"Did you like the orange?" Pat Summitt asked as she entered the room for her post-game press conference. "That's all I'm wearing for the rest of the season. That's all I'm packing."
Summitt's staff, Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick, Assistants Dean Lockwood and Daedra Charles-Furlow and Kathy Harston, director of basketball operations, all wore orange blazers under orders of the head coach.
"Coach Summitt," she said, when asked whose idea it was for the staff to match. "I wasn't going to go out in all orange and them not having something on orange. I was like, ‘Can I do this?' I took my orange shoes off, though. I didn't wear my orange shoes. I may save those for Arkansas."
Summitt, who wore black shoes, was in an understandably good mood after Sunday's win over archrival Vanderbilt – which had beaten the Lady Vols, 74-58, in January in Nashville – considering the disappointing 63-61 loss just four days ago to LSU that forced Tennessee into the fifth seed slot and a game on day one of the SEC tourney for the first time in 12 years. The tourney tips off in Little Rock, Arkansas, and Tennessee will play No. 12 seed Alabama on Thursday.
"I am going to enjoy this until (Monday)," Summitt said. "And then we've got to start thinking about playing Alabama and making sure that our mind's right. Obviously the crowd tonight was very inspiring for all of us, and I just kept telling them, ‘We're not losing this game. Somehow we've got to find a way to win.' "
Summitt also was relieved to get to 20 wins on the season – her 33rd consecutive season of hitting that milestone. It wasn't to keep the streak going – it was a goal for the youngest team in program history.
"I normally don't set goals for how many games (to win), but my goal was 20 wins," Summitt said. "I kind of sat on that. I didn't talk about it much and there was a time I thought, ‘I don't know if we'll get 20 wins or not.' But as young as we are I think this team has found a way to win obviously 20 basketball games.
"Hopefully we're not satisfied with that. We'd like to go into this SEC Tournament and continue to play and build on what we did today."
In Summitt's pre-game meeting with her players she wrote five things on the board: Defense, boards, Alex, fans and Holly.
"I think everyone was focused on our defense and our board play," Summitt said. "It was the first thing I put up on the board. I put ‘defense' and ‘boards.' And then I put ‘Alex' because this was Alex's last time to play in this building, and I wanted to make sure that we were all focused on helping Alex get a win here on her senior night. The next thing I put was our ‘fans.' We've got the greatest fans in women's basketball. Then the last thing I put was ‘Holly.' That's the team Holly loves to beat.
"So that's what we had on the board today. I didn't give a speech. I just pointed out what was on the board and why."
Four players for Tennessee (20-9, 9-5) scored in double figures – Alex Fuller with 17 points; Shekinna Stricklen, 18; Angie Bjorklund, 16; and Kelley Cain, 15. Bjorklund was 5-7 from behind the arc – she accounted for half of Tennessee's 10 made three-pointers – while Stricklen was 2-4 from long range. Fuller added a career-high three 3-pointers.
"When Angie is playing with confidence and knocking down shots it takes a lot of pressure off of our basketball team," Summitt said. "When Shekinna was knocking down shots and Angie was knocking down shots, it was hard for them to double-team inside and that put Kelley in a lot of situations that gave us a high-low game with Alex and Kelley and one on one. I thought that was very helpful. Our spacing offensively was very good."
The Lady Vols dominated on the boards, 48-31, led by Fuller's 14 rebounds and eight by Stricklen. Cain and Glory Johnson, who came off the bench and played a solid game, both had six boards each.
"I thought while we didn't play as deep off of the bench, I thought this was one of Glory Johnson's better games, just because she had composure, and she played within herself," Summitt said. "She got on the boards, so that was very beneficial for us for her to come in and play the way she did."
Johnson had two highlight reel plays – one in each half. When Vanderbilt got behind the defense in transition Johnson recovered and swatted the ball out of bounds in the first half. Johnson had the ball in her hand in transition in the second half after somehow catching a high bullet pass. She caught and shot in one motion, missed the shot, got the rebound and scored before her defender had left her feet even once.
Cain logged two blocks – one in the paint and another when she snuffed a three-pointer. After that swat a Vandy player drove into the lane, encountered Cain, tried to put on the brakes and fell to the floor for a travel call.
But the night belonged overall to Fuller, the team's lone senior among 11 underclassmen – two of whom are done for the season because of knee injuries – who has persevered through five knee surgeries in her high school and college career and who came back for a fifth year specifically to help the coaches with a young team.
