked weary in the post-game press conference. Moore was ruing what could have been.
"I'm proud of the effort and I feel bad because, again, I feel like I let them down," Moore said. "It's tough. It's a tough loss. Nobody remembers you coming close. You've got to finish it.
"I know it'll stick with me awhile. Tennessee tradition, Pat Summitt, all those things, you get a chance like this you hate to let it slip away."
Summitt's departing words to the media was she wasn't sure how many of these games she could take. But she was smiling at least.
"I was crazy at halftime," Summitt said. "I was so upset with them. We found a way to win and I'm proud of them for that, but we have such a long uphill battle for getting it right defensively and having passion for it.
"I think when we get Angie Bjorklund back and when Vicki's had some more reps and we get Kelley Cain, we'll be a lot better. We've been without three players that could really be difference makers for us so hopefully we'll get them all healthy here soon."
Cain, a 6'6 redshirt center who had been solid on both sides of the ball in preseason, didn't make the trip Friday because of lingering effects of a concussion suffered in practice Nov. 10. Bjorklund, last year's SEC Freshman of the Year and the team's sharpshooter, has a bulging disc in her lower back and has yet to play this season.
That means Summitt and her staff have used freshman-laden lineups for the first three games. Fuller, who had four rebounds and three steals, is the sole senior. McMahan didn't play last season to recover from knee surgery. Smallbone, a sophomore who played 36 minutes against Virginia, switched roles Friday with Manning, who played eight minutes against Virginia and 17 against Chattanooga on a hunch by Summitt that paid off when Manning hit the biggest shot of the game.
"I think she's a player that likes to have the ball in pressure situations," Summitt said. "I've gained more and more respect for her game just watching her in practice and I felt like going in – maybe I predetermined – but I wanted to play her more minutes."
Manning was left alone in the left corner and was calling for the ball. The play was set up by Baugh's block and Johnson's defensive rebound. Johnson pushed the ball down court and fired the pass to Manning.
"Very poor transition defense," Moore said. "We've struggled in practice trying to make sure we communicate and we pick people up and that was a tough time to lose somebody. Obviously if we maintain that three-point lead the pressure is going to get tougher and tougher on them. I think that probably gave them the lift they needed to finish the job."
After the game the UTC players realized they had come tantalizing close to toppling the in-state power.
"We've been working really hard," said Dewart, whose long-range shooting nearly carried UTC to the win. "It finally paid off, and we played our hearts out. They put their shorts on just like we put our shorts on.
"I pretty much thought the entire game we had it. You just have to go in confident, and I thought we did that. I thought everyone played really hard. We could have rebounded a little bit more offensively, but I thought everybody played their hearts out."
Townsend, a freshman point guard from Nashville, said she shook off her nerves when the game started.
"Well, I must admit I was kind of nervous at first, but I have to get over it," Townsend said. "Once they tipped it off I was fine. I thought we fought hard all the way through."
UTC had 17 turnovers – a number Moore said he could accept against Tennessee – but the Lady Vols can look to ball security as one reason they did manage to win. Tennessee had eight turnovers for the game and just two in the second half.
Tennessee also found some inside scoring from Johnson and Brewer, especially in the first half. The two accounted for 13 of the Lady Vols' first 19 points.
"I credit our team," Summitt said. "I thought we did a nice job of getting inside touches. We ran some action to do that."
Brewer also showed no reluctance to post up in this game and upped her minutes significantly from eight in the Virginia game to 18 on Friday. Fellow freshman Gray was 3-5 from the field – she also showed some offensive touch around the rim – and upped her minutes from three to 13 over the past two games.
But with so many young players on the floor Tennessee also struggled to find any rhythm offensively. Summitt was shuttling players in and out in both halves trying to find effective combinations, but the team couldn't get many shots to fall.
"It's not for lack of effort," Summitt said. "It's not for lack of repetition in practice. I think it's probably a young team."
That young team won't have much turn-around time. The players will watch film and practice Saturday and then Louisiana Tech is in town for a 3 p.m. tipoff at Thompson-Boling Arena on Sunday.
As far as defense, the Lady Vols can look to the final three minutes when they got the stops they needed and held the Lady Mocs scoreless to finish the game.
"We did, but we had to," Summitt said. "We had to make a run and fortunately we were able to do so. I think for the most part they outplayed us and they were much more efficient offensively in my opinion and played very smart defense.
"Again, we found a way to win in the end and I'm never going to overlook that because when you get a team that does that you know they've got it in them."