"Obviously this was a tough game," Coach Pat Summitt said in her opening remarks in her post-game press conference. "We expected that. I expected to get a little bit more from our bench play. We're young and some of our freshmen played very young tonight and I just made an early decision that they were done for the night. Obviously Glory was not one of them and Shekinna I sat her for awhile because she's got greatness in her game and we're expecting a lot from her and she came in and gave it to us in the end. I thought Alex was a great leader. That's what you expect from a senior. She made some big shots but just having her on the floor and having her leadership and her toughness was key for us.
"I just like the fact we found a way to win. That's a hard thing to do sometimes on the road, but we have to have a lot more composure. Part of being really athletic and playing really hard – particularly we expect a lot out of them on the defensive end – I think sometimes that carries over and offensively we play in a rush sometimes. We'll learn. Fortunately we can learn from this game without having to go home with a loss. I have to obviously give George Washington a lot of credit. They really fought hard, played tough. There is a real toughness to this team and I think they're going to win a lot of basketball games if they play everyone the way they play Tennessee."
No. 7/9 Tennessee, 6-1, found enough offense against George Washington, 4-3, with Johnson leading all scorers with 16 points, followed by Alex Fuller with 13 and Shekinna Stricklen with 12. As a team the Lady Vols shot 35.3 percent, but Fuller was 2-2 from behind the arc and 4-6 overall after struggling from the field in Tennessee's first six games.
"It's about time," Fuller said. "I kind of relaxed and stopped thinking about it. I kind of keep the responsibility of the team to myself. I feel like that's what I am supposed to do. Me and Coach met today. She told me to just relax and take that responsibility out of myself and be able to play my game."
The talk clearly helped and Fuller ended up taking both roles – leading the team and getting some shots to fall.
When Summitt was asked after the game if Fuller had played the entire second half, she said, "I'm sure she can tell you. I don't know," and then turned to Fuller and asked, "Did you?" When Fuller nodded, Summitt smiled.
"Good. About time she played 20-minute halves," Summitt said as Fuller smiled. "I think the thing about Alex is she's a team player, but she's also a player willing to step up and make plays for you and make shots for you. I think she's been much more committed on the defensive end this year because I think she knows she has to set the example. Certainly really proud of her play, got on the boards and was big on the offensive boards."
Fuller had six rebounds, four on the offensive end. She was one of several players who had a hand in Tennessee's 51-35 margin on the boards.
"We had a lot of opportunities to rebound," Summitt said with a wry look, noting the team's overall shooting percentage. "We missed a lot. I have to believe that this team is going to get better. I think one thing is when you play as hard as we play sometimes you're not as efficient. You don't have the composure that you would like to see us have.
"But I'd rather have to slow them down than speed them up. I think we can do that. I think we can work on particularly how we want to execute offensively. We play against practice guys all the time so we should have been a little bit better prepared tonight."
The Lady Vols started the game with three offensive rebounds on one possession and finished with a Baugh basket off the glass. Tennessee jumped out to a quick 8-2 lead after Fuller got her first basket of the game off a teammate's miss. In total the Lady Vols had 25 offensive boards.
"I think if you add all their height up together there is probably a 50-footer out there," George Washington Coach Mike Bozeman said. "They're big and they're not just big and slow. They're big, strong and athletic. You emphasize blocking out in practices, but you can't mimic that size and athleticism that they come with. I do believe that in the first couple possessions of the game they must have had four or five offensive rebounds to score. They're big, strong, formidable opponents, and we have to step up to the challenge on that. I thought this game was going to be something that we could measure ourselves on and it turned out to be just that."
George Washington shot 44.4 percent in the first half and Tara Booker hit a three-pointer right before halftime to cut Tennessee's lead to 35-27.
"I think coming into the game I think the difference in what we're going through this year is we came into the Tennessee game not wishing that we could win," Bozeman said. "We came into the Tennessee game really believing that there was an opportunity for us to pull what would be a big upset. We fully believed that we could win."
On a night when the Lady Vols struggled in the paint on offense, they found the range behind the arc behind the marksmanship of Fuller and Sydney Smallbone, who also was 2-2 for six points. Angie Bjorklund connected from long range once in the second half. As a team the Lady Vols were 5-11 (45.5 percent).
