"Everybody right now thinks they can beat Tennessee, and fortunately we've had people step up somehow and finish out games. Obviously with the exception of our losses, but even then we made strong runs, with the exception of Vandy. We made a run at Auburn. So, I don't know."
Summitt was calm after the game – it was, after all, another win for her crew of freshmen – but she seemed befuddled as to how the Lady Vols won after shooting 35.1 percent, turning the ball over 24 times and missing 15 free throws. The answer could be found on the boards – a 49-32 edge for Tennessee with 26 on the offensive end – and solid defense, especially down the stretch. Ole Miss (13-8, 2-4) shot 37.5 percent and turned the ball over 20 times, including critical miscues in the final three minutes.
The answer also was in the hands of Angie Bjorklund, who dribbled left, revered course and curled around the corner to shake Rebel Kayla Melson and then loft a three-pointer on the baseline over Elizabeth Robertson. The ball found nothing but net and when Bianca Thomas' missed attempt was rebounded by Alex Fuller – who recorded her first career double-double – the victory was secured.
"That was the maybe the best ending to an absolute miserable game to watch and coach," Summitt said. "We turned the ball over just like we did in our last outing against Auburn. One thing we did we rebounded a lot better. Didn't make free throws. It is what it is. It's a win."
Summitt's first attempt at an unprecedented 1,000 NCAA basketball wins will come Monday night against Oklahoma in Oklahoma City at the Ford Center.
"Well, we're going shoot 1,000 free throws between now and then," Summitt said to much laughter.
Tennessee (16-4, 5-2) was led by two players in double digits – Bjorklund with 13 points and Fuller with 11. The Lady Vols also had two players in double digits in rebounds – Glory Johnson with 10 and Fuller with 11. Shekinna Stricklen added eight rebounds and Bjorklund and Alicia Manning had five boards each.
"I think it comes from our rebounding," Fuller said when asked how the Lady Vols managed to win. "We out-rebounded them by 17. That's where it came down. We turned the ball over way too much, and they came for a war."
The game started off as if Tennessee might be able to shake the Rebels early. The Lady Vols got their running game on track and jumped out to a 12-3 lead with Stricklen, who finished with nine points, leading the way in the open floor.
But Ole Miss got the ball inside to Shawn Goff and managed to tie the game at 14-14 with 6:21 left in the first half. From there the teams took turns misfiring from behind the arc – Tennessee was 1-6 and Ole Miss 2-12 in the first half – but the Lady Vols managed a mini-run by getting the ball to Kelley Cain and led at halftime, 25-22.
Bjorklund, who had five assists for the game, had tallied three by halftime by finding Cain under the basket and Stricklen on a baseline cut and then Fuller down the lane after driving the baseline. Stricklen also had a sweet assist by saving a ball from going out of bounds, pivoting and somehow making a perfect feed to Cain in the lane. Tennessee had eight assists on nine first-half baskets.
But it was Bjorklund taking shots late in the second half that was the difference in the game. The sophomore had three of Tennessee's last four field goals – including two three-pointers, none bigger than the last one with 6.8 seconds remaining to give Tennessee the win and wipe out by one point a deficit that had been at seven points with 3:12 left to play.
Bjorklund called for the ball as it went from Fuller to Stricklen's hands and as she took the pass she first tried to get to the middle of the floor. Bjorklund reversed course, dribbled past the Tennessee bench, lost one defender, pulled up on the baseline and lofted what almost looked like a leaner from behind the arc.
"I was just trying to get an opening," Bjorklund said. "I definitely want to take the last shot at the end of the game. It came down to keep going until I get an opening. The whole time I was praying it would go in, and it did. … With the seconds going down, Ole Miss had great D. They had great D the whole time. It was just trying to get my shoulders square and get an open look.
"As a shooter, you've just got to think next shot. It doesn't matter how many shots you miss. Towards the end, I was saying, ‘God take over,' and he hit those last shots.
Bjorklund was 1-9 from the field before her flurry of scoring over the final 2:46.
