"Happy Thanksgiving," Summitt declared to the assembled media in a tone of voice that suggested anything but. "You can tell I'm really excited about it."
Tennessee, 4-1, got a 27-point win over Western Carolina, 2-2, but it was the fashion in which the final 20 minutes of the game unfolded that had the Lady Vol players hearing Summitt's voice in the locker room, and – the coach hopes – footsteps as injured players make their way back onto the court.
"I told our team we've got a lot of people on our basketball team right now that understand how to complete, and then we have a lot of people that doesn't understand it," Summitt said. "If they don't understand it they'd better understand in a hurry because we're not going to have any more games that we're going to be able to just come out and open up and extend the lead.
"It's just not going to be that way. We've got DePaul coming in. That's not going to be the case with DePaul. Then we've got to go on the road. The thing I told them is we pick and choose – some of us – when we play hard. As I told them at halftime if I were in some of their places knowing Kelley Cain is going to come back and step in and have a great presence for us I believe I would be working hard every day to prove my worth.
"I think the big thing is competition will eventually sort out the competitors. … They'll separate out. I also reminded them at halftime wait until Angie Bjorklund gets back (and) Alicia Manning. Those are two players that I think will make a big difference when they return and certainly Kelley Cain with her size. That gives us five post players, and I'm probably not going to play five deep. So I'd be trying to climb the ladder real fast."
Tennessee was led by Glory Johnson with 19 points, and Shekinna Stricklen added 13. Vicki Baugh recorded a double-double for the second consecutive game with 11 points and 15 rebounds. Briana Bass and Cait McMahan – 10 points for Bass, nine for McMahan – paced Tennessee at the point position and combined for five assists. Sydney Smallbone added nine points and three steals.
As a team the Lady Vols shot 47.5 percent from the field and 85.2 percent from the line. The Catamounts shot 29.8 percent but did stay very close on the boards as the Lady Vols only had a 41-34 advantage.
The trio of Baugh, Stricklen and Johnson combined for six blocks – none more eye-popping than Johnson's of a three-point attempt – and eight steals.
Baugh played 32 minutes in what amounted to a conditioning game for her as she continues to come back from reconstructive knee surgery and has now played three games in five days without setbacks.
"Vicki hasn't had the repetition," Summitt said. "I'm trying to get her as many minutes right now to get her comfortable and confident and to get her conditioning level where it needs to be, because she hasn't been able to do the conditioning, although she looks like she's pushing through it."
Baugh declared her physical state to be fine after the game.
"I feel fine," Baugh said. "I need to get stronger but I feel fine. A bit out of shape but that's just something that comes with picking it up and running."
Western Carolina was led by Lauren Powell with 14 points and Brooke Johnson with 12. Emily Clarke also reached double figures with 11 points and hit two 3-pointers.
Johnson, who is from nearby Seymour, Tennessee, impressed the coaches on both sidelines. She also had five boards and four blocks.
"She's solid," Summitt said. "Just watching her play against North Carolina, she's got a toughness to her. To me she's hard-nosed, she tough-minded, a skilled player, very, very competitive. I thought coming in that she was a player that would help Kellie in a lot of ways. She held her own in that game and obviously played tough and held her own here tonight."
"That's a pretty high compliment," Johnson said. "Pat's a great coach and I just came out here and wanted to play hard and see what we could do here."
Catamount Coach Kellie Jolly Harper, a standout point guard for the Lady Vols from 1996 to 1999, didn't like her team's lulls in the first half in which Tennessee built a 49-26 lead, but she did applaud the overall effort.
"We had a few minutes there in the first half where we struggled to score," Harper said. "We turned the ball over too many times and gave them the lead that they were able to maintain the rest of the game. I'm disappointed that we couldn't maintain our competitiveness with them for longer in the first half, but I'm proud of our kids' effort.
"I thought we played very hard and did some positive things. Our team is hopefully going to be like the Lady Vols and continue to improve. You haven't seen our best basketball yet either, and hopefully by the end of the year both teams will be competing for championships."
The coaches sounded eerily similar after the game – both disappointed with aspects of the game and both aware of how much better their teams could become. Of course it wasn't a typical matchup, not when Summitt greets the visiting coaches before the game and then heads behind the bench to hug the head coach's mother, Peggy Jolly.
"Pat's a special person to my family," Harper said. "Every time I talk to her she asks how my parents are. She asked tonight if my mom and dad would be here. My dad couldn't be here, but my mom was, and I told her where she was sitting and she said, ‘I'll make sure to speak to her.' What an awesome lady. To be able to do that right before a basketball game, that's just one of the many reasons that she's such a special person."
