But she also realized that when Tennessee took its lead in the first half – a solid 20 minutes of basketball – five freshmen were on the floor. That bodes well for the future, but how quickly that future will arrive remains in question.
For seven players the three games in Little Rock were their first postseason experience, and there were encouraging signs from the freshmen, notably the stratospheric leap in post play by Alyssia Brewer, improved defense by Briana Bass and Alicia Manning, better composure from Glory Johnson, solid relief minutes from Amber Gray and the toughness of Kelley Cain, who took a direct shot to her knee less than two minutes into the game and returned for the second half.
But a young team's margin for error can be very narrow, and Auburn, which starts four seniors, capitalized on that inexperience in the second half. The Tigers started with a 5-0 run to wipe out Tennessee's 31-26 halftime lead, and the Lady Vols opened the second half with two turnovers and three missed jumpers.
"Snowball effect," said Manning, who started the second half after playing solid minutes in the first half in relief of Angie Bjorklund, who got into foul trouble. "There's really no excuse for that. We knew that they were going to make a run in the second half. All the coaches said that they were going to do that, and we needed to respond, and we didn't. And that's what happened – we lost."
Manning came off the bench in the first half and scored six points in 14 minutes of play. She was on the floor with Brewer, Gray, Johnson and Bass when Tennessee was down three, 18-15, with 9:06 remaining in the first half. Layups by Bass – a scoop shot after a pass fake – and Brewer gave the Lady Vols the lead, 21-20, with 6:13 left. Brewer's go-ahead basket came from an offensive board and flip shot.
Manning forced a turnover on the other end by taking away the baseline drive, and Tennessee had the lead and the momentum.
"Holly (Warlick) watched film with her because she's been really opening up the dribble drives, and I thought tonight she was really solid on defense," Summitt said.
Fuller came in for Johnson – Summitt rotated the eight players she had available frequently in the first half with Cain out and Bjorklund sidelined with fouls – and the Lady Vols extended the lead with two free throws from Fuller.
Bass found Manning on an alley-oop pass and she converted the catch-and-shoot layup, much to the crowd's delight.
"It was there so I just did it," Manning said.
"She was open so I threw it to her," Bass said.
The result was a five-point halftime lead for Tennessee in which turnovers were under control with seven – Auburn had just four points off miscues compared to 10 for Tennessee – and the Lady Vols' bench had accounted for 19 points.
"Our bench stepped up first half," Bjorklund said. "I'm really proud of them. Kel went out and Lyssi came in strong. Amber came in strong. I went out and Alicia and Bree stepped up."
But then the second half began, and Auburn wiped out Tennessee's lead in two minutes and went ahead for good, 35-33, with 16:46 remaining. By the 13:15 mark, the lead was in double digits, 44-33.
The same word was heard over and over in the Lady Vols locker room after the game: defense.
"We didn't defend in the second half," Summitt said. "They turned it up and put us on our heels. I just thought we really struggled."
"We should have won," Bass said. "We let up on defense. The offense wasn't going and neither was the defense. We should have won the whole thing. We got this far so why not just win the whole thing?"
"It bothers me a lot because we had them in the first half," Brewer said. "I don't know what happened to everybody in the second half. We didn't get stops when we needed stops. We still tried to hold each other accountable for what we do. I think we did a good job of that; we just have to respond it."
"We definitely let up on defense and offensively our shots weren't falling, and I think that hurt us because they started taking advantage of our weaknesses and when they made their run it just made it worse on us because our defense wasn't there at all and our offense wasn't there either," Johnson said. "So when they made their run they got more energy and we kind of fell down a little bit."
"We just let up on our defense," Fuller said. "I think that was the main thing. There is no excuse why. We just let up. Our bodies were the last thing on our mind. That game was our number one priority. We know what we were capable of and we had the advantage at halftime, and we gave that away."
"I just feel like we let down, especially on defense," Shekinna Stricklen said.
"Defense, definitely," Bjorklund said. "When the offense isn't flowing we have to get better on defense, and I thought we did a good job in the first half of doing that and then the second half we just folded. They started making a run and time and time again it seems like this team sometimes we'll be OK at stopping runs but we need to learn how to step it up on defense when they're making their runs and somehow get into an offensive flow."
"If we're not scoring the other team shouldn't be either," Cain said. "It's all about defense and rebounding."
Tennessee handled the boards well, prevailing 45-36 on the glass and getting 22 second-chance points to eight for Auburn.
