It took longer than usual for Coach Pat Summitt to get to the post-game press conference, but she was smiling when she walked in the room in a way that indicated she was waiting for this outcome.
"I think I just told them all I have to say," Summitt said in her opening remarks. "Just kidding. First of all I thought Vanderbilt was the better team from the tipoff to the end. Their ability to take us off the dribble – we didn't have an answer. You can switch up defense, play man, play zone; we played a lot of man, went to a zone late. They were just terrific.
"This was probably the most aggressive basketball team that we've played here at Vandy and I give Melanie a lot of credit because they're really working on their dribble drives, they share the ball, they play inside-out. They were tougher than us in every aspect of the game and I'm really disappointed in our team. I don't take a thing away from Vanderbilt. I thought they did a super job, and, again, they were a lot tougher than us defensively and a lot more aggressive offensively."
Vandy Coach Melanie Balcomb took a different approach to this year's matchup by deciding to focus on the game instead of de-emphasizing it with her team.
"One of my favorite quotes to my players all the time is, ‘If you keep doing what you do, you're going to keep getting what you get,' " Balcomb said. "So I had thought and thought about what I kept doing to beat Tennessee every year was act like it wasn't a big game. Not put more pressure on them. Not make it a big deal. Act like it's just another game because I felt like we felt a lot of pressure. We looked at the orange different than we looked at other people.
"And I talked to some people in the off-season that said, ‘It is a big game. What are you thinking? You're going to walk in your own gym and have a crowd that is the biggest crowd you're going to get all year. It's going to sound different. It's even going to look different. It's going to be orange. They're going to be bigger than any team you play and you'd better do something different.'
"So I had decided ahead of time we were really going to have fun at practice. We got Tennessee uniforms and we put orange uniforms on the (practice) guys. They had uniforms, headbands, you name it. They looked like the Tennessee players. We played crowd noise. We played ‘Rocky Top.' We had it all going. And we just made sure that it was different than every game. In the past I feel like I made a mistake and I treated it like, ‘This was no big deal; don't pressure yourself out.' But it is a big deal. And so I just thought we'd do a bunch of different things, and I can't say everything, of course, but we had fun with it. We had a lot of fun with it and the players I thought were much more relaxed. And we had louder crowd noise (at practice) than we had (Sunday). Just like you want to make practice harder than the game we made the crowd so loud they couldn't hear anything for the last two days. And we had really big guys with a lot of orange on."
Her players took it a step farther in the post-game press conference. Literally.
"One thing that Coach did was she had some of our practice players come out and wear all orange and just run around our court to upset us," senior guard Jennifer Risper said. "And she also when they ran out played ‘Rocky Top' to get us fired up, and I think it worked.
"She also got a doormat, a Tennessee doormat, so we could walk on it," Risper added. "I don't know if I should have said that one."
Vanderbilt (13-4, 2-0) ended up beating Tennessee (12-3, 1-1) at its own game. The Commodores out-rebounded the Lady Vols, 39-37; got more points off turnovers, 23-8 ; outscored them in the paint, 40-30; and had twice as many steals at 10-5.
"Our guard play was so poor we couldn't do much of anything," Summitt said. "We didn't make shots. You dig yourself a hole like that and that may cause you to be a little overanxious or lose your confidence a little bit. Of all the games we've played that was probably the poorest our guards have performed across the board and then we had situations where you're not shooting the ball well and the next thing that goes is your defense.
"If you have a veteran team or what I call a really competitive group then that's not going to happen and with the youth on our team and some of the personalities on our team I thought we really gave in, and I don't know if it was to fatigue or to the score. But for whatever reason we did not compete at the level we would have needed to even put ourselves in position to chip away at the score. That's a big disappointment. Very disappointed in our lack of commitment there. But I'm proud of these two. They did a nice job for us."
Summitt was referring to Alex Fuller, who led the Lady Vols with 12 points, and Kelley Cain, who added nine points and a career-high four blocks. The play of the duo in the post – Cain started the second half – was a rare bright spot for Tennessee.
"I don't think we did a good job scoring from the perimeter," Summitt said. "We were a little inconsistent in the post game, but for the most part I can't be that upset with our post game. I told Kelley she did a great job. She battled hard. Alex Fuller battled really hard for us. Glory Johnson.
"So I think as far as our game today it was a matter of guard play. We didn't defend from the guard position, and we obviously didn't score well. And a lot of times with a young basketball team I think offense can affect defense. We've got some time to figure it out and we've got a lot of games left to play. I'm just disappointed that we didn't compete harder, particularly from the guard spot."
The poor shooting from the guard spots played right into Vandy's game plan.