"I think Syd is what I call a really valuable role player for us, and she understands her role," Summitt said. "She doesn't try to do too much. She looks for her threes. She's become a much better one-on-one defender and that's given us a chance to play her more and tonight it was a matter of playing Sydney or playing Ang and I thought they both did some good things. It was good to see Angie go back in and play better."
George Washington was led by the freshman Booker, who hit four three-pointers off the bench and tallied 14 points.
"I have a lot of confidence in my freshmen," Bozeman said. "I've been playing them a lot. Tara Booker is going to be a star. She is potentially a star. The way our schedule is every year she's going to have plenty of opportunities to be on that kind of stage and as you saw she doesn't shy away from it. She played big. I think Tiana Myers is going to be an equal star here. I think our future is pretty bright here at George Washington. We're just going to continue to grow and try to raise us to where we'll be more competitive on that level year in and year out."
Senior Jazmine Adair added 12 points off the bench, and the freshman Myers had 10, also in a sub's role.
"Jessica Adair struggled all night, and Antelia Parrish struggled all night and those are our two big scorers, but what it does give us is more confidence," Bozeman said. "Jazmine Adair is capable of playing against anybody and our bench is pretty strong. It gives my young girls confidence. It gives the coaching staff confidence in them and I think this game will go a long way in helping us throughout the season."
Parrish had seven points but misfired four times from long range and was 2-14 from the field. She did have eight boards, two assists and a block.
"It was not a secret that I struggled tonight," Parrish said. "Every shot that I took I wanted it to be that shot so I was kind of forcing it. I wasn't shooting it as well as I should have and I know I can.
"It definitely hurts to see how close you were to beating them. It hurts, but we've got to take the positives from this and I think we gained a lot of confidence in each other and that we can play with anybody."
Summitt saw a very inspired Colonial team at the Charles E. Smith Center on Tuesday night. Tennessee-George Washington games in the nation's capital tend to be defensive slugfests, and this game stayed with that theme.
"Just from watching them I think they played really hard," Summitt said. "Tonight, from the film I saw, I think they dialed it up a little bit. That's what Coach is going to expect from them I'm sure now every time they go out. I tell my team be careful what you show me because now I know when they're playing hard and when they're not.
"I think that's part of the game and it's part of trying to convince players that they have to be passionate all the time. I really struggle with laidback players. I should never recruit another one because that doesn't fit my personality, but I do like the fact that you can have competitive players and have great composure. I think we're learning. I think our freshman have a lot to learn. We had a pretty good talk after the game. They know what they've got to bring."
As Summitt spoke Johnson walked in from her post-game radio appearance and Summitt singled her out.
Glory Johnson is walking in, you don't have to ever worry about her giving effort," Summitt said. "I don't have to coach that. I've had to coach a lot of other things with her but not giving effort."
Johnson, who was SEC Freshman of the Week for her performances last week, completed the double-double with 10 rebounds to go with her 16 points. She also had four steals and a block. On one steal she plucked the ball out of the air while guarding the in-bound passer and on the block she rejected a shot on the wing and corralled the ball in the corner. She also had an assist when she found Fuller in transition for an open three after grabbing the defensive rebound.
Johnson's father, Bassy Johnson Udofot, an engineer who works in Maryland, attended the game and cheered enthusiastically for his daughter.
"When I was younger he didn't really come to a lot of the games so it was kind of cool to know that he was out there," Johnson said. "I found out later after the game."
She was 10-12 from the line in a markedly better performance after early struggles from the stripe.
"Coach has us shooting 150 to 200 free throws before practice, in the middle of practice and after practice," Johnson said. "She wants us to get as many free throws in as we can because it's basically a mental game and it's our fault if we miss free throws because they're not contested. They're free shots. Working on it, it's personal. If you miss your shots it's no one's fault but your own because you should be practicing."
Johnson was the recipient of a double technical foul – George Washington's Tiana Myers got the other half – after the two got tangled up under the basket while boxing out. Summitt was baffled by the call as it had been a physical game all evening with players knocking heads – Stricklen had to leave the game in the first half – and tumbling to the floor on both teams.
Vicki Baugh, who struggled from the field at 3-10, still managed to get 10 rebounds and was knocked to the floor repeatedly. Kelley Cain had six points but had trouble getting and keeping deep position in the paint and had to watch from the bench for most of the game in foul trouble.
The teams combined for 40 turnovers – 19 for Tennessee and 21 for George Washington – as the ball squirted free on both ends, and players dove onto the floor and into each other trying to get possession.