The scoreboard screen before the game showed Fuller in the tunnel awaiting the introduction while her family – parents Debra and Troy Price and younger siblings Aliah and Alandon – waited at center court with Summitt. The public address announcer outlined her accomplishments – and all those knee surgeries – while Fuller smiled on the screen and the crowd cheered the in-state product from Shelbyville whose devotion to Lady Vol basketball runs deep.
"Obviously, Alex Fuller was terrific, 6-for-13, 14 rebounds," Summitt said. "She has not only been a great leader vocally, but today was a big day for her. I think it was probably her best all-around game, and I am really proud for her."
Fuller hit both of her free throw attempts, was 3-5 from behind the arc and added an assist and a steal to her 17 points and 14 rebounds in 37 minutes of play. When Summitt called time out to take out Fuller with 48 seconds left to play, the crowd of 14,157 came to its feet and cheered.
"It was fun," Fuller said. "It was really fun, especially getting a win against Vanderbilt at that. I think it'll be one of the most memorable games that I've had, because it was so fun. Everybody played well. Everybody stepped up and everybody responded to the challenge that Pat gave us at halftime."
Fuller has two national titles on her college resume so her final home game making the list reveals a lot about what Tennessee means to her and how much this team has overcome all season to make the final regular season game win become so meaningful.
"Because it's my senior night and I just think because we responded and because we got through adversity – especially throughout this year – and we came for our last game and played like this in front of our fans and for ourselves, I think it'll be one of my most memorable," Fuller said.
Fuller, who has maintained a stoic public image during her tenure at Tennessee, showed some emotion in the post-game press conference as her voice cracked.
"I tried not to get emotional because I knew we had an important game and I didn't want the emotions to take my focus away," Fuller said. "But after, it was bittersweet. I'll never play a game in front of these fans, in front of my family on this court again. But I still know that we have hopefully 10 more games left and so that kind of levels it off."
"We had five keys that we were playing for – defense, the boards, myself, the fans and Holly," Fuller added. "So I think all of us had that in the back of our minds."
Vanderbilt Coach Melanie Balcomb pointed to the board play as the difference in the outcome.
"A positive is I thought we fought hard all game," Balcomb said. "I'm really proud of our effort. I think that people stepped up and did everything that we asked them to do. The negative was just rebounding. It really came to rebounding. They pounded the glass and we just didn't get the job done on the boards. I think that was the difference in the game. I think we beat them in a lot of other areas. The other huge positive was points off turnovers, 23-6. I think that's a really good effort."
Wirth hit a three-pointer right before the break to give Vandy a 34-31 halftime lead and apparently lit a fire under Summitt in the Lady Vols' makeshift locker room down the hall from their regular one, which they got booted out of after the loss to Kentucky last week.
" ‘We're not going to lose to Vanderbilt,' " Fuller said. "That's the gist of what was said by, of course, Pat."
Stricklen also got an earful from Summitt at the break.
"Stricklen didn't start off playing that well, but she responded," Summitt said. "I really challenged her, because she was having a little trouble breathing. That's all. Just breathing."
Summitt delivered those lines with a big smile, and Stricklen also smiled afterwards, though she was congested and coughing.
"In the first half, I was really having trouble breathing but Coach just was on me and said, ‘That's not an excuse. You've just got to play through it,' " Stricklen said. "She was really on me at halftime, and I felt like I was letting my team down and second half I just went out there and gave it all I've got and played through it. Nose all stopped up, chest hurting, just having a hard time breathing."
Stricklen got a breathing strip and added 15 points to her halftime box score, including hitting two 3-pointers. She added four more boards and finished with eight, all on defense, and also had six assists.
"I thought this was one of the best games that we've played all season because we had good balance," Summitt said. "Shekinna Stricklen stepped up. We had to have good guard play. She was a little sluggish at first, but once she got on track I just thought that everybody else elevated their play.
"What can you say about Kelley Cain? She's 7-8, got on the boards, just did a great job. Her presence it makes a huge difference because she's got great hands, and we're doing a good job in the high-low game, at least we did today. That was one of our better efforts in terms of high-low. We had good balance."
Cain was still coming back from knee mishaps in the first game against Vanderbilt but was able to log 24 minutes on Sunday despite taking several shots to her knee in the paint. As she had in the past two games she was able to stay on the floor.
"It definitely is getting better," Cain said. "Jenny Moshak has been working with me and I'm still going to rehab every day and doing my straight leg raises, really concentrating and trying to get my right leg as strong as my left."
