The Lady Vols, meanwhile, scorched the nets with 54.5 percent shooting (30-55) and were paced by Glory Johnson, who was 10-15 from the field, and led Tennessee with 21 points, one over her career high set last season against Georgia.
"I think this group they've invested in getting into the gym," Coach Pat Summitt said. "It's no secret. If you are not going to work on your skills, don't expect them to improve. Get in the gym and get extra reps in and come in and shoot the ball.
"Taber is in there all of the time. Angie is in there all of the time. Strick is in there all of the time. Glory is working out with Dean (Lockwood) all of the time and this is when we're not in practice. This is on their own.
"I just think they're much more invested. Last year was a tough lesson for us to all live through, but it's probably the best thing that happened to us because they took ownership. It wasn't about the coaches; it was about the players and this team taking ownership."
Johnson was joined in double figures by Angie Bjorklund with 16 points and Shekinna Stricklen with 12. Tennessee hit 4-11 from long range – two from Bjorklund and one each from Taber Spani and Alicia Manning. Kelley Cain once again drew a crowd of defenders, and the beneficiaries were Bjorklund and Stricklen, who lofted 26 shots combined and hit 11 of them.
"Glory Johnson is just playing extremely well for us – her efficiency in getting paint points and now she is shooting from the free throw line out and rebounding," Summitt said. "She and Kelley Cain have a great presence for us inside, which opens up a lot of things on the outside. Angie and Shekinna connect really well. Pleased with that."
Middle Tennessee, 2-2, was led by Alysha Clark with 23 points – she had just three at halftime – as the Lady Vols brought help defenders every time she touched the ball, and Cain shadowed her every move.
"I was pleased with our post defense and overall our perimeter defense," Summitt said.
Clark usually does most of her work inside, but Middle Tennessee opted to move her around – she had shot three 3-pointers in the first three games but attempted five against Tennessee, hitting one – to try to create some space inside.
Clark also hunted for open teammates on the perimeter – Jackie Pickel was a frequent target – as she drew the Tennessee defense to her.
"Really the first half our shooters were hitting so I wasn't going to try and force my shot inside," Clark said. "Coach says when something's working, keep going to it, and that's what I was doing. I was playing defense, and I was finding my shooters in the first half, because they were knocking shots down, so I didn't need to try to go against a 6'6 girl inside.
"But the second half Coach is like, ‘You've got to step up.' They started closing out on the three, so I had to start working inside to open that up more. I was just kind of reading and they were letting me catch it. I had to feel where she was playing me and I had to make my move."
Middle Tennessee Coach Rick Insell compared the process to a player finding her way.
"It's like walking through the snow," Insell said. "She found those footsteps, and she figured out the scheme and how they were guarding her. You're not going to guard her one on one. I don't care how big you are, how tall you are, you're not going to do it."
Pickel had 16 points for Middle Tennessee on 6-12 shooting and hit four 3-pointers. But Chelsia Lymon, who had an injured shoulder, was 3-11 from the field, and the Blue Raiders got zero points from the bench and spent the game trying to play catch-up against the Lady Vols.
Bjorklund hit a wing jumper off the opening tip to give Tennessee a 2-0 lead, and Lymon answered with a three-pointer for Middle Tennessee just 30 seconds into the game. But that was the only time the Blue Raiders led – though they kept it close in the first half – as the Lady Vols took a 35-24 lead at halftime after shooting 61.5 percent from the field in the first 20 minutes.
A women's basketball record crowd of 11,802 fans packed the Murphy Center – just five fans short of the venue record of 11,807 – and the vast majority of them were in Blue Raider attire. Just as they did Sunday at Virginia, where a women's record crowd of 11,895 packed the arena in Charlottesville, the Lady Vols got a lead and kept it, never letting the home crowd become too big of a factor.
"The biggest thing that is preached to us we have to stick together," Spani said. "We have to be our own support system. Like Coach says, everyone but Tennessee and Tennessee fans hate Tennessee and are going to root against Tennessee. I think it's helped our team and we realize that we have to be our energy and we can't rely on our fans (when not at home) for our energy.
"Just the passion and the work ethic of every play competing in a hostile environment has really helped, and I think we've gotten better at that."
Spani is the only freshman in the starting lineup for Tennessee and the only first-year player logging significant minutes. That is in stark contrast to last season when Summitt filled the floor with freshmen.
"Obviously that's a major difference in last year and this year and again I don't think they knew what to expect and how much you have to invest and compete when teams play against Tennessee," Summitt said. "They got a taste of it in a bad way and now they understand it a little bit better."
Johnson, one of those freshmen a year ago, has made a tremendous leap in her second year. She had four offensive boards – only one off her own miss – and cleaned up missed shots from the perimeter before Middle Tennessee could make a move to put a body on her.
