"I think we not only needed the win but we needed to play how we play, especially at the end of the second half," Fuller said. "I think the intensity that we had, and we were having fun and the defense that we played, I think that helped us out a lot."
The Lady Vols put forth effort on both ends from all 10 players who logged minutes and a commitment to board play throughout the game and ball security and defense – with some halftime adjustments – that had been missing in the losses.
"I thought Shekinna Stricklen did a great job for us," Summitt said. "In our last team meeting everyone was talking about how they had to bring different things to the team, and she was the one that got up and said that she had let us down and it wouldn't happen again.
"She had probably the strongest commitment of anyone in the room by saying, ‘I haven't been playing the way I should have been playing and you don't have to worry about that anymore. I want my team to know that, and I want my coaches to know that.' So, she's a woman of her word. I thought she was huge for us playing the point and attacking the paint."
Summitt had asked Stricklen to not just settle for jump shots but to also penetrate to the paint for short shots or get to the rim. Stricklen did that Sunday and also got to the free throw line, where she was 4-5.
Cain scored a career-high 17 points and completed the double-double with 11 rebounds. Stricklen and Fuller had 14 points apiece, and Alyssia Brewer joined them in double figures with 10 points. Bjorklund added nine points, seven rebounds and four assists.
Summitt had asked Bjorklund to not let any shooting woes affect how she played other aspects of the game. Bjorklund was 3-9 from the field and hit two 3-pointers in the first half.
"I like the fact that Angie didn't let her shooting affect the rest of her game," Summitt said. "That has created in the past sometimes low energy, and you could tell that she was worried about it because she wants to help this team. But I've challenged her as well. She can do other things. She can defend. Obviously, she can board. She does a nice job of feeding the post.
"I think when everyone started to step up and play well, Angie didn't feel the pressure that she typically has felt. When we were at Kentucky I think she was really pressing."
The overall result for the Lady Vols was a game with spectacular offensive numbers, especially considering the recent struggles. Tennessee shot 51.8 percent overall with 21 assists on 29 baskets. Fuller, Bjorklund and Stricklen had four assists each. Brewer had three assists and Cain added two.
"We had talked about how we haven't had a lot of assists, because the ball got stuck in players' hands," Summitt said. "I think watching film and I think after the Kentucky game I think that was really a time for us to talk to our team and also to find out what they're going to bring. When you're in a leadership role, that's one thing. Our coaches are in a leadership role, but we want our team to take ownership, and we want everyone to take ownership, not just Alex Fuller because she's a fifth-year senior.
"As I tell them all the time the game knows no age, so you've just got to go play the game and embrace the game. We put it in four-minute segments and I thought for the most part our four-minute segments we were all invested."
The meeting Friday before practice was intended to clear the air and let each player tell the team what she would bring. Stricklen, whose effort had not really been in question this season, apparently felt like she was falling short in that category.
"The last four games, I honestly haven't been playing with heart or passion and I really did let my teammates down," Stricklen said. "I had to stand up and tell them and that was the truth, but I really have changed and it won't happen again."
When Stricklen found Fuller, who had cut to the basket, underneath for the score to give Tennessee a 77-65 lead with 1:03 left in what had been anyone's game with two minutes to play – there had been 16 ties and 14 lead changes – she let out a scream and leaped into the air.
"It was great today," Stricklen said. "I just felt like everyone brought it, and we played together as a team and it just showed that we had fun."
Mississippi State (19-8, 6-6) was well within striking distance late in the second half – Tennessee led by just six points, 71-65, with 3:05 to play after Glory Johnson scored in transition – and Coach Sharon Fanning cited her team's lack of toughness afterwards.
"When you come into the arena here you know that it's going to have to be a 40-minute game or whatever it's going to take and you can't play for parts of it," Fanning said. "We also understand that defensively how hard you have to play and how you have to rebound the basketball.
"Toughness has a lot to do with winning. I know you guys realize that, but I didn't think we were very tough. I think we had it in a position where we could win a basketball game. I don't think the score really reflects how the game went, but it is the bottom line and down the stretch they were a tougher basketball team."
Rack and Govero combined to go 7-11 behind the arc in the first half, and Tennessee switched into its 3-2 matchup zone for most of the second half.
"They were out on us in a zone," said Rack, who was 4-7 from long range in the first half and 2-7 after the break. "Second half we didn't really get in the paint where we could kick it out."
Rack hit shots over every perimeter defender, including the 6'3 Fuller, who had Rack well defended.
Rack, who is listed at 5'7 – "On a good day," Fanning said – said she thought she was "about 5'5."
"I just shoot it," Rack said. "They always tell me take a great shot."