"I was just glad to see her not give up and not let all the missed shots affect her aggressiveness, as well as her making big shots in the end," Summitt said. "But it'd be fine with me if she started that in the first half."
The last shot may have been a little higher on the difficulty scale than her previous ones but Summitt – who had the best view of it from the bench – thought the sophomore lined it up well.
"She didn't have a good look, but she made a big shot," Summitt said. "That says something about a shooter's focus when they really are focused, because I thought she rushed and didn't have her feet set early (in the game), but even in that last shot I thought she squared her shoulders up."
Tennessee started the second half by immediately finding Bjorklund, who had ducked into the corner, for a three-pointer and the Lady Vols boosted the lead to 30-22 when Stricklen hit two free throws.
But the Lady Vols' shooting woes began anew – they shot 36 percent in the first half and 34.3 percent in the second half – and Ole Miss stayed close and then seized the lead, 37-36, on a Thomas three-pointer. After shooting 2-12 (16.7 percent) from behind the arc in the first half (16.7 percent) the Rebels connected on 5-9 (55.6 percent) from long range in the second half.
With Shawn Goff providing the inside complement, the Rebels built a 54-45 lead with 4:10 left in the game. But Goff committed her fifth foul against Johnson, who was 4-11 from the line on a night when the team struggled overall, except for Fuller (3-3) and Bjorklund (2-2).
"Devastating," Ole Miss Coach Renee Ladner said of losing Goff. "We've had to play without her several times this season where she's gotten into foul trouble, many of those cheap. Actually she's only been in about one or two games for the duration. That hurts us greatly because she gives us such a presence in the paint, and more importantly she gives our players confidence."
Johnson missed the second free throw, which was rebounded by an Ole Miss player, who lost her balance and went to her knees with the ball. With the crowd screaming for a travel - which was not called - the player scooted onto the baseline, and the ball went to the Lady Vols on the turnover that way.
Fuller swished a shot from six feet off an in-bounds play and was fouled. She made the free throw to cut the deficit to six and when Manning made a free throw on the next possession, Tennessee trailed by just five, 54-49. Thomas got two points back for Ole Miss at the line – the Rebels were 10-14 from the stripe – and then Bjorklund buried a three-pointer from the wing to pull Tennessee to 56-52.
Ole Miss traveled on its next possession against Tennessee's full court pressure, and Johnson scored inside to pull the Lady Vols to within two, 56-54, with 1:52 left.
But Ole Miss called timeout with 10 seconds left on the shot clock – Tennessee's pressure forced the Rebels deep into the clock without an open look – and Black drained a three-pointer in front of Manning to push the lead to 59-54 with 1:16 left.
"Alicia Manning switched, but she didn't contest," Summitt said. "She didn't close out. That one I thought might have cost us the game. That's where you have to have discipline."
But Johnson made a free throw and Bjorklund penetrated to the middle and hit a 15-footer to close the gap to two, 59-57, with 54 seconds left. Tennessee got another defensive stop, but Fuller lost the ball in the lane on the Lady Vols' end, and Tennessee had to foul.
"It slipped out of her hand," Summitt said. "I can't fault her because she usually has the composure and settles us down. I think she was a little overanxious herself."
Holloway missed the front end of the one and one and Fuller got the rebound. That set up Bjorklund's game winner, much to the delight of the crowd.
"They definitely helped us in the end," Fuller said. "I remember looking around and just about everybody was standing up. So I'm glad nobody lost hope in us."
Summitt agreed the fans should get an assist on her 999th win.
"A lot of help," Summitt said. "The volume was turned up. I think that gave us a lot of momentum and typically, it probably had the adverse effect on the visiting teams when that happens. And that's why we never want to do anything but continue to thank our fans for coming out and helping us win. You know what? I think they probably feel like they're really helping us this year. I do."
Ladner also gave a nod to the coach on Tennessee's bench.
"Tennessee knows how to win," Ladner said. "They have an incredible program and an incredible coach. They know how to win; they know what it takes. In most of the games that I've seen them play and scouting this year, they found a way to win in the end, less the Auburn game and the Vanderbilt game. They hang in there, they fight, they're of course, naturally, well coached, and they make the big plays when they have to."
