"I'll be honest. I was concerned about this game, concerned about DePaul coming in here and how we would defend them because they space so well," Summitt said. "We took our scouting report defense and really made a great commitment to getting out in the passing lanes and denying the middle of the floor and defending better one-on-one after halftime. That was a number one point of emphasis at halftime that we were getting beat off the dribble drive. They were breaking us down.
"I thought second half we had much better position on defense, and we kept people in front of us for the most part. I watched them over and over, and I knew they could present problems for us but pleased with how we responded. Dean (Lockwood) did a great job with the scouting report."
DePaul Coach Doug Bruno kept his perspective and sense of humor intact after the game.
"It's always a … how could you say it's a pleasure to come out here and have this happen?" Bruno said. "It's not pleasurable while it's going on. Ever. At the same time the opportunity to measure yourself against this storied program is why we choose to compete against this great program. After we got through the first five minutes of the deer in the headlights, and the fear factor created by this environment, which is why you play this game, I thought we settled down and showed some signs of being very competitive throughout the game."
No. 9/12 Tennessee, 5-1, jumped out to an early lead against DePaul, 5-2, in the first half by scoring the first 13 points behind layups from Glory Johnson, Vicki Baugh and Cait McMahan, a Baugh free throw and six points from the stripe from Shekinna Stricklen as the crowd of 13,190 expressed its pleasure.
The lead stretched to 19 points, 35-16, on a Baugh putback, but China Threatt, Erin Cattell, Sam Quigley and Deirdre Naughton made a run for the Blue Demons and the lead was down to 10 points, 44-34, by the break.
Summitt blamed herself on the walk from the bench to the locker room as she went 12 deep in the rotation in the first 20 minutes and felt the team lost momentum with some combinations.
"I just thought when we substituted it hurt us, and I blamed myself going into halftime but at the same time if we're going to play a lot of people I think these players have to understand that they have to pay attention while they're on the bench and not be sitting there thinking, ‘Hey, I want to go in,' but ‘When I go in here's what we're in and here's what we need to accomplish,' " Summitt said.
"Second half I thought good 20 minutes of pressure and did a lot of good things going inside. I wanted to see how Kelley Cain would respond so it was great to see her out there. That's a player that's got great hands, and obviously has a size advantage in most situations."
For the first time this season Tennessee was at full strength, but Bruno said that wasn't as overwhelming as some of his team's other incursions into Knoxville.
"Getting everybody back I don't think it's as imposing as playing here when they were putting up the banner for Coach Summitt's induction into the Hall of Fame," Bruno said with a smile. "That was pretty imposing. Or Coach Summitt's 800th (win). When we scheduled this game this year, I just said, ‘If it's going to be 1,000 we ain't coming.' "
The win was No. 988 for Summitt, putting her just 12 victories away from the career milestone of 1,000.
Cain was one of three players back in the lineup for Tennessee after missing most of November with a concussion. Alicia Manning also played after missing one game with a concussion and contributed five assists and two boards. Angie Bjorklund made her season debut after being treated for a lower back condition – she started with Cain in the second half – and hit a three-pointer with two free throws, grabbed seven rebounds and added two blocks and a steal.
"Angie didn't start out shooting the ball but just her presence on the floor and her commitment to rebound was solid," Summitt said.
Tennessee owned the boards with a 56-37 advantage and had 18 second-chance points to five for DePaul. Baugh led the way with nine boards, followed by Alex Fuller with eight, Johnson and Bjorklund with seven and six for Cain.
"There is no limit with rebounding for us," said Cain, a 6'6 redshirt freshman center. "Coach emphasizes every day in practice and film and games, ‘Rebounding win championships.' That what's we as posts and the guards are trying to emphasize when we play – make it a point to go rebound. She wants everybody, not just the bigs, to rebound. Our rebounding, there is no limit to it. We just try to go out there and get every one if we can."
Tennessee's frontline is imposing both with its starters and the players who rotate from the bench. Add to that wing players who will crash the boards – Sydney Smallbone and Amber Gray had three, and Manning and Briana Bass had two each – and it explains why the Lady Vols are averaging 50.0 rebounds through six games with a +10.2 margin over their opponents.
"You had Glory and Alex and Vicki all rebounding the basketball, and then Angie did a nice job," Summitt said. "Kelley Cain being there that put up some more opportunities for us on the glass. I like what I'm seeing now just in terms of their commitment to rebounding.