Angie Bjorklund and Shekinna Stricklen combined to shoot 5-19 with Bjorklund 1-2 behind the arc and Stricklen 0-4 from long range. Alicia Manning, in a surprise start for Briana Bass, was 2-4 from behind the arc, but Bass went 0-4 from three-point range. Bass didn't enter the game until eight minutes into the first half.
"That came from a situation with Bree in a film session that we had," said Summitt, who did not elaborate. "I told her then I was going to hold her out, one-game suspension more or less as a starter. I don't think that really affected what happened for 40 minutes by any rate."
Tennessee was leading 11-9 when Bass entered and extended the lead to 15-9 with 9:58 left in the first half on layups by Cain and Alyssia Brewer. Cain got her first career assists in the first half in what turned out to be a highlight for Tennessee.
Cain got the first one on a perfect feed to a cutting Fuller on the left side of the basket, The second came when Bass fired a pass from the corner to the free throw line to Cain, who found Brewer under the basket. The ball never touched the floor.
Cain played 20 minutes – she left the floor right before halftime to get ice treatment on her sore right kneecap – and tallied nine points, five rebounds, four blocks and two assists.
"I'm getting more comfortable with it, learning to play through whatever pain I'm going through," Cain said.
"I think Kelley's got the size, she's got the touch, she's got composure," Summitt said. "I thought she fought really hard and I think she's just going to get better and better as she becomes a little bit stronger. I think she's working hard and doing everything she needs to do to put herself in a position to play more. But there's not many people in our league that have the size and the skill set that she has in the low block area."
Cain had help in the post from Fuller, who led Tennessee with 12 points – she now has 609 career points – and seven rebounds. Fuller also had two assists, two steals and a block.
But the Lady Vols got very little scoring from the perimeter players. Manning and Stricklen had six points each. Bjorklund had five, and Sydney Smallbone added a late three-pointer that left the final margin at 16, preventing Sunday from being the worst loss ever to Vandy. Tennessee's 17-point loss – 76-59 – in Nashville on Feb. 2, 2002, remains atop that list.
"Every team that we play knows that those are our big two – Shekinna and Angie," Fuller said. "They're going to be denied everywhere they go. They're going to be pressured everywhere they go, and that's on the rest of us on the court and everybody on the bench to come in and be ready to play, set screens for them, get them open, do whatever we have to do, and if they're not scoring everybody else has to pick up what they're doing and pick up their productivity."
Tennessee got seven points and five rebounds from Glory Johnson, who got hit in the face midway through the second half and was bleeding from the nose. She did not return to the game.
"I know she took a hit," Summitt said.
Vandy, meanwhile, was getting balanced scoring with all five starters in double figures. Jessica Mooney led all scorers with 15 pointers while Hannah Tuomi and Jennifer Risper added 12 each. Merideth Marsh tallied 11 points and Christina Wirth chipped in with 10. Jence Rhoads had eight points off the bench on 4-5 shooting, and Chanel Chisholm added four.
Afterwards the Commodore players relished the win – the first after 16 consecutive wins by the Lady Vols – over the bitter in-state rival.
"Being a junior it's definitely very satisfying," Marsh said. "I wanted to do it for the seniors, and we really wanted to do it for Coach. It's like a rivalry that is never-ending it seems like and to get a win this big this early in our conference … we're just going to keep building on it.
"Our locker room, we were like so fired up, but the thing also is we're not peaking. This isn't going to be like, ‘Oh, we beat Tennessee. Now we're going to just ride it out.' No, we're going to take this, we're going to build on it and we're going to keep playing harder every single game and we're just going to keep getting better and better and better."
"You should get excited about every game, and we have an extra special game against a rival or a team you haven't beaten in a while," Wirth said. "I think that makes everyone excited. We were just excited. We knew that we didn't have to play our ‘A' game. We just had to play with heart and just out-work them and that's what we did."
It was being out-worked that was particularly galling to Summitt. But she also wasn't particularly surprised by how the game unfolded.
"No, not really, because we struggled against Kentucky," Summitt said. "We had to come from behind to beat Kentucky the other night. And against Rutgers we go in at halftime with 13 points. I don't know that I ever really thought, ‘Hey, we're getting there,' because we've only played at best one good half.
"So I was concerned coming in here with not having the players close to me, a little bit different setting when you've got the benches on the end line as opposed to the sideline, but I don't think that would have mattered. I don't think much of what I said (Sunday) mattered. I think they just got whipped by a better team."
Tennessee grabbed an early lead while Vanderbilt was missing shots but within the first seven minutes of the game the Commodores had a 10-4 advantage on the boards. The Lady Vols still led, 17-11, with 9:03 left in the first half, but then they started squirting turnovers – 14 in the first half and 23 for the game – and Vandy took advantage and claimed a 31-23 halftime lead.
