The improbable comeback – it was led by a sophomore and four true freshmen – included a first for Coach Pat Summitt. She started a player in the second half because she was furious with how she had played in the first half.
"No, never," said freshman forward Alyssia Brewer, when asked if she had ever had a coach start her because of anger over how she had played. "It's always been the opposite. I've been benched because they've been mad at me. I was shocked when she said that."
CBS had its camera in the locker room at halftime and aired Summitt chastising Angie Bjorklund for putting on a show in Spokane against Gonzaga and then being a "no show" at Rutgers. But Summitt's demeanor and tone were relatively low key, considering her team had scored the fewest points in a half in program history.
"You guys got the calm side of her whenever they showed her on TV but before that she was ripping into Angie and before (that) she was ripping into me," Brewer said. "She was like, ‘Lyssi, you've scored oh for four, zero rebounds, zero assists and one turnover.
"You've played 14 minutes and have nothing to show for it. What do you have to say for yourself?' I was like, ‘Rebound?' She was like, ‘Are you going to go out there and show something?' I was like, ‘Yes ma'am.'
"She goes, ‘Lyssi, I'm going to start you. You'd better show me something.' I was like, ‘Uhhhh, OK.' It was different. It was very different."
It also worked.
Brewer had eight points and seven rebounds – four on offense, including tracking one down in the corner and swinging out the ball, which found its way to Bjorklund, who nailed a three to get Tennessee to within four points late in the second half – in her 16 minutes of play after the break.
She also had one assist in which she dribbled out of a low-block double team to the high block and fired a cross-court pass to Bjorklund, who stroked a baseline jumper to give the Lady Vols the lead.
"I wasn't even thinking about us being behind that much," Brewer said of her approach when she took the floor to start the second half. "I wasn't nervous. I just kind of went out there and played."
Summitt is in her 35th year of coaching – she has 994 career victories in the chase for 1,000 – and on Monday she said she had never started a player out of fury.
"No, that was a first," Summitt said. "I told Lyssi Brewer, ‘I am so mad at you. You know what I am going to do? I am going to start you in the second half and find out if you're ready to play. If you're not, you're done.' And she responded. I guess maybe I did one thing right."
And, despite her youth, Brewer also knows the performance means nothing if she doesn't follow it up with good practices and a solid effort in the next game.
"It helps me, but I'm not the type of person that takes that so deep," Brewer said. "It's a game. It happened a couple of days ago. You've got to look forward to Thursday when we play Kentucky. You've got to keep playing your game. You can have a couple of good games and then you can have a bad game. Pat wants you to be consistent through every game."
That was apparent in Monday's practice, a significant portion of which was used to get ready to guard Kentucky. Tennessee opens the SEC season on Thursday at home against the Wildcats at 7 p.m.
"That's what we worked on all day today just getting ready to defend their action," Summitt said.
Sophomore forward Vicki Baugh, who sprained a knee ligament last Thursday in practice and missed the Rutgers game, remained out of action Monday. She was able to do some sideline rehab exercises and balancing drills. Her availability for this week remains in question and playing Thursday would seem very unlikely at this point. Baugh is still using crutches, but she was putting weight on the leg Monday.
The relief came Sunday afternoon when the orthopedic surgeon concurred with Jenny Moshak's diagnosis on the road that Baugh had sustained a sprain of the lateral collateral ligament of the left knee. That meant her surgically repaired ACL was OK.
"She told me she felt a lot better today, a lot better, so we're hopeful (Baugh could be back soon)," Summitt said.
Summitt isn't worried about a letdown in the next game. She gave the players a day off so they could rest and then got back to work Monday in a 2.5-hour practice.
"That's one of the reasons I wanted to make sure they had Sunday off and then we wanted to come back here and with a young basketball team I think you've got to constantly remind them of how we have to work every day," Summitt said. "I think they're pretty invested in doing that. I'd be surprised with us opening up against Kentucky that they're not ready to play."
But on Monday the Knoxville media still wanted to talk about the Rutgers game. The previous highest halftime deficit was at Virginia when the Lady Vols scored 14 points and were down 19 at the break. The game was in Charlottesville, and the winner went to the Final Four. Tennessee came back to win, 52-46, and went on to win the national title that year to start the Three-Peat.
"It's incredible," Summitt said. "I've only been in that situation one other time in my career and I was like, ‘Wow.' I didn't see it coming. I think Rutgers really got into us defensively, and we just panicked. We had more panic plays in that first half than we've had all year.
