Brewer swiped a pass in the high post and went nearly the length of the court for the layup and Stricklen stole the in-bounds pass and gave Tennessee another layup and a 34-28 lead with three minutes left in the first half. The sequence seemed to put a charge in the Tennessee defense.
"It did. I think we fed off of that," Coach Pat Summitt said. "Anytime you get steals and can convert I think it inspires everyone else to get a little bit more active and take a few more chances on the defensive end. And we had some calculated risks, I guess is what we would say, but for the most part we managed to score off those.
We're going to take chances. That's what we talk about in our overplay game defensively and I am really overall pleased with our ability to get out in the passing lanes and disrupt."
Tennessee had six steals at halftime and added seven more in the second half to tally 18 points off turnovers. Stricklen led the team with four thefts and Brewer and Angie Bjorklund added three more takeaways each.
The momentum carried into the second half as Tennessee built a nine-point lead within the first four minutes and continued to build on it as Summitt shuffled players in and out of the game.
The bench accounted for 29 of the Lady Vols' points, led by 14 from Brewer. Alex Fuller added eight points. Alicia Manning and Amber Gray added two points apiece, but it was their solid overall play that caused Summitt to single them out after the game. They both had two rebounds – two offensive for Manning and two defensive for Gray – and combined for three assists, two steals and no turnovers.
"It's very encouraging," Summitt said. "I thought our bench really contributed. Our bench didn't hurt us. I didn't go as deep in the first half, went deep in the second half. When Amber went in I thought she was solid in her play and I thought Alicia was solid in her play. I told them, ‘Keep doing that and you're going to get more minutes.' And that would help us. That would allow us to keep more fresh bodies and rotate people more."
"In the first half I decided to go in a little different direction," Summitt said of Cain's limited minutes.
That direction meant extended minutes for Brewer, who played 10 in the first half and 19 overall for the game.
Brewer was on the floor with Stricklen, Bjorklund, Manning and Glory Johnson late in the first half when Tennessee changed the direction of the game with its defense and board play.
"When you go on the road if you don't bring your defense and your board play then you're living on the edge if you think you're going to go into a crowd like this and everybody is going to shoot the ball great," Summitt said. "It's not going to happen. It's happened very few times in my career. But the thing that you can control is your defense, your board play and your ball security. I thought that was very important for us, and we talked about it at halftime. I thought we got a little bit better."
Tennessee had 11 turnovers in the first half but trimmed the number to eight to finish with 19 for the game. Three turnovers were the result of charging calls on Johnson and Baugh as they either spun on the low block with the ball or got deep post position and got whistled for contact. The calls seemed to befuddle the players, who were executing post moves they have been taught in practice.
Tennessee started out missing shots but ended up connecting at 50 percent in both halves and 42.9 percent from behind the arc, with two three-pointers apiece from Bjorklund and Briana Bass.
The Lady Vols also scored efficiently inside with Baugh shooting 5-7 and Brewer hitting 4-6.
"Inside game was big," Baugh said. "For the past few games our posts have needed to step it up. I feel like we were kind of relying on our guards and tonight I feel like the posts stepped it up. They helped the guards, took a little pressure off the guards."
Gonzaga Coach Kelly Graves also noted that Tennessee's sheer size was tough to match up against, even though his frontline also had some height.
"Their pressure we can't simulate," Graves said. "I was Kelley Cain and Vicki Baugh during practice this week and I'm just not Kelley Cain and Vicki Baugh or Alex Fuller. We don't practice with men so we can't simulate the kind of pressure they gave us. You can't gauge on film."
Baugh also was a big part of why the Lady Vols had a 45-30 rebounding edge as the 6'4 forward grabbed 15 to go with her 12 points. Stricklen had six boards and was the fourth scorer in double figures with 12 points. Brewer and Fuller had five rebounds each, and Bjorklund added three boards from the guard spot.
Gonzaga, 11-4, was led by Heather Bowman, who had 13 points at the break but added just six more in the second half to finish with 19.
"Bowman is just a great offensive player and I thought we did a better job overall with our individual effort, one-on-one defensively and picked it up closing out the first half, but, more importantly second half was big for us," Summitt said.
Courtney Vandersloot added 13 points for the Bulldogs and Vivian Frierson chipped in with eight.
As a team the Bulldogs shot 37.1 percent overall and 23.1 percent from behind the arc. Gonzaga missed some open shots early in the first half but made enough to hit 43.8 percent in the first 20 minutes and keep the game close, but the Bulldogs were 9-30 (30 percent) from the field in the second half.
"They just weren't going tonight," Graves said. "But the honest truth is we don't shoot the ball very well. We're just not a great shooting team right now. We have the ability to. For whatever reason it's not working."