Rhoads hit a jumper with 4 seconds left in the first half to complete the 12-0 run for Vandy.
"It was momentum for us to start the second half," Risper said.
The Commodores held the rebounding edge at halftime, 20-18, with 12 coming on the offensive end. Vandy had surrendered leads of late so a reminder was made at halftime to finish the game.
"I felt like I made a big mistake against Notre Dame," Balcomb said. "We had this big lead and we weren't tough on them enough at halftime and then at Alabama we had a big lead and let them back in the game. After the game there I said apparently my halftime talk was ineffective.
"So I went into the locker room trying to find things that we did poorly and tell them that second effort is great, but we need a third effort. What are you thinking out there? Meanwhile, we had out-rebounded them. We had the most offensive rebounds I think we've ever had. But my staff and I tried to be very tough on them at halftime. I told them I should have thrown things. I learned from those other games. Each game is figuring them out."
Vanderbilt picked up where it left off and stretched the lead to 38-25 within 2.5 minutes in the second half. The Lady Vols trimmed the lead to eight with 8:59 left in the game, but the Commodores responded by pushing it to double digits and erupting with a flurry of scoring to put the game out of reach, 67-46, with 3:22 remaining as the crowd of 9,650 was split with the gold-and-black fans ecstatic and the orange fans stunned.
Vanderbilt, like Tennessee, has been searching for a complete game. The Commodores came a lot closer to reaching that goal Sunday.
"That's one of the things our coaching staff has put out there and said, ‘Hey, you guys, we have not played a 40-minute game yet,' " Marsh said. "And if we did – if you look at our four losses, we played 20 minutes, maybe 23, 25 minutes but we'd never played 40 minutes. So at halftime we were like, ‘This is nothing. The game is not over. They're in there getting fired up. They're going to get their energy. It's like a whole other game.'
"We had to have that mentality. Keep attacking for 40 minutes. We cannot let up. Whenever we were doing that they were getting so tired. Another thing, if you look in the first half, we were not hitting all of our shots in the first half. We had the best offensive rebounding game we've ever had. It was insane. We have really been trying to key on that in practice. … That's what our mentality was for the whole game was to lay it out there for 40 minutes, especially in a game like this, possessions is key. That's what we kept telling ourselves in the huddle, ‘Possessions, possessions, possessions.' "
Given Tennessee's dominance in the series and the Lady Vols comeback from 20 points down at halftime against Rutgers, Balcomb said she did not exhale until the final horn sounded.
"Well, I guess I can finally smile," Balcomb said.
When was she comfortable that the game was a win?
"When it was over, when the clock hit zero," she said. "I've played Tennessee enough to know never to relax. Every time out I just told them that we still had to check out and win every possession. I talked about every single possession and what we needed to do. There was no time that I relaxed."
The Commodores were confident – both before and after the game.
"Definitely," Marsh said when asked if Vanderbilt was that much better – a 16-point margin – than Tennessee. "Coach is really big on stats, the numbers on paper, and if you look at it we are that much better than them. We had to find – I'm sure Coach talked about it – but after a win like this we found out what we're good at, what our strengths are and to take that and build on that is so important and so key and is going to help define the rest of our season.
"We know how good we are and we see it every day in and out of practice and so we found that confidence tonight and just kept building on it."
"We know what to do," Wirth said. "We're not going to play not to lose. We have this lead; we're going to keep attacking. We just said, ‘Out-work them, out-work them, out-work them,' and we did that. Getting together, just looking at each other and saying, ‘We're not leaving here without a win.'
"I was pretty confident. … I know this team, and I know what kind of heart we have so I was confident we would come out with a win."
Summitt expected much better effort from her team – Friday's practice had been intense, especially after the lackluster win over Kentucky in Knoxville – but what she got was a lethargic team that ended up backing down.
"I don't know why we didn't represent better," Summitt said. "But as I told our basketball team, we've been living on the edge. We've been playing a half of a game. We got to Texas and we tie it at halftime and then the wheels fall off. We had the same thing at Gonzaga, didn't play well in the first half, played well in the second half. Those of you who saw the game against Rutgers we were fortunate to come back and win, dug ourselves a big hole.
"Right now we've got to go back and see if we can't get our defense a lot better and just play better together as a basketball team."
Vandy sliced through Tennessee's defenders as if they were standing still and got to the basket at will.
"Initially we knew that they were known for their threes and this year they're known for their drives and their transition so that was our first priority to stop their drives," Fuller said. "And obviously we didn't because they penetrated on us I don't know how many times. They got 40 points in the paint. That was our game plan. We just didn't sell out to it."