When Thomas missed the final attempt for Ole Miss she dropped to the court in anguish. Ole Miss played well enough to win for 37 minutes.
"I'm heartbroken for a team that put forth that much effort," Ladner said. "However the last shot, as good as it was for Tennessee, was not the defining moment in the game. With 3:21 on the clock we were up seven and we panicked. We did not handle it, and our turnovers were huge at that moment, and we have a tendency to not understand we're up seven, get the ball in, run the clock down and make Tennessee have to take it from you.
"I'm heartbroken for my players and for the program. It's not every night you have an opportunity to come into this facility and play in this type of environment and walk away with a win. I really believe that would've helped our kids' confidence, because we've lost some games we shouldn't have already this year."
Turnovers were nearly fatal for Tennessee as Ole Miss brought defensive pressure throughout the game. Stricklen had a Rebel stuck to her for most of the game, getting free once only because Alyssia Brewer set a solid pick near center court that brought a roar of approval from the crowd.
"We really believed coming into the game that we were faster than Tennessee," Ladner said. "Naturally, we're smaller, and I thought we could put a lot of pressure on them, in particular the point guard where they're freshmen. They're young, and they've not been in this league for any length of time, and I think I have two very good on-ball defenders. I just believed that my entire team took it up a notch. I asked for 40 minutes of effort. Tonight I think they brought the effort."
Ole Miss actually had some size on Tennessee in some combinations with the 6'4 Holloway and the 6'3 Goff on the floor. Vicki Baugh, a 6'4 forward, sat out for Tennessee because of a knee sprain, and the 6'6 Cain was limited to first-half duty only.
"That was just coach's decision," Summitt said. "I liked the mobility of having Glory in there and Alex. I thought it was going to be more of an up-and-down game and we were going to press a little bit more. We wanted to go to our five defense, so we could switch on all screens and sometimes it's a little costly if Kelley has to switch and cover a three on the baseline. She's not going to arrive as early as our other post people."
Cain had an effective 13 minutes in the first half with eight points, four rebounds and no turnovers, but her mobility remains limited as she returns from knee surgery and three mishaps to the knee this season.
"It's coming back slowly but surely," Cain said.
Summitt used all nine players in the first half and everyone played double-digit minutes so she wasn't ready to shorten her bench yet. Freshman forward Amber Gray did not play because of an undisclosed violation of team rules, but she did dress and sit on the bench.
Brewer logged 15 minutes and scored all six of her points in the second half after getting low post position and all three baskets came on feeds from the point guards – two from Stricklen and one from Briana Bass.
More importantly, Brewer did not have a turnover.
"I thought Lyssi gave us some good minutes," Summitt said.
The perimeter players, meanwhile, for both teams were turning loose of the ball. Stricklen and Bjorklund had five each for Tennessee, though they also set up teammates as Bjorklund had four assists and Stricklen had seven. Black led Ole Miss with eight turnovers, though she also had six assists. Black's travel in the closing minutes kept Tennessee's comeback on track.
"One of the things I can't do is beat her up," Ladner said. "She plays with her heart. She plays with a lot of emotion. And a lot of times her desire to do well gets her in a lot of trouble. She panicked down the stretch tonight at times, as did the rest of us. It's one of those things you just keep teaching; you bring her in to see film. It's not a question of does she know, it's just a question of she wants to do it so badly it sometimes cost her in the end."
Ladner's game plan before the game was to turn over the ball less, get to the line more and out-rebound Tennessee. The Rebels got one of three.
"I really believed if we had more free throw attempts, less turnovers and more boards we were going to win," Ladner said. "That had been the constant. We only came out with one of those. We had less turnovers if 20 and 24 is a good number – not very good on either part. I knew we were going to have to battle for the boards and we've been number two on the offensive boards most of the season, right behind Tennessee and have out-rebounded a lot of our opponent. And then really attack aggressively offensively and get to the free throw line. We struggle to score and we can go on droughts, but I thought maybe (with the) free throws we could overcome (shots not falling)."
