Tennessee (14-3, 3-1) was led by Alex Fuller, who scored 14 points and pulled down eight rebounds in 30 minutes of play. Fuller surprised Cait McMahan by wearing her No. 2 jersey in tribute because the redshirt sophomore had to stop playing basketball this season because of a balky right knee.
Fuller, a 6'3 redshirt senior who missed her freshman year to recover from knee surgery, traded her No. 44 jersey for the No. 2 of the 5'4 McMahan.
"It fits fine," Fuller said. "It is kind of small, but I can deal with it. I decided to do it because Cait means a lot to me and in my life. There is a lot of heart in the No. 2 jersey."
McMahan is from nearby Maryville and Fuller is from Shelbyville in Middle Tennessee.
"We are both Tennessee girls and grew up wanting to wear the orange jersey," Fuller said in a statement released before the game. "I am doing this as a tribute to Cait."
After the game Fuller said the gesture, which will remain in place all season, was "to show her my appreciation, as well as the team's, and letting her know that we do care about her a lot and she is still a part of this team, and she will be on the court with us at all times."
McMahan was on the court in street clothes to greet the team during player introductions. When Fuller came out of the tunnel she pulled off her shooting shirt to reveal the jersey, and the crowd – already electrified because former Lady Vol Nicky Anosike was honored before the game – erupted again. Fuller and McMahan shared a huge hug and then headed to the bench.
"She said, ‘I think I'm going to cry,' " Fuller said.
Fuller remembered Shanna Zolman doing the same thing in the 2004-05 season after Sidney Spencer suffered a season-ending knee injury. Zolman wore Spencer's No. 1 jersey instead of her No. 5 in the Feb. 24, 2005, game and kept it on for the rest of the year.
"Alex asked me if I minded if she switched her jersey and gave hers up for Cait just to honor Cait," Summitt said. "This team has great respect for Cait, and obviously with what she's gone through I was all for it. I think that speaks to Alex Fuller. She's all about the team. She's very committed to being a leader on this team and also she's very sensitive to what's happened with Cait's knee. I thought she showed nothing but a great commitment to Cait and to our basketball team and program."
Fuller's effort on the court was a tribute, too. At the 13:37 mark of the first half she had eight of Tennessee's nine points and three of the team's four rebounds.
"It could have been something that inspired her emotionally," Summitt said. "But I think Alex has been playing with tremendous confidence. I like the fact that she can be aggressive, but she also has a lot of composure and sometimes with these young freshmen running around like crazy it's good to have someone settle them down. She seems to really be that voice and that leader by example."
Fuller was her usual forthright self about the switch having any effect on her play.
"Honestly, I don't think so," said Fuller, who is sporting a shiner and a blood-red right eye after getting scratched in Thursday's game. "I just went out there and played how I usually play and how I have to play to help this team."
Fuller's role has expanded as the Lady Vols have had post players in and out of the lineup because of injuries. Redshirt freshman center Kelley Cain, who re-irritated her knee last Thursday, and sophomore forward Vicki Baugh, who sprained her knee Jan. 1, continue to come back from those mishaps. Cain did not play, and Baugh logged three minutes in the first half.
"I asked Kelley, ‘What's your status? And she said, ‘Only if you need me.' That tells me that she's not ready," Summitt said. "I put Vicki in and she's rebounding off of one foot. She's got to get to where I think she's ready. She may think she's ready, but I didn't see that early today, and I don't want to run any risks. I want her to get as strong as she can when she comes back and play the game on balance."
Baugh is wearing a new brace on her left knee and was tugging at it while on the court.
"She mentioned to one of the players and I think Holly (Warlick) said something to me that she didn't think that she was very comfortable with the brace," Summitt said. "It was a little bit tight, and I think they adjusted it. But I just decided that I want to make sure she's ready to go. The last thing we want is a setback."
South Carolina (8-9, 0-4) was led by Brionna Dickerson, who scored 17 points and hit her first three 3-point attempts.
The Gamecocks jumped out to an 18-11 lead and still led 24-17 with 9:36 left in the first half. But Briana Bass hit a three-pointer and then uncorked a crossover move on her defender near the arc that left her helpless. Bass drove unimpeded to the basket for the layup.