"It's tough," Johnson said. "It's just something that you have to play through and my teammates were telling me to hold my composure and that's what keeping my mind in the game and I'm not worrying about any of that other stuff that happens. I just keep on playing my game, keep on playing hard and if things happen they happen."
Johnson was one of the freshmen that Summitt opted to stay with in the game. Stricklen was under intense scrutiny from Summitt after a particularly egregious turnover in the first half – though she wasn't alone as Tennessee had 12 by the break – and started the second half on the bench. After the pass that resulted in a layup for George Washington on the other end, Summitt called timeout and met Stricklen before she made it to the huddle.
"I made a mistake and I apologized to my team," Stricklen said. "When she put me back in I knew I had to come in and step up because I had let my team down already. The only way to get back in with them is just to go out there and work hard and do what I could do to help."
Stricklen finished with four rebounds, five steals and two assists to go with her 12 points. She had a big basket in the second half – a runner in the paint – to push Tennessee's lead to 56-52 with 5:45 left to play.
The Colonials made it a two-point game, 56-54, with a jumper by Jazmine Adair with five minutes left to play and a crowd of 3,459 – though Tennessee fans had a large presence – roaring its approval as they sensed an upset.
After Briana Bass missed a three-pointer that was just long, Jazmine Adair missed a layup after losing control of the ball on the way up, and Baugh came up with the defensive rebound and was fouled.
"I actually saw it rolling down her hand. I said, ‘Wow,' " Bozeman said. "I'm thinking before she shoots it she's going to miss it. I was hoping she'd grab it back, but I saw it going down. I was hoping for a rebound. She almost got it. It was great effort. You tie it up or you go down four. That took a little air out of me. I know it took some off the team."
It took quite a bit out of Baugh. She hit the floor hard, and had to leave the game but appeared to be OK. Bjorklund entered for Baugh and hit one of two free throws to give Tennessee a slim 57-54 cushion.
Bozeman attributed the way the game ended to the coach on Tennessee's bench. Summitt called two timeouts in a 24-second period to discuss matters with her players in the closing minute.
"You realize it's not just because she's been in the game for so long," Bozeman said. "You realize that she's talented at what she does. There's a reason why Tennessee is always there in the end. It's not just by happenstance. It's not that they get all the calls. It's not that the gods shine down on them. It's that she's good. Her players are good, and she's been doing it for a long time.
"You best believe that when the score got to two points and we almost tied you best believe she knew what to do. I want to test myself against the best. That's not something that I will ever shy away from. My desire is to be the best and you can't be the best unless you go against people like Pat Summitt."
What Tennessee did was slam the door.
A steal by Stricklen, free throws from Johnson and Fuller and a jumper from Stricklen pushed the lead to 64-56, but Booker answered with a three for George Washington with 1:12 left and the score 64-59.
But Bjorklund's three, on an assist from Bass, and another from Fuller, on an assist from Stricklen with 31 seconds left with a Johnson free throw sandwiched in between pushed Tennessee to the final 12-point margin, 71-59.
With the game on the line Summitt had three freshmen on the floor in Bass, Johnson and Stricklen, underscoring how much she will have to rely on youngsters this season.
"It's not a big adjustment because I love teaching the game," Summitt said. "That's my real passion. What really bothers me is when I see what they do in practice and then they go out on the court, and they don't bring it. You never do that to your team, to your fans, to the program, to your coaches. It's stressful on me.
"I let them know after the game how I felt about it and I'm not going to change. No one should ever come to play at the University of Tennessee unless they are competitive and committed to getting in the gym and working on their game and striving to get better all the time. We have some players right now they'll come in and play really well and then come back in the next game and you don't know what you're going to get. I know that's youth, and I need to have more patience. Tonight I didn't have a lot of patience, and they got to sit."
Fuller could talk with the players about patience. She accepted a role for Tennessee for three years as she played behind Candace Parker and Nicky Anosike. She returned for her redshirt senior year and accepted the role of team leader. That was needed Tuesday night, and Summitt let Fuller stay on the court for the entire second half.
"I think they just needed to hear my voice," Fuller said. "They just needed a leader on the court. I'm the senior so that's my role of this team to have everybody where they need to be and make sure that the game is going how it needs to go.
"I think a game like this just shows us that we need our defense, and we need our rebounding. Obviously our shooting (was off), but we relied on our defense. We relied on the boards. We relied on each other."