"In the second half I thought we were much more composed, and I thought going to our 13 defense, which is our zone defense and extending it with our 2-2-1 back to that was the most effective defense we played all day, and I think it slowed them down a bit."
The way the game unfolded was shocking to the players, the coaches, the fans in attendance and likely the ones watching on television, too.
"We were playing like a team that I had never even seen in a game or a practice," Brewer said. "We've had our bad games but nothing like that. I think all of us were kind of baffled by the way we were playing. We were like, ‘What's wrong?' We just got our composure at halftime and went out there and played like how we needed to.
"You've got to give Rutgers the credit for playing us like they did in the first half and keeping us to that low of points. I think everybody is talking about how we're a young team, but when it comes to things you've got to have a mature mind to be able to overcome things like that."
The halftime routine at Tennessee is that the coaches meet in the hallway while the players talk among themselves. They write on the board what adjustments they think they need to make and then the coaches join the players.
"Typically when we go into the locker room what we do is the players go in first, and they write on the board what they need to do and when I read the board I knew that they understood what they didn't do and what they needed to do," Summitt said. "So basically we just talked about where we needed to be better on the defensive end and going to our matchup. I thought they came out and responded."
Summitt often allows TV cameras in the locker room at halftime, and she doesn't worry about what will be broadcast.
"If you've coached for 35 years there are no secrets," Summitt said. "It's not like I'm going to come up with something that's going to be a game changer. I think it was just a matter of staying composed and encouraging them throughout the game because they didn't want to play the way they played in the first half, and we didn't want them to play that way.
"I think they responded. Obviously I really challenged Angie. She wasn't aggressive enough offensively. Lyssi. Those are probably the two I singled out the most and obviously praised what Glory Johnson was bringing. I did remind them they didn't want to go home with this woman if they didn't turn things around. I guess they believed me."
Freshman guard Shekinna Stricklen, whose back-to-back three-pointers in the second half pumped fuel into the comeback and fired up the orange-clad fans in attendance, said halftime is a group effort.
"Everyone talked at halftime," said Stricklen, who was announced Monday as the SEC Freshman of the Week for the second time this season after posting her first career double-double, 16 points, 11 rebounds, against Rutgers.
"She was just telling us what we needed to hear, telling people we need to step up, telling Ang she needed to shoot more, which she needed, and telling Lyssi she needed to step up more. She was just telling us all we needed to step up more."
The halftime spot showed part of the conversation with Bjorklund, who nodded in agreement. The sophomore had one shot attempt in the first half.
"We went in there and we were like, ‘What are they doing? We can't get our shots up,' " Bjorklund said. "Halftime gave us a chance to kind of step back and observe what they were doing and get each other's input, especially when they were double-teaming the post inside, we started figuring out to kick it out. Halftime gives us a chance while the coaches are talking for the players to be like, ‘C'mon we've got to pick it up.'
"We were rushing a lot of things, especially in the first half, and at halftime it gave us a chance to (say), ‘We need to step it up.' I give Rutgers a lot of credit because they were defending us and pushing tempo a lot better than we were. Second half, we all had a chance to regroup, and we came out with a whole new game."
Bjorklund finished 4-6 from the field with 12 points and hit two three-pointers.
"She was challenging me the whole first half, too," Bjorklund said. "Halftime just kind of gave me time to get my head back into it. I was rushing a little too much, a little overanxious. At halftime I think I really focused more on defense. If I wasn't going to get open shots I needed to help my team another way, and I think once my defense started going then the offense started to pick up, too.
"Anytime I'm playing like I did – getting one shot up – and not necessarily doing much on defense or rebounding, I'm not helping my team at all, and she'll call people out for sure. She has high expectations for us and if I'm not exceeding those then she's going to get on me for it, but that's why I came here and that's why I like a challenge."
Summitt joked that the backup plan was one she couldn't deploy.
"I was looking up in the stands asking Nicky Anosike if she would go suit up," said Summitt of the New York native and former Lady Vol now in the WNBA. "I looked at her and I said, ‘Boy do I miss you. Will you go suit up?' She said, ‘I wish I could.' "
But on Monday, as she did Saturday after the game, Summitt was saluting her current team.
"They could have quit and because they didn't quit this was a defining moment for this team," Summitt said.
But Summitt also started practice with a forceful reminder.
"Today I made it very clear," she said. "We don't want to be a 20-minute team. We want to be a 40-minute team or a 40-plus-minute team. And that's what we have to do if we're going to win as we move forward."