Graves also credited Tennessee's athleticism and length – Stricklen spent a lot of her 35 minutes of floor time at the point position – so the Lady Vols often deployed their big lineup with every player on the floor 6 foot and taller.
"You have what you think are open looks and they just close out so quickly on them," Graves said. "They're long and all of sudden they're a little bit contested and our kids start to get gun shy. They're long and there's a lot of them. They just kind of keep coming at you and they keep fresh legs. That was certainly a factor."
Gonzaga did open with a 4-0 lead – much to the delight of the sellout crowd, some of whom arrived after tipoff because of traffic snarls getting to the center – as Kelly Bowen hit a layup and Bowman connected on a jumper to start the game. The Lady Vols were sluggish at the start and sometimes getting beat back down the court. Was it the holiday break? Time change? Snow fatigue?
"There's actually no excuse because we should have been ready," Baugh said. "We've been practicing every day since we've been here. The coaches have been committing everything to basketball and let us know this isn't going to be an easy game and we're going to have to come out playing hard defense and getting back, especially running to the rim. We got in trouble for not sprinting hard and basically the starters didn't come out ready to play."
Summitt stuck with the same starters to open the second half and they acquitted themselves on the second try. Tennessee had a double-digit lead midway through that half and built it to 23 points, 73-50, with 1:20 left on a baseball pass from Gray to Brewer, who finished at the rim.
Brewer returned the favor a minute later with a high-low pass to Gray to give the Lady Vols a 77-55 lead. Bowen, who finished with seven points, hit a three-pointer for the final margin, 77-58, and Tennessee dribbled out the clock to end the game.
The Lady Vols had 15 assists on 29 baskets, with the feed of the evening going to Brewer, who flipped a no-look pass over her left shoulder to Baugh under the basket.
I saw that. I was like, ‘Geez,' " Bjorklund said.
"We noticed that the opposite posts started to double," Baugh said. "Lyssi is a great passer so I knew she would see me open and I was kind of expecting it. Every time she got the ball I looked for the pass on the opposite side."
Baugh was one of the slow starters in the game, though she still had five boards by the break, but she established herself in the second half with solid post play on offense and two blocks on defense. She also had the move of the game when she ran the floor, received the pass in stride, wrapped the ball around her back and finished at the rim.
"I thought she played on balance, she played aggressive, competed," Summitt said. "She wanted the ball, worked hard for it and we got it to her because of her effort. Before she got the ball she did a lot of work and put herself in position to get some good looks. I think our post game got a little better tonight. I told Dean I thought we did a little better. He and Daedra can feel better about it."
Assistant Coaches Dean Lockwood and Daedra Charles-Furlow have been drilling the posts in practice on fundamentals, footwork, positioning and finishing strong at the basket. It was a point of emphasis after the Christmas break and an emphatic directive at halftime.
"Just establish our inside game," Summitt said. "I told them a lot of people might think that we don't have an inside game the way we've been playing."
Bjorklund was the beneficiary of the improved post play as the ball got thrown out of the double teams down low, reversed and in her hands. She needed one word to describe the effect on the team.
"Huge," Bjorklund said. "I thought we played a lot better team ball in the second half and we started to figure out that they were doubling the posts. Once we started to reverse it quickly that helped us a lot. The inside-outside game and team ball really helped us."
Bjorklund was the story of the night as she returned to her hometown – she starred locally at University High School – and was welcomed by the crowd of 6,000, the first sellout for the Gonzaga women's program, that nearly drowned out the announcement of her name during pre-game player introductions with their applause.
Bjorklund misfired on her first shot but hit the second one and was on the way to an efficient game that included three steals – one in the open court near the top of the key that she converted on the other end. Bjorklund also scored off an in-bounds pass in which she ball faked, sidestepped her defender and drained the baseline shot.
"Angie is doing a great job because she's pretty much seen it all," Summitt said. "She's been face-guarded, she's had people just really right into her grill and try to keep her from getting the ball and just played really physical defense on her. We were trying to get her off a lot more screens and we have a lot of action that we run to Angie, but we don't have to do it like we did last year.
"I think this year what is better is she is more athletic, she's lighter on her feet and she reads better, just a lot more basketball savvy in her game."
Graves came away from the game convinced what he had seen on tape was correct – Bjorklund is the catalyst for a very young team.
"Angie Bjorklund is the difference maker on that team," Graves said. "I saw pretty much every game they played on film. She makes the difference. They're a better basketball team when she's on the floor. I saw games with her, without her, when she's playing limited minutes, they're better when she's on the court and I think right now she's the difference maker.
"And I don't just say that because she's our friend and a local. She really is the key to their team from an outside observer who's seem them on film. She can stretch the defense. She's just a calming influence. She's never in a hurry. She never rushes things. She just understands how to play. She's as smart a player as you're ever going to see and when she's on the floor she's that calming influence."