Once Cain got low position, she was unstoppable in the paint. She also had an assist when she passed out of a double team to Bjorklund on the wing. When Cain couldn't get to a rebound she tried to tip it to a teammate.
"It's much harder to guard her," Balcomb said. "She's deadly because she's so much bigger and I've got a 5'8 kid trying to guard her. I think they all rebounded: Fuller, Johnson and Cain. I think we gave up too many rebounds to all three of them, not just Kelley Cain."
Vandy was without its post player, Hannah Tuomi, because of a stress fracture in her foot. Vanderbilt had won the board battle, 39-37, in Nashville. She played 14 minutes in the loss to Ole Miss but was on crutches on the sideline for Sunday's game.
Tuomi was replaced in the starting lineup by Jessica Mooney, who had seven points in 15 minutes. Gibbs logged a career-high 28 minutes.
"I thought she (Gibbs) was playing really hard and really well," Balcomb said. "I think she was doing a great job defensively. Offensively she gives us another three-point threat, which was a tough matchup for them playing all big players, and we've got all little players."
Tennessee used that size to control the boards.
"We did a great job today on the boards," Summitt said. "It makes a difference when we have the size on the floor that we do. We make it a priority. Rebounding has been something that we've been very inconsistent with. We out-rebounded them, 48-31. That's very significant."
"That was our number one priority," Fuller said. "Defense and boards win games so we wanted to win this game obviously so we knew what we had to do on the boards. And I didn't know they beat us by two so I'm glad we beat them."
The previous game in Nashville led to Summitt's first punitive tactic this season when she had the team wash its own practice gear. That gear has now been taken away, and they bring their own practice clothes.
Needless to say, Summitt was much happier after the rematch.
"The difference between Nashville and here is like night and day," Summitt said, and not because the game in Nashville was played in the afternoon and the Knoxville one was in the evening. "They came out and dribble penetrated and had their way. They didn't even really have to run an offense because we were backpedaling the whole way and they were taking us to the paint or knocking down threes. They pretty much did what they wanted to do. We made a little run in the second half, but not anything that was that threatening to this Vanderbilt team.
"Melanie Balcomb does a great job. They don't have the size that we have, but they've got the heart. They play well together and play within themselves. So we knew it was going to be a real challenge for us today and also just knowing how we lost that game at Vanderbilt gave us a good plan for what we needed to do this time around. We kept them in front of us a lot better, gave the open three ball up in the first half, and we had really in our scouting report said, ‘Let's make them beat us from the three.' At halftime we said, We're getting beat from the three. Let's take away the three ball.' "
Tennessee did cut back on letting the Commodores get to the rim, but Vandy hit five three-pointers in the first half, including Wirth's to take the lead. But the Commodores also were misfiring from long range – they finished 10-30 (33.3 percent) behind the arc – while Tennessee connected on 10-22 (45.5 percent).
"I think in the first meeting this year we did get a lot of dribble penetration," Wirth said. "Traditionally, Vanderbilt is more of a shooting team, but I think that we're becoming more versatile and we have a lot more players that can take you off the dribble so it's something they have to play now. It's hard to guard. Somebody has to help on the drivers, and you can kick to shooters.
"We know it's hard to play against so I think we were trying to take advantage of that. Unfortunately, we didn't really shoot that well from three, but shooters keep shooting and I have confidence in all of our players that they're going to knock those down. That's a great job by our drivers setting us up."
Vanderbilt shot 38.5 percent for the game overall, while Tennessee hit 45.8 percent overall. Stricklen and Bjorklund were 5-19 in the first game and 11-22 in the rematch, including 7-11 from long range compared to 1-6 in Nashville.
"I don't think it was that much about the three, whether they make the three or shoot the pull-up off the dribble," Balcomb said. "They're both great one-on-one basketball players and when the play breaks down or they don't get anything on the offense, they have two unbelievable one-on-one skilled players that make plays, and they're very good at it every game and they're very tough to guard."
The game started well for Tennessee when Stricklen got a defensive board and went coast to coast to finish with a short jumper. A Stricklen pass inside to Cain opened the game with a 4-0 lead.
By the first media timeout at the 15:49 mark Tennessee led 7-6 and had an 8-0 shutout on the boards, but Vandy's six points had come from three Lady Vol turnovers. Tennessee had 17 turnovers for the game and Vandy seized the opportunity with 23 points off the takeaways. Tennessee got just six points off nine Vandy turnovers.
