"Wouldn't you like it, too?" C. Vivian Stringer said to much laughter in the post-game press conference. "That's amazing, isn't it. I watched (6'2 post player) Chelsey Lee line up beside Kelley Cain and I tapped one of my people and I said, ‘She looks like a child over there. She just looks like a midget. Just look at her legs.'
"Pat has got them doing good things. It seems like they're more difficult to get around and we get frustrated with it. I like (Tennessee's) big lineup, too. She has the flexibility of being smaller. She goes with that little guard. Nobody likes to be pegged into one thing. If you just only had the big people you would be complaining about that. If you had the little people you would be complaining about that. But when you've got both, you got the best of both worlds. It creates problems."
The Lady Vols, seemingly intent on putting the nightmare of last's season 13 first-half points against Rutgers well behind them, went ahead 14-5 on a three-pointer from Taber Spani with 14:03 left in the first half. Six minutes into the game Tennessee had already exceeded its first half output of a year ago.
The lead was in double digits, 16-5, at the 13:31 mark when Cain scored at the rim on a feed from Angie Bjorklund and was fouled. She hit the free throw for a 17-5 lead.
"Having a year under your belt it is completely different than coming into a new program right out of high school and not knowing really what you can do for your team," Johnson said. "Understanding the concepts that Tennessee has and the system and knowing that you have specific roles on your team and now that we know them and we invest in our program, I think we're a lot more successful."
The high-low pass worked well for Tennessee to start the game as Shekinna Stricklen found Cain, and Cain found Brewer. The Lady Vols had their largest lead of the first half, 21-7, when Alicia Manning drove to the rim after finding a wide-open lane on a pass from Brewer.
But then Tennessee started misfiring and the Scarlet Knights started chipping away at the lead in the final four minutes before the break behind Brittany Ray, April Sykes and Monique Oliver. Tennessee went to the locker room with a 30-25 lead, and Summitt wasn't happy.
"We had a little prayer meeting at halftime," Summitt said. "The good news is they responded. We weren't passionate about playing defense or boxing out or playing defense or having high hands. I think we started out playing pretty well and then for whatever reason the energy level went down, and we had a pretty good discussion at halftime.
"Again, they responded. I thought Shekinna, Kelley, Angie, Glory, everybody, stepped up. We have to play great defense, especially on the road. You've got to be passionate about defense and board play because obviously we didn't shoot the ball well in the first half.
"I thought we did a much better job in the second half of getting more people involved and doing a better job with our box-outs. It's heart. You've got to have heart and competitive drive."
Tennessee shot 28 percent in the first half and 52 percent in the second to finish at 40 percent (20-50) for the game. Rutgers, 7-5, shot 35. 1 percent (20-57) for the game with a much better mark behind the arc (7-15) at 46.7 percent.
Tennessee survived the loss of its best defender when Johnson had to go to the bench in the first half with her second foul with 10:26 remaining. Johnson was upset and frustrated when she got to the sideline.
"Of course we were ahead," Johnson said, indicating the halftime speech didn't compare to Summitt's meltdown a year ago when her team trailed Rutgers, 33-13, at the half. "But our team needs to play a lot better. Me getting into foul trouble early isn't helping the team and it's hard to sit there and watch your team struggle in certain concepts.
"I was upset because I've never had back-to-back screen fouls, and I was kind of unsure about what I was doing wrong and watching the other team it was kind of hard to tell the difference between what I was doing wrong and what they were doing wrong. I was getting the fouls, and I was kind of confused about why I was getting the fouls called on me. Without me in there I'm not helping my team and it's kind of hard just sitting there and watching and not knowing what you did wrong."
Johnson got a pep talk from Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood while Summitt informed one of the officials that "that's a ticky tack foul, and you put her on the bench."
But Brewer and Manning picked up the minutes - Manning and Spani had to play some at the four spot inside - and the Lady Vols weathered that loss until late in the first half when Rutgers turned up its defense and got on the boards.
Johnson was back on the floor when the second half started and immediately hit a 17-footer on a pass from Bjorklund and scored at the rim on the next possession off an in-bounds play to give Tennessee an eight-point lead, 36-28, two minutes into the second half.
But Rutgers got scoring from Ray - she had a career-high 29 points - from the line and behind the arc and the Scarlet Knights were within one, 40-39, with 13:17 to play.
Tennessee responded with an 8-0 run with four baskets from Brewer, Johnson, Cain and Brewer again - two of the four buckets were assisted by Bjorklund - and the Lady Vols held on and then increased the lead at the free throw line as Rutgers fouled to stop the clock for the 68-54 final.
Rutgers weathered Tennessee's 14-2 run in the first half when the Lady Vols turned a 7-5 game into a 21-7 lead, but the Scarlet Knights didn't answer the second half one.
"We didn't recover from their run," Ray said. "Coach Stringer always talks about how the game is a game of runs and I don't think we bounced back from their run."