Alyssia Brewer was fouled on Tennessee's next possession and made the first free throw to pull Tennessee to within one, 26-25, with 7:16 remaining. As the second free throw left her hand Brewer yelled, "That's off!" and Shekinna Stricklen darted under the basket, got the rebound and hit the putback to put the Lady Vols up, 27-26.
By halftime Tennessee had a slim 33-30 lead, and Summitt had a calm conversation in the locker room. She noted the 16,413 in attendance as fans filled the upper levels across from the bench.
Tennessee opened the second half with a 17-4 run to take a 50-34 lead with 12:11 remaining in the game.
"I don't know if they responded to me," Summitt said of what prompted the offensive spurt. "Maybe they responded to each other. I told them, ‘Look in the stands and see how many people came here (Sunday) to watch you play. It's the biggest stage in women's basketball and why would you ever not give your all on every possession?'
"That's who we are at Tennessee, and that's what's expected from us. And quite honestly I expect more. Our staff expects more, and the fans deserve more. That's basically what I said. I didn't even turn the volume up."
Before the game tipped off South Carolina Coach Dawn Staley scanned the arena – the site of the 1990 Final Four when she was a guard for Virginia – and took in the crowd.
"Not really flash back but kind of look ahead," Staley said. "Right before the game I was talking to one of the assistant coaches, Lisa Boyer, and just looking around and seeing how many people were here on a Sunday afternoon when there's NFL playoff games going on, and they're right here. This is something that every program would like to mirror, including us.
"Lisa asked me, ‘Do you think we'll ever get this many people at our games?' One day. I believe one day. I believe we have the facility to do it. Winning will help. Bringing in great players will help. I don't think Tennessee was Tennessee before they won as many national championships."
That tradition is something that this year's young team has heard all season – even the media guide is called "Lady Vols of the Rings" and has photos of all eight rings on the cover – but Summitt has had to adjust her usual mantra of defense and board play to remind her team to take care of the ball. It's an indication of the back-to-the-basics approach with the youngest team in her 35-year tenure.
The miscues are trending in the right direction since the Vanderbilt game, during which the ball squirted loose 23 times. There were 15 turnovers at Mississippi State and just 13 on Sunday against South Carolina, a team that likes to bring pressure.
"Ball security has been a real question mark for our team and lack of consistency," Summitt said. "I think one thing that's happened with our team is that we've decided to slow down a little bit. Typically for me defense and rebounding are the two things that I am constantly preaching. But I have probably said, ‘We need composure,' more than I've said, ‘We need defense and rebounding,' because we were playing so nervous and anxious and wouldn't wait on our screens.
"I think the practices that we've had and having some time to prepare has helped us. And I think we'll get better. We'll get a lot better. I was pleased with Glory Johnson and how she went in for the second time. We're still learning that we do need composure."
Summitt replaced Johnson with Brewer early in the first half because Johnson was motoring too fast on offense. When Johnson returned she used her speed in the open floor to score and battled on the boards.
Tennessee's offensive outburst to open the second half was fueled by its defense. Stricklen, who got her second double-double of the season with 13 points and 10 rebounds, drew the assignment of Dickerson, who scored five points in the second half after tallying 14 in the first half.
"A number of things," Summitt said when asked why the defense was more effective in the second half. "I though switching defenses helped us. I thought when we went with a bigger lineup and ran our ‘five defense,' which is switching on everyone, that gave us a chance to keep them more in front of us.
"Obviously Dickerson came out (in the first half), and we weren't ready to really defend deep, and we need to. I thought our adjustment at halftime I thought they committed to it. We felt like that was a turning point for us to just do a better job. Shekinna drew that assignment most of the time because she's got size and can have a bigger presence on the basketball."
Summitt started Brewer in the second half but after the forward didn't get on the boards Johnson was reinserted.
"I thought Glory Johnson, while she didn't start strong, she came back (strong), and she and Alex Fuller did a great job on both ends of the floor, but in particular I thought they played well together offensively," Summitt said.
Johnson had seven points and five rebounds after settling down and helping Tennessee get its transition game on track.
Johnson was on the receiving end of a feed from Stricklen in the second half on a fast-break bucket, and Stricklen also fired a pass to Alicia Manning, who hit the layup one possession after stroking a three-pointer from the top of the key. Bjorklund fired a cross-court pass to Stricklen, who drove to the basket to complete the transition attack.