Balcomb said part of Vandy's plan was to expose Tennessee's youth, especially on defense.
"We have two freshmen," Balcomb said with a smile. "We just know that there's a lot of freshmen out there (for Tennessee), and we know what our freshmen are doing defensively and they're going to have five of those kids out there sometimes doing that defensively. It's very tough when you sign All-Americans, and you sign great players – even at the level they're signing these kids – they come out of high school very good on offense, very good with the ball in their hands, not as good with the ball not in their hand.
"I think that's the toughest thing with freshmen that I've seen is getting them to move without the basketball, getting them to pass well – they're used to having the ball in their hand and shooting – and then getting them to play defense at the level that you have to play in college. It's a big adjustment, learning curve, and we knew they'd be young."
When Tennessee had the ball, Balcomb's plan was to let the other guards shoot from the outside and keep the ball out of the paint.
"We were keying on Stricklen and Bjorklund and trying to limit their touches and limit their shooting and not letting them also get the ball (inside) because when they get it on the interior, even if they miss shots, they're all in there to crash so we didn't want any penetration," Balcomb said. "We wanted them to take outside shots and then check out and create space and get long rebounds and then we converted those long rebounds into transition."
The strategy would not have worked if Tennessee had hit from the outside, but the Lady Vols were 39.3 percent overall and 23.5 percent from behind the arc in the first half. Vandy, on the other hand, shot 46.2 percent overall with the majority of its points coming in the paint. The Commodores were just 4-15 (26.7 percent) from behind the arc.
Marsh reinvented her game to start SEC play.
"That happened for me because I changed my mentality before SEC play," Marsh said. "Everybody looks at me and says, ‘Hey, she's a shooter.' But I don't think that I'm just a shooter and my teammates don't think that I'm just a shooter and neither do my coaches. And so that's what I'm going to do. I'm sick of teams thinking I can't go to the basket or make good passes or create other things. … I felt like the person who was guarding me, like tonight, she couldn't guard me, and our coaches have been really big on us having this mentality of attack.
"We attacked for 40 minutes this game and that's what was so key. We never stopped attacking. We never felt like, ‘Hey, we need to slow down and calm down,' because then they're going to get on a run and that's what we've done in the past and that's why we've lost. Coach was like, ‘Don't let them make you a one-dimensional player because you're not a one-dimensional player.' I was like, ‘You know what? I'm going to take what the defense gives me.' "
Balcomb credited the team's greater athleticism and strength training with its ability to get to the rim.
"That's what (grad assistant) Caroline (Williams) and I talked about," Balcomb said. "Years past you had to play a perfect game. We knew we had to make shots. We talked about before this game we didn't have to make shots. We had to attack, and we had to finish when we attacked. And Jen Risper and Jess Mooney and Merideth Marsh and Jence Rhoads taking people off the dribble and attacking. Chis taking their posts off the dribble.
"Our attacking is what we've never been able to do to them and that is because of our athleticism and our strength that we haven't had before. Usually it was physical and athleticism that we struggled competing with them."
Marsh indicated the game could be a springboard for Vanderbilt in the SEC portion of the season.
"Now we know what we can do," Marsh said. "I'm speechless to describe how excited we are. We found our niche. We found what we're good at. We out-hustled them, we played with heart, we played with passion. That's what Coach kept talking about after the game. They did not have that second effort or that third effort that we did. They got tired. They missed shots. They had fouls. Weren't getting back on defense. What we were doing is we were doing the complete opposite.
"Now, we just have to look at the strengths from this game, and, yeah, also look at the weaknesses, but take those strengths and just continue to build on them. … We know how good we are. That's why we're not like, ‘OK, yes, we beat Tennessee.' In the moment we're excited, we're celebrating it, but tomorrow we've got to wake up and say, ‘Hey, we have LSU next.' "
For Tennessee it was a bus ride back to Knoxville and then practice this week to get ready for a road game Thursday at Mississippi State.
"We've lost before, not quite this horribly, but we've just to learn from our mistakes," Fuller said. "That's what anybody does in this situation, just learn from everything that we did wrong."
"Like Alex said we just have to take this and learn from it and we know this feeling of losing, and this badly, and we know we don't want to feel it again so we have to go out there and compete every night," said Cain, who was visibly upset afterwards. "Sell out to our scouting report and play hard."
Fuller took responsibility for Tennessee not putting together a complete game this season.
"It's frustrating, but I put some of that responsibility on my shoulders just because I am a senior and I obviously haven't made it a good enough point to the rest of the team how important all these games are, and I'll take responsibility from here on out to make it well known in practice and come game time," Fuller said.