"It's amazing when you have a player go in like Vicki Baugh, Glory Johnson (becomes) a better rebounder. When Kelley came in, everybody was thinking, ‘Kelley is going to get the rebound,' but they didn't necessarily stand and watch. I thought it just brought a lot more energy on the glass."
Bruno said the Lady Vols opened the game with a clinic on offensive board play.
"First of all, you can talk about rebounding and then you can get schooled in what it means to rebound the basketball," Bruno said. "The problem was it was the first media timeout before we controlled our first defensive rebound."
Cain played 14 minutes after missing nearly two weeks of games and practices and was 5-10 from the floor with 12 points, one of three Lady Vols in double figures. Tennessee was led by Johnson with 19 points, which ties her career high, and Stricklen with a career high of 16.
"It's a mental thing," Cain said. "I know I'm not in as good of shape as I need to be and as coach wants me to be, but I just had to take the time that she gave me out there and give it my all."
Bruno coached Cain on the national U18 team in 2006 and was familiar with her size and touch around the basket.
"I had the pleasure to coach Kelley in the 18-and-under team two summers ago," Bruno said. "She is very imposing. She's got great size and strength, but there are a lot weapons down low and (Alyssia) Brewer off the bench."
Bruno, without any prompting, was ready to assign the Lady Vols a postseason seed.
"This is still Tennessee," Bruno said. "I told the team afterwards I'll be shocked if they're not minimally a two seed and maybe a one seed. Here we're talking NCAA Tournament already and I'll be shocked if they're any less than that.
"Maybe the games have to be played, we'll see what happens, but given the level of coaching that they're going to receive from Coach Summitt and this staff, and given their young talent I would expect them to be a one or two seed."
Three Lady Vol players, Johnson, Cain and Stricklen, came to the post-game press conference and were all smiles – not about their offense, which put up 88 points – but because the defense and board play met Summitt's approval.
"It was a good game, because we've been struggling on our defense for a little bit and finally the past two games we've been trying to show Coach that we can play disciplined defense," Johnson said. "We know what we're doing; we've just got to trust it."
DePaul was led by Quigley with 15 points and Naughton with 14, but the guards were a combined 9-36 overall and 1-10 behind the arc. Natasha Williams added 12 points and Keisha Hampton chipped in with 11. As a team the Blue Demons shot 37.3 percent overall and 11.8 percent from behind the arc.
Stricklen drew the defensive assignment on Naughton, who had torched some teams this season from the outside. The 6'2 freshman guard for Tennessee drew inspiration from the performance of Virginia's Monica Wright, who had a career-high 35 points in the Lady Vols loss this season.
In this game Stricklen hounded Naughton on the perimeter and rarely let her get the ball where she wanted it or get a good look at the basket. Stricklen also had four steals.
"It kind of goes back to the Virginia game. I was guarding their best player, No. 22 (Wright), and she had a big game," Stricklen said. "I actually learned from that game and I just had heart and in my mind that 32 (Naughton) wasn't going to get into the twenties. But also it was a team thing, too. We all switched and talked, and we all helped out on her. It really wasn't just me."
Naughton ended up getting most of her points from the line – she was 3-18 from the field overall and 0-5 from behind the arc – and also added 10 rebounds, six assists and four steals for the Blue Demons.
"She's a long, athletic player, which is something that we haven't really experienced this year," Naughton said. "She definitely altered a lot of my shots. It was good to play against her. It was a good learning experience. I'm confident in my shooting definitely, but I probably rushed them a little bit. They just didn't fall tonight."
Stricklen had a solid game on the other side of the ball, too, as she hit 5-9 from the field and got to the rim. She made good use of a screen by Alyssia Brewer to slice in along the baseline and finish at the basket.
"I thought Kinna played with a lot of confidence," Summitt said. "She started out putting too much pressure on herself (earlier this season). I was trying to just get her to relax and play and not take herself out of the game with fouls. She's such a long and rangy guard, and she can see over people. She's obviously a good handler, and she's been able to get inside the defense because of that, and she's got good range.
"I think now we're starting to see what I thought we would see from Day One. But she's a freshman so it does take some time."
With Stricklen's size and dribbling ability she is often a mismatch for her defender.
"I'm just relaxing and being patient," Stricklen said. "I'm driving and getting into the paint more like Coach told me, just finding a rhythm mainly."
Naughton entered the game averaging nearly 20 points, and Bruno said the game was a learning experience for his team.