"I thought Alicia Manning did a good job coming in and defending and running the floor," Summitt said.
Johnson's basket completed the 17-4 run and although South Carolina got to within seven points, 60-53, with 6:12 left after Lakeisha Sutton hit a three, the Lady Vols pushed the lead back to double digits behind layups from Brewer, Stricklen and Amber Gray and two free throws from Angie Bjorklund for the final 12-point margin, 68-56.
Bjorklund had seven points on 2-7 shooting, but Summitt pointed to her overall box score – five rebounds, five assists, one block and a steal.
"I think Angie is playing with a lot of confidence, playing a lot better defense," Summitt said. "I think she has really worked on her defensive positioning. Obviously she's a target every night that we play. I think she's doing a better job of not forcing things but letting the game come to her.
"We've got to continue to find ways to get her better looks and obviously a lot more of them, because she is certainly one of the best players I think in the SEC, and she's got a chance to one of the best guards to play in this program."
Bjorklund had a sweet feed to Brewer in the first half after driving the left baseline and flipping a backhanded pass between two defenders. Brewer finished the layup and had seven points and three blocks for the game.
"There have been a couple of times over these past couple of games where we've passed to each other and it's been an open shot, and we've been able to make it," Brewer said. "I do think that our team chemistry is coming along great."
But it was Brewer's two rebounds that caused Summitt to sigh and shake her head after the game.
"If Lyssi Brewer would learn to rebound, she'd be a heck of a player," Summitt said. "I thought she defended and had some good touches in the paint but obviously she's got to rebound."
Brewer dropped her head and smiled when Summitt's remarks were relayed to her and Stricklen tried to suppress some snickers, which indicated the topic had likely already been discussed in the locker room.
So what does Brewer need to do to make her coach happy?
"Obviously rebound," Brewer said to laughter – her and those in the room. "Definitely that's going to be something that I need to work on. I think it will help not just me, but the team as well."
Fuller is a textbook rebounder, especially in terms of boxing out. She sealed her player in the second half, which allowed Bjorklund to grab the rebound and start the break.
So what is it that some teammates are not doing?
"Not rebounding?" Fuller said with a smile as Brewer and Stricklen laughed.
So what makes Fuller so solid on the boards?
"I really don't know how to answer that question," Fuller said. "Boxing out is boxing out. Just find somebody and hit 'em."
Is that what she tells the others?
"Just find somebody and hit 'em," Fuller said to Brewer.
"Thanks," Brewer said as both players laughed.
Tennessee had to withstand an opening flurry from South Carolina in which the Gamecocks shot 70 percent in the first eight minutes of the game, but their lead was limited to three points, 18-15, because Tennessee was shooting 50 percent.
Both teams cooled off – South Carolina shot 37.9 percent for the game and Tennessee connected at 42.9 percent – but the quick start was beneficial for the Gamecocks' confidence.
"It did a lot for us," Dickerson said. "We came out willing to fight and ready to fight for 40 minutes, and sometimes we had our lapses, but that was our mentality – to come out fighting and to come out swinging."
Putting together a full game – something Summitt is also seeking – has been a point of emphasis for South Carolina.
"I think for us one of the focuses was to come in and get off to a good start and kind of jump start the things that we haven't been doing well, which is playing a little bit more physical and just compete for 40 minutes, and I think it helped us just to sustain some energy throughout the entire game," Staley said.
"But Tennessee is Tennessee at home. You have to take your hits because they come big. If you can sustain those big runs, you can put yourself in the basketball game and compete and win at the end. But they were a little bit too much for us today."
South Carolina did stay close with the Lady Vols, but "a loss is a loss," Staley said. "We're 0-4 in the SEC and we need a win. Moral victories for us right now just won't get it."
Staley smiled when asked what she needed to get her team into the win column in the league.
"A couple of players off Tennessee's bench," Staley said. "It boils down to just players. It's players. Players build tradition. Players win championships for you. We do have some talent at South Carolina; we just don't have enough. And we don't have enough at positions you really need to have and compete in this particular league. So it boils down to just players.
"We're in the position where we're fighting for an identity, we're fighting to uphold a reputation, we're fighting to start a tradition at South Carolina. It will happen one of these days, but for now for what we have – and I'll take the players that we have – they're fighting and trying to get better. They're not fighting or bucking the system in any way. And we'll get better. We'll get better in this particular season."