There were times Harper talked about her team and times she couldn't help but comment on Tennessee, a program she maintains a deep connection with to this day.
When elaborating on her team's struggles to score in the first half – the Catamounts had 17 turnovers in that half but just eight after the break – she explained both what happened and what Summitt expects from her squad.
"I think one reason that we went in the dry spell (in the first half) was their length and their quickness," Harper said. "We could get around one person and then there's another one with a bunch of arms. They are so long and so athletic. They take you out of your comfort zone defensively. I know that's something that Pat's really harping on right now, and I think they're going to get it."
The arena has a new look since Harper played in Knoxville with the addition of black seats and suites.
"Well, right now being back in Thompson-Boling Arena it sure does look different," said Harper, who got an extended ovation from the crowd when her name was announced during introductions. "It's very pretty. It's fun to come back and see so many people that have meant so much to me and so many fond memories here.
"I'm happy that I get to share this atmosphere, which is the best atmosphere in the country, with our players. I think our student-athletes deserve to get a chance to play in this type of game with this great crowd. I wish we would be more competitive, but I enjoy coming back."
Summitt welcomed Harper back, and it was Summitt's idea to have her former player bring her team to Knoxville.
"It's great to have them come back," Summitt said. "Kellie and I have stayed in touch. I've watched her teams. I just think that she does a great job. She's real excited about this particular team. She lost some upperclassmen just like we did. We were talking about that before the game and I said, ‘Do you like your team?' She said, ‘I love my team.' I think they respond well to her.
"I think Kellie's a great coach. I think she inspires the student-athletes that she works with not just on the basketball court, but in the classroom. What a great role model. She was obviously a player here that left her mark clearly on our program with three championships. She's special."
Summitt had another hug for Harper after the game and then gave the Lady Vol players an earful in the locker room.
"I'm just challenging everyone to show me what you've got in practice," Summitt said. "I told them I had planned to give you Thanksgiving Day off. Well, I'll make that decision after (Wednesday's) practice. You just can't reward because sometimes they won't come back after a day off and really bring the intensity, and we've got to get ready for DePaul."
DePaul comes to the arena on Sunday and then the Lady Vols play in George Washington's bandbox of a gym next Tuesday in Washington, D.C. With that in mind – and a pre-Christmas slate that also includes Middle Tennessee, Texas, Old Dominion and Stanford – Baugh said she understood why Summitt was so displeased.
"The problem and why Coach is so angry is she knows what we can do, and we also know what we can do," Baugh said. "I believe that when this team comes together and we have everyone healthy that we're going to be unstoppable and although we're young, we can still reach our main goal, which is to get to the Final Four and win.
"We definitely know what we can do and that's why we're so upset with our performance, although we did win."
The abundance of whistles in the second half did prevent either team from getting into much of a rhythm. In two minutes to start the second half, six fouls had been called – four on the Lady Vols and two on the Catamounts. There were 19 fouls called in the first half and 27 in the second.
If the Lady Vols weren't fouling they seemed to be turning the ball over. The result was a ragged second half in which they scored just 34 points after putting up 49 in the first 20 minutes.
"I think with our team we'll get in a good rhythm, and a lot depends on combinations and who you're playing," Summitt said. "We can (substitute) if we have a time and score situation that allows us to play more people, but sometimes you break momentum. As we get into more competitive situations I don't think we'll be substituting as freely, because I think we saw that even in the first half that our bench wasn't ready to come in and maintain the level of play."
Johnson said the way the game was being called led her to adjust her play.
"I couldn't post up like I wanted to and I couldn't go for certain rebounds that I wanted to get, but at the same time I was still going aggressive on defense," Johnson said. "If I'm going to get a foul I want to do it as a hustle play on defense, rather than on offense."
Johnson certainly provided that moment with a first-half block in which she covered a quarter of the court to cover a three-point shooter left wide open. She left her feet about eight feet away from the opposing player and swatted down the shot. The play brought the Tennessee bench to its feet and a roar from the crowd of 11,597. Johnson wasn't sure she could get there in time.
"I didn't, but I was going to try my hardest to get out there and luckily I got a piece of it," Johnson said. "I'm glad I did, because you never know when they're going in so you've got to always go out there and try to get them."