The 6'0 sophomore sharpshooter missed the first five games of the season to recover from a bulging disc in her lower back. She came off the bench in her first two games back and then moved into the starting lineup, where she has remained.
"It took a couple of games for me to get back but with Jenny Moshak on my side that helps a ton and then Heather (Mason) getting me back in shape in the weight room and in conditioning," Bjorklund said. "It took a couple of games, but I think I'm back now."
The homecoming for Bjorklund went off without a hitch – the crowd remained pleasant throughout the game, minus a few disagreements over officials' calls – as she played 35 minutes and spent a long time after the game in the stands as well-wishers and fans took photographs and got autographs.
But the absence of Bulldog senior guard Jami Schaefer, Bjorklund's older sister, was a disappointment as the sister showdown failed to materialize in Spokane – as it did in Knoxville a year ago when Bjorklund fell one three-pointer shy of the single-game Tennessee record (seven) – because Schaefer injured her knee before Christmas.
"It was a great atmosphere for us and women's basketball," Summitt said. "It was a big test for us. We were very pleased that we could bring Angie back here, just very disappointed Jami got injured because in our minds that was going to be quite a matchup for those two.
"I think the distractions (that can accompany a homecoming game), as far as with Angie, has not been an issue this year. I think last year might have been a little bit more – it was the first time that they met – but both players went out and played well. Jami wasn't going to let her break the record for three-pointers so she was in her face the whole time. It was almost comical at the end. They were going at it. I think both of them are just great competitors.
"It was not what we expected here that she was injured and, again, I hate that, but I think both of those women are very mature and they know how to handle it. Angie might not have handled it as well her freshmen year, but she certainly handled what she had to do tonight."
Bjorklund enjoyed the experience – she maintained a calm demeanor in the days leading up to the game and it showed on the court – though she noted the Bulldogs kept it close for awhile.
"It was fun," Bjorklund said. "It got a little competitive, though. It was a fun environment and just be able to play on that court was a great experience."
The sisters met in the post-game handshake line with Schaefer in street clothes.
"I just gave her a hug and told her, ‘I love you,' " Bjorklund said.
Their parents, Jim and Kris Bjorklund, wore their same "TennZaga" shirts that were half blue and half orange. Other people in the crowd had gray TennZaga T-shirts with the date and venue of the game.
The capacity crowd cheered Gonzaga's efforts, especially the first-half leads, but seemed subdued at times, almost reluctant to cheer against Tennessee and Bjorklund. There were orange-clad fans scattered throughout the center and although it wasn't a home crowd, it certainly wasn't a hostile one, in stark contrast to what Tennessee will encounter at Rutgers on Saturday. The Lady Vols will depart from Spokane early Wednesday morning and will use today as a travel one to get across the country to the East Coast.
"This Gonzaga team is very, very tough and obviously very well coached," Summitt said. "It took us quite a while to break the game open and that's a real credit to them. We talked about the fact we weren't defending and rebounding the way we had to and I thought we were better in the second half. They're certainly a quality team and it was good for us to play in this environment on the road.
"Typically we go on the road and it's something like this but not for these young players. In high school they haven't seen anything like this (in terms of attendance). As we move forward with our road trip hopefully they'll get better and better having been in an environment like this."
Graves was pleased with his team's first-half efforts but not the way his players finished the second half.
"No question, I thought we did a lot of really good things," Graves said. "The middle of that second half they really stepped it up their intensity and we just didn't match it and then they made the run that kind of changed the game. But they're a good team."
Graves also noted the Lady Vols should really be a team to be reckoned with as the freshmen get more experience in games.
"There's no question they're a good team and they're going to be tougher and tougher to beat," Graves said. "I tell you what, when these freshmen are all 35 games into their season, they're going to be really tough to beat."
Incremental improvement is what Tennessee is seeking this season and Baugh observed that the team increased its focus in the second half, instead of coasting to the finish line, though Summitt did call off the pressure early and had Stricklen walk the ball up the court so slowly in the final seven minutes that if the women's game had a 10-second backcourt call, Tennessee might have been whistled.
Still the Lady Vols maintained their lead and played some entertaining basketball with Stricklen finding Brewer in transition, Bjorklund getting her steal in the open court, Gray's baseball pass off a defensive rebound, Baugh's around-the-back move and better ball movement such as a Manning to Fuller to Baugh sequence that ended with a layup.
"I think today in the second half was the first time we played great basketball on the road," Baugh said. "We didn't sink to the team's level in the second half. I felt like we were the better team throughout – Gonzaga is a great team – but we were the better team throughout and we showed that in the second half."