"We had to double up on the Cain kid, and we let Johnson in for a couple of weak-side rebounds that kind of hurt us," Insell said. "It wasn't anyone's fault because we were having to shut down that three with Bjorklund and Manning and then Stricklen and then we weren't able to get back on the back side and get Johnson out."
In four games, Johnson has hit 25-37 shots from the field (67.6 percent) and on Wednesday she was left alone beyond the free-throw line and stuck several 17-footers.
"Glory has just matured so much on and off the court and I think she has tremendous confidence now because she has been working on her offensive game a lot," Summitt said. "She is a quick jumper, so she can get inside people, she get the ball up high on the glass. She has just been terrific for us, and I like her competitiveness and composure.
"The difference this year and last year is she made a lot of mistakes, played too fast. At times the ball would go over the backboard. Dean Lockwood deserves a lot of credit for how she is playing and for the composure that she's bringing."
Johnson also was one of the players that got in the gym, and she often works with Lockwood before or after practice for extra repetitions. After one practice session last week she was taking extra shots from beyond the free throw line – the same ones she made Wednesday.
"I got to show off a lot of what I worked on over the summer," said Johnson, who won a high school state title in the Murphy Center for Webb School of Knoxville in her junior year and missed a second one by two points in her senior year. "Taking the ball down the floor and shooting jump shots early in the game, I kind of surprised myself with how consistent my shots were from the free throw line, just shooting jump shots I don't normally shoot during the game."
Johnson got rebound No. 10 for the game off a defensive board and went coast to coast for the layup and a 67-47 lead with 3:30 left. Her 12 total boards was one off her career high of 13 set last season against Chattanooga. Not only is Johnson more confident in her game, her teammates are more confident in her.
"Just my teammates talking to me during the game," Johnson said when asked about the boost in confidence. "Kelley Cain (says), ‘If they're doubling down take the shot,' and Angie just telling me be confident with my shot the whole game. They trust me taking the shot."
Johnson was prone to foul trouble a year ago but she is staying on the court this season. She played 19 minutes in the first half and had two personals. She picked up two more fouls in the second half but still logged 37 minutes for the game.
Bjorklund tallied 37, too, and Cain went for 32 minutes – a substantial leap from last season when she rarely exceeded 10 minutes a half because of knee issues.
Cain tied a career high with 11 rebounds but only got six shots, hitting three of them for six points. The 6'6 center has been drawing a lot of attention from the defense, but Summitt said the plan moving forward is to get Cain more touches in the paint.
"Kelley didn't get open as much as we had hoped in the first half," Summitt said. "I thought she got some more touches in the second half. She and Glory are very connected and play well together. She didn't get as many touches – they had something to do with it – but if we can get her to run to the rim and we can take advantage of that, that gives us a great inside game."
Stricklen logged 32 minutes and had to race from the court to the locker room in the second half less than three minutes into the game. She took a hit to the forehead in the first half while defending a dribble hand-off and was holding her stomach early in the second half. She left at the 17:48 mark and returned with 13:55 to go after sipping Gatorade on the bench.
"She just wasn't feeling well, but she came back," Summitt said. "She's a quick healer."
Spani picked up two quick fouls and played just three minutes in the first half but logged 18 for the game.
"Tonight the challenge I put in front of her she's letting her player do a lot of catching, and she can deny the basketball," Summitt said in her post-game press conference while Spani nodded her head. "She'll see tape, and she'll understand it. She's a quick learner because she's got a high basketball IQ."
Spani was replaced early by Manning, who went 2-2 from the field and hit her lone three-point attempt for five points in 19 minutes of play. Manning has been effective in her stints this season and can be plugged in at point guard or forward.
"She can play a lot of different positions and for the most part she's really been a valuable asset to our team coming off the bench and stepping in and making plays right away," Summitt said.
Summitt wanted to get more minutes from the bench but wasn't comfortable doing so.
"I wish our bench play had been better," Summitt said. "I would have liked to have gotten more minutes off of the bench, but we had to shorten it a little bit, because they did make some runs at us, and we never felt that safe and so we stayed with the people we thought were playing the best."
Middle Tennessee stuck close to Tennessee in the first half behind the shooting of Pickel, who was 4-8 overall and 3-7 from behind the arc to tally 11 points in the first 20 minutes.
Pickel was nervous at shoot-around and missed the rim on three attempts, but it didn't show later that evening.
"I challenged Jackie in practice today," Insell said. "I really did. I really came on her hard. She was kind of down on herself and worried about her shot. She stepped up early and did what she was supposed to do. She was kind of having herself a pity party, if you want to know the truth."
Insell was stunned by the wayward shots at shoot-around.
"I've never seen that before," he said. "I think that was the excitement of playing Tennessee, big crowd, or maybe it was something else. Maybe her boyfriend left. Did he?"
"No!" Pickel said as Clark buried her face in a towel in laughter.