Stricklen also provided a defensive highlight when she stole a bullet of a pass along the baseline, caught it with one foot in bounds and the other in the air, spun and threw the ball off a Western Carolina player's leg to create the turnover.
"It picks up our intensity whenever anyone gets blocks or a steal," Stricklen said. "That picks us up. That's what we want to do. We want to get our defense higher, and once we get our defense going our offense goes as well."
Johnson tied her season high with 19 points on 7-12 shooting and a perfect 5-5 from the line. When asked about her individual scoring she cited her lack of board play.
"It's a team effort," Johnson said. "It's not really about points. Vick had my back on rebounds. I only had five rebounds. Vick picked me up. We didn't play to our ability as a team. I've still got to go work in practice. … As a whole, we could have done better."
It's that kind of talk that at least signals to Summitt that her team gets it. She singled out Stricklen, Johnson and Bass as freshmen who were ready to compete. With fellow freshman Alicia Manning out of the game with a concussion, that left two freshmen, Alyssia Brewer and Amber Gray, that Summitt wanted more from Tuesday.
After Sunday's performance in which the pair combined for 32 points and 19 rebounds, Brewer and Gray tallied a total of eight points and three boards Tuesday.
"The unfortunate part is they play like typical freshmen," Summitt said. "Briana is not playing like a typical freshman. Glory Johnson isn't playing like a typical freshman. Shekinna is not shooting the ball well, but she's doing a lot of good things for us.
"I expect more from both of them. They will decide within the next few weeks what they're going to bring to our team and that way we'll know what to expect. Tonight was not anything that enhanced opportunities for them."
Summitt was pleased with her dual point guards in McMahan and Bass, who have complemented each other well of late.
"I thought our point guards really played hard and tough," Summitt said. "I thought they did a great job. I told them after the game they both brought great intensity, really pushed tempo, communicated. Cait was trying to get that last group to press (from the bench), and there seemed to be a little confusion. It certainly wasn't Bri's fault."
The defensive breakdowns in the second half were numerous as players were out of position in both man and the matchup zone and forgot on occasion to set up in full court pressure.
By that time Summitt had most of the starters on the bench and was letting the youngsters play through some mistakes.
Baugh said the returning players need to help the freshmen more and not just leave the communication to senior Alex Fuller.
"We just have to lead by example and realize that even though we are just sophomores we are the leaders on the team," Baugh said. "We have to be the veterans on the team because they have to look up to somebody, and Alex can't do it all by herself."
"Having that role Nicky Anosike and Candace had; they were talking on the court," Baugh said. "If there's any confusion with our freshmen we'll be the ones to pick them up and let them know what to do. We have to learn faster and realize we only have one senior on this team, so the sophomores kind of have to become seniors."
Baugh was sitting in the post-game press conference with two freshmen that are shaping up to be major contributors this season in Johnson and Stricklen. Summitt noted the three of them played both ends of the floor.
"I'm very pleased with what Glory and Vicki brought to us," Summitt said. "Shekinna played 37 minutes, but the thing about her even when her shot isn't falling, she's doing some good things. She had seven boards, three assists, I don't like the five turnovers, but I think she's really making a lot of things happen for us."
Stricklen has made it a point of emphasis to attack the basket.
"It really has," Stricklen said. "My shot has been really off. I'm still in the gym shooting more, trying to find my confidence, but right now, I'm just trying to get more in the paint like Coach told me. I'm also a good driver, too, so I'm just trying to get in the paint more."
Baugh looks at the players – those in Tuesday's game and those waiting to be cleared – and sees a team with the potential to become formidable this season.
"Most definitely," Baugh said. "We have a remarkable amount of talent and once we pull it all together and everyone gets their confidence back … "
With that Baugh looked pointedly at Stricklen, who broke into a big smile.
" … and we all just come together and we're healthy, we're going to be fine," Baugh finished. "We have no worries. What we have to do is when we know teams aren't as good we just have to continue to pick it up, because we're going to be playing more competition. I think that was our main problem for tonight. We knew we could get this steal even if we didn't deny all the way and stuff like that. The competition is only going to get harder."
It's that mindset that must change from Summitt's standpoint.
"With the number of young players that we have, I guess you should expect inconsistency, but I can't think that way," Summitt said. "I'm going to expect and demand as much as I can from them, and our coaching staff is going to do that. Tonight was really not just average but below average. So we've got to get a lot better."
That means an intense practice session is on tap for Wednesday. Summitt had some parting words for the media that intended to observe that open session.
"Bring a sack lunch," she said.