The second-half zone interfered with Rack using screens to get open, and Cain could extend into the wing to cover Rack. Cain took it a step further and lunged into the deep corner to block Rack's attempt.
"In the first half we played more man-to-man, and we tried to step out on the screen but it kind of took the guards a little bit too long to get around their post players," Fuller said. "Second half we went into the zone and made the person on the back line step up with the screen in the middle of the court and kind of slow that guard down so that they couldn't shoot the three."
The Bulldogs kept lofting them – they attempted 14 more in the second half – but the shooting percentage from long range fell from 53.8 percent (7-13) in the first half to 28.6 percent (4-14) after the break for 40.7 percent for the game. They shot 35.2 percent overall from the field.
"The game needs to be inside-outside," Fanning said. "You're not going to live and die with the three. And I think that we look to take good shots, but we need to get tougher in the paint."
That approach is what has worked for Tennessee with the 6'6 Cain able to anchor herself on the low block. Tennessee scored 44 of its points in the paint compared to just 16 for Mississippi State.
"Kelley Cain knows her role, and she knows where she needs to play," Summitt said. "She is not somebody who wants to step out of the paint or play in the high post. She wants to play at the rim and that's really where she can be so efficient for us. And you've got to give her teammates credit; they got her the basketball."
Cain was 8-12 from the floor with four of those baskets being assisted – three feeds from Fuller and one from Johnson. Cain put herself in position to receive the ball from her teammates, and she also helped them out. Two baskets came on putbacks off offensive boards and one bucket was a tip-in of a missed free throw by Stricklen.
Cain had her right kneecap realigned and missed last season for surgery and rehabilitation. The knee has sustained three mishaps this season in collisions, which irritates the underside of the kneecap and causes tremendous pain. Cain also has two screws migrating from the surgery site, and those will be removed after the season so the holes in the bone will be able to fully heal.
"She still has pain, but she's doing her rehab every day, strengthening her quad and trying to protect the knee," Summitt said. "She's done a great job of investing in that part of the game, which is not fun I can tell you. I've been there. It's not fun to just go and do your leg lifts. She has to do a lot of extra away from playing the game, but she's been very dedicated, she's been very positive."
Cain undergoes daily rehab so that she will be able to finish this season.
"Depending on what time my classes are, I'll either go to the training room and do (electrical) stim, quad sets and straight leg raises and ultrasound and then go to class, and sometimes I'll do stim and ice after practice," Cain said. "I'm definitely feeling the benefits of it, because it's working."
Cain had to leave late in the first half after yet another collision in traffic while battling for a board, but she was able to play in the second half and logged 26 total minutes.
"It's happened so much this year it's something I have to get through," Cain said.
Cain was almost unstoppable in practice in preseason, even against the male players, and looked like an All-American-in-waiting but then she sustained a serious concussion in November and then took three major blows to the knee in December and January. She was frustrated as she played through pain – and she has had to miss seven games – but she recovered enough to move into the starting lineup 10 days ago. Cain has produced ever since.
"Kelley, at times, was just too hard on herself, and I think now she is starting to realize that she does have a special skill and can really make a difference for our team," Summitt said. "I think when (she was too hard on herself was when) she was trying to play and she wasn't having as much success, and she's the kind of player that doesn't want to let the team down. Just her having success, working hard in practice, recognizing that we make her a go-to player – when she comes in the game we want to go in the paint – I think that has given her responsibility and confidence."
Cain left the floor at halftime with ice on her knee but was warming up after coming out of the locker room.
"All I can do is ask Jenny Moshak," Summitt said. "She's the boss. When I started out of the locker room I just said, ‘Is Kelley a go?' And she said, ‘Yes, she should be ready.' "
That was likely just what Summitt wanted to hear because Cain also makes a huge difference on the defensive end. She blocked four shots and altered a lot more.
"She alters shots; there's no doubt," Summitt said. "She does have a great presence and has got soft hands, nice shooting touch. But what I like is she knows where she needs to go to be successful. It takes lot of players two or three years to really realize, ‘I've got to play to my strengths.' Kelley knows that now."
Cain also improves the defense overall. The perimeter players know there is a safety valve behind them so they can play tighter on the ball.
"I think the main thing it helps us with is it helps our guards pressure the ball more when they know that if they do get beat or if their girl happens to get around them somehow that Kelley is going to be back there to either block their shot or alter their shot, maybe throw up a bad shot," Fuller said.
Cain has been playing close to 25 minutes a game, but her 26 minutes total in this game stand out for two reasons – she went 12 consecutive minutes in the first half, and the game was up-tempo.