Bjorklund led the Lady Vols with 17 points – she hit three 3-pointers – after playing just six minutes in the first half with foul trouble. Brewer had a double-double with 11 points and 15 rebounds, and she also had two blocks and two steals.
After scoring in the first half and getting fouled, Brewer screamed, "And one!" after the play. Assistant Coaches Dean Lockwood and Daedra Charles-Furlow have been working with Brewer about going to the basket under control but with power, and she put the lessons to use in Little Rock.
"I saw a lot of fight in her," Summitt said. "She hadn't shown much emotion up until now. That's a good sign."
Brewer said her post mentality in postseason was to realize she had to help the team.
"You've got Alex and Kelley with bad knees so I have to go in there and replace what they do," Brewer said. "It's going to be a team effort. Not just one of us or two of us can have a good game. All of us need to be on the same page."
Cain's knee took another blow Saturday when she extended to the wing to defend a jump shot from Auburn's Trevesha Jackson. Cain's knee collided with Jackson's knee after the shot was launched, and Cain crumpled to the floor in agony. She has two loose screws that are migrating out of the knee and inflammation under the kneecap. Any blows to the knee can cause tremendous pain, and Cain will have surgery at season's end to remove the screws.
It took several minutes to get Cain off the court – there were chants of "Kelley, Kelley" from the crowd – and she spent the final 18 minutes of the first half in the back hallways of the arena getting ice and jogging on the knee to test it.
Cain was able to start the second half but managed just one shot – she made it, a reverse layup – after getting bottled up in the paint by Auburn.
"We got complacent and you can't do that against a team like Auburn," Cain said. "I know I didn't play the best game, and I apologize for that."
Tennessee, 22-10, had offensive issues at other spots on the floor and shot 33.3 percent for the game and 18.8 percent behind the arc.
"Stricklen and Bjorklund were 10 of 38, and Stricklen was three of 19, and I really think that affected her defense," Summitt said. "She had a low-energy game."
Stricklen had been in the equivalent of a backyard brawl in Friday's win over Florida and spent good portions of that game picking herself up off the floor. On Saturday she left her shots short and was 0-5 from long range.
"I was just shooting real short," Stricklen said. "I guess I wasn't using my legs more. But I've still got to play good defense."
Auburn, 29-2, was led by DeWanna Bonner with 26 points, Whitney Boddie with 19 and Sherell Hobbs with 16. Bonner had 14 by the break – she nailed two long threes – but Boddie and Hobbs did the bulk of their damage in the second half by getting to the rim and stroking short jumpers. Boddie scored 17 in the second half and Hobbs got 12.
"I was a little more passive in the first half," Boddie said. "I tried to let the game come to me instead of making things happen, and Coach Fortner talked about being a playmaker."
"We just let them go right," Summitt said. "We didn't force them left. We talked about forcing them left. We didn't give any help. … They were just dribble driving and attacking the paint and the rim, and we didn't step up and do what we needed to do, which was to have a sense of urgency to defend and force them left and to take charges."
Taking a charge was certainly going to be called in Saturday's game as the officials whistled plenty of charges on both sides that seemed to baffle the players and coaches.
"We have to play through the charges and everything like that," said Fuller, who hit a turn-around shot that was waved off in the second half after a charge was called. "Our offense struggled in the second half. It was mistakes that we were making. It kind of snowballed."
"Calls didn't go our way, but we've got to go through that adversity," Manning said. "We've got to make stops on defense, and defense hurt us in the second half."
Manning, who logged 31 minutes and finished with nine points and two rebounds, wouldn't accept tired legs as a reason for the loss.
"Fatigue, that's not what beat us I don't think," Manning said. "We've been preparing for games like this and moments like this all year. We were very prepared to play this game."
Auburn became the first team to beat Tennessee twice in one season since Connecticut did so in the 2003-04 season. The 20-point loss was the widest margin of victory for Tennessee in an SEC tourney game, and dropped the Lady Vols to 18-8 in semifinal games.
"Tennessee is a measuring stick for everybody, and I think that we measured up pretty well this year against them," Auburn Coach Nell Fortner said. "We were fully aware that you go through Tennessee to get to a championship, and that's what we had to do tonight. I felt like in the 20 minutes of the second half we understood that and played much better basketball."
The fact that going through a team with seven freshmen on the roster, two sophomores and a redshirt senior with a creaky knee remains the measuring stick in the SEC speaks to the dynasty that Summitt has built at Tennessee. It also explains Cain's frustration about the loss.