"I didn't know," Insell said with a shrug.
Pickel was getting good looks because Clark was roaming away from the paint and pulling defenders with her.
"We talked about bringing Alysha out and doing the pick and roll with big Cain, because most teams trap up, but we talked about zippering it," Pickel said. "When Alysha would come out they would have to choose between me or an All-American. I have to hit those shots. It's about time I hit some. As a team we've got to hit better than we did tonight."
Tennessee keyed its defense on the perimeter in the second half – Pickel made just one more three – and that gave Clark some room to work inside.
"Limit her touches, deny her the ball, double team when she got the ball," Summitt said of the plan to defend Clark. "I thought we did a great job with our scouting report defense in the first half and I thought she did a better job of getting open in the second half. We were mixing up our man and our zone, and she got more looks out of our zone."
Tennessee also was getting offensive production in the second half with three consecutive layups from Johnson, Bjorklund and Cain to extend the lead to 41-26 less than three minutes into the second half.
Middle Tennessee kept battling and stayed within striking distance, but the Lady Vols never let the lead dip below double digits.
"I felt like in that first half we were in a big battle and if we let up at all in the second half they'd make us pay," Summitt said. "The one thing I like is I think we're becoming a 40-minute team. When that happens, then we can keep that lead as long as everyone is committed.
"I didn't play as many off the bench late as I wanted to. We have got to be able to play anyone on our bench and know that we can maintain, and we didn't tonight off the bench as well as I had hoped."
Insell also rarely went to his bench with Pickel and Clark playing the entire game. Emily Queen, who is coming back from knee surgery, did log 13 minutes in relief.
"I was real proud of our kids," Insell said. "We gave a lot of effort. We had some possessions that we wasted and against a team like them, as much length as they've got and the way they go to the boards, we can't have wasted possessions.
"It wasn't the kids' fault. We just let the shot clock run down and we got ourselves in a situation that we had to do some things that we normally don't do. But as far as effort is concerned I am very proud of our team."
Despite the loss, Insell and his players were in good spirits for two reasons – the record crowd and the lessons to be learned.
"We need to do this more often," Insell said. "There were some Tennessee fans here, but there was a lot of blue in the stands, and I was proud of our fans. We'll build it. We're getting there. It's been five years and we've come from about three to four hundred a night to people begging to get in today."
"I thought it was great," Clark said. "We knew we had a lot of UT fans around, but I was really, really excited to see all that blue in the stands. Our fans are great anyway but for Thanksgiving all the students we had in the student section they could have went home today, and they stayed and supported us. That meant a lot to us."
Insell's approach since he took the job at Middle Tennessee was to seek top competition.
"It's four games into the season and we got beat by LSU (and Tennessee)," Insell said. "Do we like losing to either one of them? No. We don't. But we've got to play those type of teams to move our program where it needs to be, and we're going to continue to do this.
"We could have easily picked some opponents out there that we could have manhandled. But we wouldn't be ready for down the road. Our conference is tough and where we want to go in the NCAA Tournament we need Tennessees, we need LSUs. We're going to need Xaviers and Louisvilles and South Dakota States (all road games on Middle Tennessee's schedule, except for Tennessee). They're going to get us tougher."
Middle Tennessee played three games in Knoxville in 2006, 2007 and 2008 for the chance to host the Lady Vols in Murfreesboro, and Insell wants to do it again.
"I hope Pat saw that we're sincere about the women's basketball game," Insell said. "I think coming into this environment tonight why fly all over the country when you can get it down the road three hours? We want to work it out.
"Next year I think their schedule is already full, but we want to work it out with Pat where we can get this thing going. We need this game for credibility for our program. Everybody in the country was looking at Middle Tennessee and Tennessee tonight."
Summitt said after the game that Tennessee's schedule was booked solid for the next three years, but she would revisit the series.
"You can look at the crowd that was here and know that the people in this area embrace women's basketball, and they support it," Summitt said. "Rick has done a great job in the community of getting out, and a lot of coaches in our game are not passionate about that. He has people here because they love basketball, but they also like the style of play and they know Coach Insell is going to continue to win.
"It's a lot like what we do at Tennessee. I am out in the community and my staff is out in the community doing charity events and getting people to come. It's great when you that kind of fan support, and it continues to grow year in and year out."
Tennessee, after playing three of its first four games away from home, will now play the next three games at Thompson-Boling Arena, starting with UCLA (3 p.m. Eastern, SportSouth) this Saturday.
"All I am thinking about is our next opponent, UCLA, because I don't want Nikki Caldwell to come in and beat the coach, because that's what she wants to do," Summitt said. "She wants to beat me."
The Tennessee players won't return to the practice court until Friday, but they do have a weights and conditioning session on Thanksgiving Day with Heather Mason.
"As soon as they get their lift and their running over with they can go eat all the turkey they can find," Summitt said.