"That was big for us because she hasn't gone extended minutes, and this game was up and down and when she did get fatigued she let me know, but she had gone for a long period of time," Summitt said.
Cain's presence allowed Tennessee to stop the three-point barrage in the second half, and she also was an impediment to Mississippi State's dribble penetration.
"We drove into her a couple of times," Fanning said. "I think you're going to have to penetrate and pass. She's a presence. They all are. Whether it's she and Brewer together, whether it's Glory with Alex, they all have a presence size-wise. You have to be able to pump fake and get around them. I felt like if we could beat her feet and make her move sometimes you have to pull out a little for a shot and you have to fake it and go around.
"We were without a player (Tysheka Grimes), and we also ran into foul trouble with one of our starters in the post (Robin Porter). I don't think that that helped our matchups as much but that's where you have to step up. But I think you do have to give them credit. They played hard, they out-rebounded, they worked harder, they got some extra looks, and that's what a good team is going to do. They're going to find extra ways to touch the basketball."
Tennessee got 10 fast break points despite just one steal – though Stricklen got a steal in the last 12 seconds in the open floor that was not credited in the box score – by running on misses and looking for Johnson or Cain, who were both running the floor. Mississippi State had six steals but zero fast break points.
"We don't have to run a play, just look to give it to Kelley because we know that's really two points," Stricklen said.
Tennessee won the battle of the boards, 48-31, and totaled 11 blocks. Stricklen had three swats, and Bjorklund leaped to strip a player from behind under the basket. After opening the game with 10 turnovers – to just two in the first half for the Bulldogs and an eye-popping low three for the game – the Lady Vols had just two in the second half for a stellar ball security stat of their own.
"Obviously, this was probably the best game that we've had this year when you think about our performances, this one and Georgia," Summitt said.
Fanning was upset with her team for its soft defense on Cain, who got low position and use head fakes to get defenders off their feet. In the first game Mokango had seven blocks. She didn't have any Sunday. Fanning said her team had prepared for Tennessee to go inside.
"The posts have been scoring points so we know Cain is going to play, but if you're standing straight up behind somebody and then it's one on one with us – I think she's been hitting 60-something percent in the last five basketball games – so we just didn't do our job in terms of putting enough heat on the basketball and then striving to try to make it a little more difficult on people catching, whether it's her or somebody running transition," Fanning said.
"But I think they found ways to attack, they gained a little confidence. A lot of times when you're comfortable with whatever it is, that breeds success and I think they gained some confidence down the stretch and we lost a little bit of confidence."
Tennessee's players should grade out well in hustle stats after this game as they tracked down long rebounds to the corners, battled on the floor for loose balls and deflected pass attempts into the paint.
Those plays were the difference in the game – Fanning made that clear in her post-game remarks – and Tennessee didn't wilt down the stretch in a game that was much closer than the final score.
"When somebody throws a punch at us we have to throw a punch right back at them," Fuller said. "And that's what we tried to do. Their three-ball was obviously going down, hands in their faces and all, they were still making them, but we couldn't let that get our spirits down. We had to just keep coming at them and finally I think we kind of wore on them, especially our defense, and that's what got us the win."
A team that won with defense and rebounding – with 51.8 percent shooting to boot – would explain the smile on Summitt's face as the final seconds ticked off the clock. She also saluted her bench players. Amber Gray made use of her minutes in the first half with 2-2 shooting for four points and four rebounds. She also had an assist to Johnson and a block.
"There was high energy on our bench," Summitt said. "It hasn't always been that much energy. That's something that we talked about and that the players obviously brought. It's not about who's on the bench and who's on the court. It's about we want to do this collectively and I thought there was so much energy on the bench that it filtered over to the court as well. And our huddles. We had some great huddles where everyone was encouraging; even when it was nip-and-tuck everything was positive."
Mississippi State had a two-point lead, 64-62, with 6:57 left in the game, but Fuller got a layup off a feed from Bjorklund from the wing to tie the game. Tennessee continued to get its points inside and from the free throw line – the Lady Vols were 21-30 from the stripe – to steadily build the lead to double digits with 1:42 left in the game.
The Lady Vols held Mississippi State without a field goal from the 6:58 mark of the second to the 0.31 mark and went on a 17-1 to open up a 14-point lead, 79-65, with 45 seconds left.
The Bulldogs fouled Brewer, who has struggled from the stripe, in the final minute, but the freshman forward hit 3-4 in the closing seconds to ensure the Lady Vols would get the win. When Brewer missed the first attempt, the crowd of 15,838 groaned. When she hit the second to get to 80 points, the crowd cheered because it meant a free sandwich from Chick-fil-A.