One of the players buying into that system is Dickerson, who is trying to absorb as much as she can in one year from Staley and wishes she had more time.
"I sure do," Dickerson said. "I've learned so much from her. I feel like I'm a freshman again because I'm learning all of this new stuff from her. I am trying to take in so much from her, and I really do wish I had another year with her."
Stricklen had to shift full-time to Dickerson in the second half because the senior guard was the one doing the damage to Tennessee.
"She's a good defender," Dickerson said. "I'll give her that, but that gave a chance for my teammates to get involved in the game. Seeing as I couldn't get as open as easily they were able to step up and hit some big shots. People like Lakeisha Sutton she hit some big shots. I'm hoping that as time goes on more and more people will step up and fill those roles."
"She's a good player and a good shooter," Stricklen said. "At the beginning of the game, I wasn't working hard enough (on defense), but in the second half my teammates carried me and we just came out and stopped her in the second half."
Tennessee's team defense was much more effective in the second half, which allowed Stricklen to concentrate on Dickerson.
"I think it was just that everybody was sold out to playing defense in the second half," Fuller said. "Everybody was sold out to each other. We didn't want to let each other down. We had help. If we got a middle drive we had the rotation down. I think it was just everybody had a different mindset in the second half about our defense."
Dickerson was the only Gamecock in double figures, but three other players, Demetress Adams, Samone Kennedy and Sutton, tallied nine points each.
"We need a lot more Brionnas at different positions," Staley said. "For us she carries a heavy load, a heavy scoring load for us. We're asking her to shoot a lot of times and we're asking her to defend our opponent's best offensive player. Seniors have to do that. Seniors have to really bear down and give it their all because this is her last time playing here in Knoxville. I think she made an impression today."
Summitt will take the win – career No. 997 – but she also scanned the stat sheet during the post-game press conference and saw several places that need immediate improvement. The Lady Vols prevailed on the boards, 42-37, but South Carolina got 17 on the offensive end and had 11 second-chance points to 13 for Tennessee. Summitt's attempted march to 1,000 moves to the road with away games at Arkansas on Thursday and at Auburn next Sunday.
"We've got to rebound as a team better overall," Summitt said. "It's not going to be any easier when we go to Arkansas or Auburn. It's going to be a tough challenge for us on the road."
The next game will be a homecoming of sorts for Stricklen, who is from Morrilton, Ark. Summitt has been pleased with the overall play of the freshman all season.
"I thought Shekinna Stricklen really stepped up," Summitt said. "She's been one player that we've been able to count on pretty much every game."
Stricklen was covered in ice bags at the post-game press conference, including on her right shoulder. She sustained a rib contusion in the game against Mississippi State and went down hard several times in Sunday's game, including one collision that sent her to the bench late in the second half. She returned but then left again.
"It was the same rib," said Stricklen, who is now wearing a shirt under her jersey that holds pads to protect her torso.
And I got hit again in my nose, but that's good, too," she added. "And my shoulder, you can see. It still hurts."
Is she OK?
"I'm still standing," Stricklen said with a smile.
LADY VOL VISITOR: Former Lady Vol Nicky Anosike, who missed the 2008 banner raising because she was playing overseas, was introduced at center court before the game to thunderous cheers.
"I miss that," Anosike said. "Playing in the program for four years and hearing that and obviously my first year out not hearing it so coming back and being able to hear that one more time felt really good."
The crowd erupted as soon as the PA announcer mentioned a special visitor and the fans noticed Anosike striding to the court. The announcer tried to outline her accomplishments, including being honored as the NCAA Woman of the Year, but the cheers drowned out his words.
Anosike was let go by her team in Israel because of the organization's financial issues, and the unconditional release allowed her to sign with another pro team.
"I just signed with a team in Poland," Anosike said.
Anosike returned stateside between pro commitments – she leaves in 10 days for Poland – but she was only able to make a brief stop in Knoxville because of other obligations. She sat at center court near the Tennessee bench with her fiancé, Demonte Bolden, a Vol football player last season.
"I think they're really good," Anosike said of the 2008-09 Lady Vol team. "I don't think they're the best team – I've seen other teams play – but I think they could beat any team if they really come ready. They're doing all right. They'll only go up from here."