"This is not something that happens with Tennessee teams, and we let it happen," Cain said. "I definitely think we've become more mature but obviously not mature enough to keep a lead."
In the last week of the regular season Summitt questioned how much losing hurt some players on the team, and she said she was seeking competitors. By the looks of the Lady Vol locker room after the game she may have found them.
"We're just disappointed," Bass said. "This is a game we could have won, and we just let up. I don't know what happened. "Nobody wants to lose because when you lose you're done."
"It hurts," Cain said. "Nobody should be smiling."
"This is bothering us a lot," Stricklen said. "I think we know we could have won. We just didn't put out the effort. I'm very disappointed. I feel like I really let the team down."
"It definitely hurts, and it's something that you don't want to happen, but when it does you've just got to correct yourself and when you make a mistake you've got to learn from it," Johnson said.
"It's just frustrating," Manning said. "We've worked so hard to get to this point and for one half of basketball to end it like that it's really frustrating, but we can't let that happen again. We're going to take this as a learning experience."
"We don't like having this feeling," Fuller said. "It does hurt everybody on our team to lose, and we know we don't want to feel like this again come postseason and March Madness. We've got six left, but we've got to take it one at a time."
"If we play like this there won't be six more games," Cain said. "We've got to refocus and come together. We've just got to learn from it."
"I think they're experiencing the pain of losing," Summitt said. "Now they've got to do something about it."
That will take place on the practice court, but the players first need a few days off to catch up on schoolwork and recover from a long regular season and back-to-back-to-back games in Little Rock.
So, as much as the coaches would like to get to work, "we'll give them time off," Summitt said.
The NCAA Tournament doesn't start until March 21 – the brackets will be announced on March 16 – so there is some time between postseason events.
"I know I have four midterms this week so that will be fun," Bjorklund said wryly. "I think a break mentally and physically would be good for everyone, but at the same time we need to go to work. It's time to step up when we do practice. We need to be ready to get better."
"Go watch film, learn from our mistakes and just work hard," Stricklen said.
Summitt said her team needs to rest, regroup "and learn to compete on every possession on both ends."
"We have a lot of mistakes we need to correct, and we need to practice," Johnson said. "Like every team we need practice. I just think that we made a couple of mistakes and let up when we shouldn't have."
Summitt called a timeout with 2:38 left in the game to vociferously remind her young team to keep competing despite the scoreboard.
"I just didn't want us to quit playing," Summitt said. "I don't care if there are three minutes left to go, it's still a teaching moment. … That's a teaching moment to say we've got to hang in there. I said, ‘Let's try to cut it to 10,' because I never want a team to quit. I want them to compete for 40 minutes, and that's exactly why I went in the huddle and did what I did, because this team has to learn to compete all the time."
The SEC tourney meant seven players got to participate in their first postseason games.
"I think the fact that we had a chance to play here and stay here and get some more experience under our belt I think that part of it's been good," Summitt said.
The fact the players were already assessing what went wrong and how to fix it shortly after the loss was even better from Tennessee's standpoint.
"We're such a young team," Manning said. "Every moment is a learning moment for us, and we're getting more mature with some things, but there are a lot of things we need to work on, especially going into the big tournament. We can't let what happened tonight, we can't let it happen again or else we're done for the season."
"We've just got to refocus," Bass said. "We've just got to find a way to win because the next time we lose we're done."
"I think this really helped us going into the NCAA Tournament," Stricklen said. "All the freshmen we can really watch and learn from it."
"I think we got the feel when Florida was making their run," Brewer said. "We dug down and we made stops. But we didn't do that today, and I think that this is a big lesson learned for all of us. We can't let small things get to our head and mess up our game. We've got to have focus. Our upperclassmen have helped us a lot with that, and I think it will pay off in the end."
Bjorklund is considered one of those upperclassmen, although she is just a sophomore. Considering the youth of the team – and the fact the freshmen more than held their own in the first half – the future for the Lady Vols seems promising. The question is when does the team put it all together every game?
"There have been times when it's put together, and it's beautiful," Bjorklund said. "It's a great thing to watch, and we just need to stay positive and keep working towards becoming that team that plays a 40-minute game. We're going to go to work this next week."
That potential has not escaped the eyes of Summitt.
"I see it," Summitt said. "There's no way I'm going to give up on them."