But the Lady Vols dominated the paint points this time – 30 for Tennessee to 16 for Vandy – and had 13 second-chance points to four for the Commodores. It was another tight game for Tennessee – there were seven ties and 10 lead changes – but once the Lady Vols got the lead on a three-pointer by Stricklen on an assist from Bjorklund with 11:32 left in the game they never lost it.
The lead stayed in single digits until Bjorklund's 20-footer on the pass from Cain boosted it to 11 points, 70-59, with 2:21 left to play. Vandy trimmed it back to single digits with a Wirth three-pointer and a layup from Jence Rhoads for the final margin, 75-66.
"I think this gives us some confidence because I think coming off losses I think it bothered our team," Summitt said. "I think this should give them a much better feel for what we have to do and when they play together like they played tonight just how successful they can be and particularly when they commit to our scouting report defense. So, I'm encouraged by that."
"I really think this win really helped us," Stricklen said. "We're all feeling good. Angie is feeling good about her shot. The inside game looked good and plus Alex is shooting the ball well, too. We're just feeling really confident."
When Fuller was asked about the frustrations of a nine-loss regular season and having such a young team under her direction, Stricklen nodded as Fuller spoke of both the challenges and the results.
"It's been frustrating at times but it's not in my personality to give up on anybody or on any situation," Fuller said. "I think them seeing the faith I have in them has helped them to keep kind of trucking along even through adversity, even through the tough losses that we've had, even through the tough practices, even through Pat being tough on players. I think I've always been there to help everybody out."
Fuller and the freshmen stood at center court after the game to wave to the fans and also went to the student section to high-five their peers as orange, white and silver streamers fell from the ceiling and covered the court. Summitt took the courtside microphone to thank the fans and told them, "We love you. Thank you to the best fans in women's basketball." Summitt saved her last remark for her players: "Great job, ladies."
The underclassmen wanted to make sure Fuller left the court for the last time with a victory.
"Alex, she's a senior and she's invested so much into this program this year and the least we could do is win this game for her – her last home game," Cain said. "That's the least we could do, because she just works so hard and she definitely deserves it."
"Especially with a lot of freshmen she had a big-time job and she's doing it well, and she's leading us," Stricklen said. "We respect her and winning this game meant a lot to her."
Stricklen and Cain got a case of the giggles when they were asked about the coaching staff's orange outfits.
"We weren't expecting that," Cain said.
The players got the first look when the fans did. Pat came out in her orange pantsuit followed by her staff in the matching blazers, and the crowd's roar just got louder. The players stopped shooting free throws and stared.
"They didn't have the jackets on in locker room," Cain said. "Pat had the orange pants on. We knew Pat was going to wear something but when all the coaches walked out with orange we were like, ‘Wow, that's interesting.' "
"It was nice," the diplomatic Fuller said, while Cain and Stricklen continued to giggle. "It was a good gesture I think for us to see them in all orange. Apparently, they're going to carry that out. Might as well. It's a good luck charm for us."
Summitt and her staff and Balcomb talked and laughed at mid-court as they went through the pre-game handshakes.
"They just said they lost a bet or something," Balcomb said. "They made me laugh. In the summer we'll talk about it. I enjoy Pat and her staff. They do a great job and we have a good, respectful relationship. We were just keeping it light. I think she should get some orange shoes to match though. I was a little disappointed in the shoes."
The team will return to practice Monday, and it should be a more pleasant court atmosphere – and a less strenuous session – than after the loss to Vanderbilt.
"We learned the hard way you don't lose to Vandy," Cain said. "That was a tough week after that loss, and we knew we didn't want to do that again. So we brought our ‘A' game this game."
Summitt has struggled to motivate this team, and would not categorize it as one of her best coaching jobs, even after getting such a young group to 20 wins.
"Oh, no. No," Summitt said. "I've got a great staff; they've done an awesome job. But there are times I felt like I couldn't get them to play for 40 minutes. Some of that time I was frustrated, but at the same time I think, as a coach, you've just got to keep trying. And I never gave up on them, but I did get frustrated.
"Probably the Kentucky game was the hardest one for me. I don't think I did a good job coaching that night. I was so mad I couldn't hardly go in the huddle and do anything productive. That won't happen again."
Summitt didn't have to coach effort Sunday.
"We came out and played hard," Cain said. "We know we can do it, so we just have to transfer that into all the games and playing hard for 40 minutes, giving it our all and just hanging in there.
"It gives us a lot of confidence right now but we're not going to let it go to our heads. Just go with it and learn from it."