Mississippi State, which is one win away from 20 on the season, is fighting to secure a postseason berth.
"I think what we did today reflects how we practiced the last couple of days, and we have to wake up," Fanning said. "We are in the position where we can get to postseason play in the NCAA. But right now these games are all very important to us and we have to understand the urgency. It has to be work ethic that gets us there. Nothing can replace that. Nothing you draw up can replace how hard you have to play for a 40-minute period, and how you have to do it together. That's what we're expecting right now."
Five SEC teams are now bunched at the top – led by Auburn's 11-2 conference record – with four others battling for the other three spots to avoid having to play on the first day in the SEC Tournament.
Summitt was smiling after the game.
"It's been a while," Summitt said. "How long has that been? A week-and-a-half? I'm proud that they played the way they played today."
But she quickly noted what Tennessee has to do this week. The Lady Vols and LSU are both 8-4 in conference play, and Tennessee plays in Baton Rouge on Thursday. The winner likely gets that last bye in the SEC tourney.
"This is one game, and obviously we've got two more big games," Summitt said. "We've got to go to LSU and play on the road Thursday night and then come back and play Vanderbilt (next Sunday). … We also that know going on the road is sometimes not where we play our best basketball so hopefully we can carry something positive from this game and then really challenge them. I think they know what they have to do."
When Fanning was asked how Tennessee was different from the first time the teams played – a 63-56 win in which the Lady Vols shot 33.9 percent from the field – she smiled.
"Maybe being put out of the locker room?" said Fanning, who is also a tough and demanding coach and whose school is now a frustrating 30-0 against Tennessee.
Fanning got a technical foul in the first half after walking out to the three-point arc to protest a call. It came after one official overturned another to award the ball to Tennessee – it was the correct call; the ball bounced out of bounds off the shin of a Bulldog – but that was not what upset Fanning. She was upset by what she thought should have been a holding call on the other end on the previous possession.
Bjorklund hit 1-2 from the line on the technical foul.
Fanning pointed to the bigger lineup – the 5'2 Briana Bass started in Starkville and came off the bench to score five points and get Tennessee's only steal on Sunday – as a factor.
"They started a bigger lineup and I've seen that with some of their combinations," Fanning said. "But we allowed them to play some one-on-one. I felt like being up two and the game being close all the way down we were in position to be on the free throw line to go up with four minutes left or close to it."
Fanning was referring to a play in which Bass stripped Rack cleanly with her right hand but was called for the foul because she reached in with her left hand. Rack appeared to be dribbling but she was sent to the line to shoot three free throws. Tennessee was leading by two at the time, but Rack missed two of three so instead of taking the lead Mississippi State still trailed by one point with 5:01 left. On Tennessee's next possession Cain hit a layup on a feed from Fuller and the Lady Vols tied up Mississippi State on its next possession to get the ball back and the final spurt of momentum as the Lady Vols extended the lead to eight points, 73-65, with 2:34 left.
"We had those opportunities down the stretch, so we tried to change defenses some, but we just didn't make a couple of hustle plays that we had to have," Fanning said. "We know that they've been going to their posts the last five games."
Stricklen also got to the rim, as Summitt had asked, instead of settling for jump shots. Bjorklund also penetrated and would dish off to the posts inside for good looks at the basket.
Tennessee trailed at halftime, 36-34, and Mississippi State had 14 more shooting attempts thanks to having just two turnovers in the first half.
But Tennessee set the tone in the second half when it got three shots on the basket with offensive board play – Stricklen missed and Bjorklund missed, but Fuller and Bjorklund hustled to the boards and tipped the ball around until Bjorklund tracked it down and found Stricklen for the 17-footer on the wing,
"They had a lot of extra looks," Fanning said. "There were several loose balls we didn't get to them. It's going to take that effort, it's going to take that charge, it's going to take the offensive board, it's going to take the putback, it's going to take the screen, it's going to take team defense. When I see them going one-on-one inside or getting layups, then I know we haven't done our job from a team defensive standpoint. I felt like we could hold them to a lower shooting percentage. Allowing them to shoot 50 percent reflects how we haven't played defense."
The Tennessee players and coaches used a spare locker room in the arena, and Cain just smiled when asked about the utilitarian accommodations.
"Whatever happens, happens," Cain said. "We want to convince her and we want to prove to ourselves because we know we can do it. It's just a matter of us going out there and playing with heart every game."
When a writer asked Summitt if the team would move back to the plush accommodations, Summit just shook her head and engaged in some playful banter.
"Oh, no," Summitt said. "One win? Back in the locker room? Would you do that? Are you that soft? Probably not before postseason, if then. I am kind of liking that little locker room."