"Deirdre is still a money player," Bruno said. "Just because she had a game where the numbers aren't necessarily the top numbers … what makes her a money player is that she learns from her experiences. This isn't going to be the first long player that is going to guard Deirdre.
"I really do believe that she will learn from this experience. This is where the fine line between aggression to score – and all great scorers want the ball – and understanding that sometimes discretion is the better part of valor and we need to make the extra pass. Trust is something we're going to learn today."
DePaul made the first shot of the second half to trim Tennessee's lead to eight, but the Lady Vols learned from its last game and used halftime to regroup. They broke open the game with full court pressure and a heavy dose of getting the ball on the low block to Cain.
Bass entered the game early in the second half and immediately set the tone by pushing tempo and tallying six of her season-high eight assists. Her floor game was so good that Summitt was able to overlook Bass shooting 1-6 from the field.
"I looked at her stats. I was getting ready to call her out in the locker room and I didn't realize she was one for six," Summitt said with a smile. "Her ability to distribute the ball and her quickness, I mean she has exceptional speed and quickness. As a basketball team, she makes us run and that's what I think allowed us to get out in that second half and just open things up, because she forced people to run because she's running the ball right up their back."
Johnson, a state sprinting champion in high school, knows something about speed, and Bass makes even her pick up the pace. The 5'2 Bass gets up the floor so fast it's like she squirted out of a water slide.
"She pushes me just as much as she pushes everybody else," Johnson said. "If you're not paying attention you won't see it as she drives past you. It's great to have someone who is so little and so quick and be able to get the ball to you no matter what. She can get it to you. You don't know if she's going left or right with her layups. She uses both hands to get it up there because normally they foul her. You don't know if it's a left-handed layup or a right-handed layup when she goes down the middle. It's great having Bree out there."
Summitt got production from all three point guards as Cait McMahan scored five points and got to the rim, including a drive with the shot clock expiring in the first half in which she split the post defenders. Stricklen also got some reps at the point, as did Manning, who twisted her ankle in the game but was later able to return.
Summitt reminded the players at halftime to finish the game and they responded with a 15-0 run from the 14:26 mark to the 9:51 point to push the lead to 25 points, 68-43. Summitt continued to shuffle players in and out – nobody played less than 10 minutes – and this time there wasn't a drop-off.
"Just talking about it at halftime and the disappointment of not being able to finish off and close out that half," Summitt said. "I said what we have to do is be mindful of on every defensive possession matching up and talking and then doing a better job on the boards. I thought we did some good things as far as our defense and we had some rotations that broke down but being out in the passing lanes, being able to disrupt them in the second half really got us off to a great start."
Johnson said the lesson sunk in at halftime.
"We started off strong and towards the end of the first half, we started to letting up a little bit," Johnson said. "We should never let up. We should have kept pushing hard. After halftime and talking about it and pulling together as a team we realized we need to go hard all the time and that's what we did in the second half. No letup."
Cain entered the game with five minutes left in the first half and then started the second half with Baugh inside as Summitt eased her into action. Johnson came off the bench and made an immediate impact with a short jumper and a layup off a tipped pass while pressing full court, in which she was immediately fed the ball on the baseline with a bounce pass from Bass for the bucket.
"Kelley has great hands and obviously a great presence and in most cases, she's going to have a size advantage," Summitt said. "She does a nice job of keeping the ball up and using the glass. You don't see lot of post players now that are as committed to using the glass and she's got soft touch. I think that really opens up our outside game when Kelley is in there because she'll get touches. If they double she can kick it out. She's got good composure. I like that about her.
"The difference between her style of play and say Vicki Baugh and Glory Johnson, it's night and day. They're going to come in and use their athleticism and their quickness. With Kelley she uses her size and her skill. They complement each other in that way."
It also makes Tennessee a difficult team to guard inside.
"They are going to have four or five people that they can throw down there," Bruno said. "Even Stricklen, once she settles in, she can play every position on the floor. It has a chance to be another great Tennessee team I believe."
Summitt was worried going into Sunday's game about her team's commitment to defense and a lot of time in practice last week was devoted to drills on defending and boxing out. After the game she was actually pleased with her team.
"I was a little concerned going into this game how we might come out and play, particularly for 40 minutes and how we would respond just in terms of our defense and what we needed to do from a defensive standpoint," Summitt said. "But all in all really, really pleased. I thought we brought a lot of energy, and certainly we got to play a lot of players."