Tennessee was having three problems – turnovers, shots not falling and horrid free throw shooting.
"I think it comes down to us being composed under pressure," Fuller said of the turnovers. "When we see pressure, we kind of get overanxious. A lot of them were just us not taking care of the ball."
The game began with an odd jump ball, and it seem to set the tone for the turnovers for the rest of the game. Neither player won the tip and Goff, who had just jumped center against Johnson, secured the loose ball. Bjorklund tied up Goff, and the officials at first directed Bjorklund to jump center against Goff. Bjorklund seemed confused but went to the center circle to get ready.
After a few seconds of confusion the officials decided Ole Miss had indeed had possession and on the tie-up the ball then went to Tennessee on alternate possession. Since a tie-up is a turnover for the team that had possession – and there seemed to be about a dozen in the game – the tally on turnovers started clicking five seconds into the game.
The poor shooting performance by Tennessee was harder to decipher.
"I don't know," Summitt said. "It's not because we haven't been getting in the gym, and I know they've been getting extra shots in. We started out in those first four minutes, I thought, ‘Hey, we may be ready to go right here.' And then I thought we forced and obviously Glory getting in foul trouble didn't help. We seemed overanxious for the whole game. I didn't see a team that had a lot of composure, even late when we were scrambling to get shots, we were anxious. But we were anxious and still made shots."
The team had a tough practice Monday but Tuesday was an off day, and Wednesday had just 10 minutes total of full-court work in a two-hour session.
Summitt saluted Ole Miss' defense, and she also noted that both teams were allowed to be physical with the perimeter players, a level of contact that was whistled in the first part of the season.
"They were physical on the ball and physical on cuts," Summitt said. "I think that bothered some of us, and we've got to be certainly aware and mindful that that's going to happen all the time. They talked about hand checking, hand checking, hand checking. I guess the first of the year they changed their mind. And us, too. We can get away with hand checking now. Usually it's supposed to be after you touch, hands off, and it hasn't been that way, and we participated it, too. It's a part of survival."
Tennessee won't practice Friday, because Summitt and Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick will fly to North Carolina for the funeral of Kay Yow, the coach of N.C. State who died last Saturday from breast cancer. The players will shoot free throws and lift weights and then practice again Saturday with all the coaches present.
Bjorklund indicated she would find the gym on her own.
"I think getting in and getting extra shots, especially before we go to Oklahoma, I think that will be real important," Bjorklund said. "Same with our team and get some free throws in, too."
Tennessee vs. Oklahoma in a "Big Monday" matchup on ESPN2 at 7:30 p.m. Eastern was already set to be promoted. Now, it will be Summitt's first shot at winning No. 1,000. She is 11-4 in milestone-potential games.
"We've just got to get ready for their high-low game," said Summitt, who would prefer not to discuss the milestone. "Their guard play is better. It's going to be a real tough road game for us, but it's doable. We've just got to regroup and put this one behind us and not worry about what we didn't do tonight but what we managed to do in the end and then we've got to get ready for the Paris twins Courtney, her size is going to be a challenge for us. I think the twins are playing better together than they have since they arrived at Oklahoma. They're playing with a lot of confidence, too."
Notching the number for Summitt with the youngest team in her 35-year history is important for the sole senior on the team.
"Because of the type of year we've had and for this team to get that for her, it would mean a lot," Fuller said. "That is a great pinnacle for a coach to reach. I mean, 1000 wins, who else is going to reach that? For this team, especially the young kids that we have, they've never been in something like that, so it will be good for them."
"I asked her if she wanted me to send her a fruit basket," Ladner said. "I thought that might be a good thing. I'd send her a basket full of oranges and she said she didn't need a thing. I'm extremely proud of her. I'm just sorry she got 999 against me. I wanted this one tonight."
Tennessee wanted it, too, and Fuller got inspiration from a fan in the crowd.
"I think it shows the heart that this team has," Fuller said. "During the game, I heard somebody in the stands behind our bench yell that we can't lose. And that's the only thing that I heard was, ‘We can't lose.' I think that's what motivated me and helped me to motivate my teammates."