When Rutgers pulled to within one of Tennessee, the crowd of 7,190 got energetic - a majority were wearing red but the orange-clad fans were scattered throughout and enthusiastic - but the Lady Vols never lost the lead in the second half and never trailed again after being down 3-2 with 17:34 left in the first half. Was there a psychological benefit, especially considering a crowd ready to erupt, to not losing the lead in the second half?
"I don't know," Summitt said. "I wasn't concerned about the time and score at that time. I was concerned about how we were playing and not as invested as we needed to be."
Johnson had to deal with foul trouble again in the second half as she went to the bench with her fourth on a charging call with 10:26 to play. But when Cain got poked in the left eye and had to come out for treatment Johnson returned with 9:18 remaining and didn't pick up a fifth.
All of Johnson's 10 points came in the second half, and she also had seven rebounds. Stricklen led the Lady Vols with 19 points and an 11-12 slate from the free throw line.
"Free throws are very important," Stricklen said. "Coach stays on us about that in practice. She told us if we can't hit free throws when it's close in the game, we won't be in the game. At the end of the game when it's close you have to hit your free throws."
Brewer had 10 points off the bench plus four boards, a block and a steal. Cain had a pair of nines in points and rebounds and tied a season high with six blocks. Bjorklund, who played all but the last 23 seconds, was face guarded throughout the game but still managed to score eight points and add five boards and five assists.
Ray led Rutgers with 29 points and was 5-6 behind the arc. She is now in fourth place on the school's career list with 145 three-pointers. Her output came despite a busy week in which Rutgers played three games - Florida, Prairie View A&M and Tennessee.
"It just comes through hard work," Ray said. "We compete every day in practice. Everybody is fatigued, but you have to play the game you are going to play. It doesn't matter if you come off a six- or seven-game streak, or a seven-game road trip, you want to play every day and that's what I try to do, I just try to play every day."
Stringer had been upset with her team's inconsistency going into the game and afterwards she let the assistants talk to the team.
"What I am frustrated with, and I let my coaches speak, because I am frustrated, I am speechless," Stringer said. "Here is what I am saying. There is a big difference between the way we played today and the way we played against Prairie View. I am upset about that simply because great teams and good teams don't play according to the competition that is on the floor. They just know that somebody has a different color uniform on than what you have and you are not calling on something that you are not familiar with. I am speechless. I did not say anything in the locker room; normally I would have gone off. But I thought, you know what? I've had it. I'm going to take some other approaches to this.
"I came to this game not knowing how we were going to play. Based upon what I've seen the last two or three games, we should have been blown out. The question is could we have won this game today? It doesn't matter, could have, should have, would have, but yes, I think this team really believes that and knows that.
"But the question is when do we put it together because when patterns broke down, Tennessee made plays. When patterns broke down with us, we have young people that have to step up. That's a fact. You want to run your mouth about, ‘When I get an opportunity to do this.' … Basketball is about life. It's easy to sit on the bench when Kia Vaughn is stepping up and she's knocking down shots or Epiphanny Prince and all these other great ones. It's easy to sit there and think about what you could have done. Guess what? The minutes are yours."
Chelsey Lee had a pair of sevens in points and boards, April Sykes added eight points and hit two 3-pointers, and Monique Oliver had 10 off the bench. The other six players who logged minutes for the Scarlet Knights didn't score, including starters Khadijah Rushdan and Nikki Speed, who both drew the duty of shadowing Bjorklund on the court.
Stringer was upset after the game because of her team's over-reliance on Ray, who has a gimpy knee and needs support on the offensive end. She also said it was the first time in her coaching career that the posts were ahead of the guards, Ray being the exception, in offensive development.
"She brings it all the time," Stringer said. "One thing Brittany won't bring is an excuse. Brittany never has an excuse. The rest of us? We've just got to grow up. We've got to be much more mature. Brittany can deliver. It's a calmness.
"Brittany will be better when she spends less time on the floor. Her body is going to break down, and we've asked a lot from it. All of our perimeter people need to step up. Every last one of them needs to step up and own something. We've got to come to a defining moment."
Nine of the 10 players on Tennessee's roster scored, including Bass, who nailed a three-pointer, and Sydney Smallbone, who hit two free throws late to put Tennessee's lead in double digits for good, 64-54, with 1:07 left.
Both teams are young, but the difference is that the bulk of Tennessee's roster had to play last season because of the loss of five starters and injuries. Stringer estimated she had two players who logged significant minutes in the Tennessee-Rutgers game a year old. Six Lady Vols on the floor Sunday played key roles in that game.
"There is only one person who deserves to be called a Scarlet Knight, maybe two, because they played significant minutes," Stringer said. "This is a very young team. Pat had all freshmen, but they had an opportunity to play. It hurt her (last season). The difference is I didn't have to play my freshmen (last season) and expose how bad they were. They were sitting there. None of these people were really on the floor. They didn't play anything significant and when they were on the floor they were making mistakes. Big mistakes. That's OK. That's to be expected."
Stringer was comforted by the fact that her teams tend to play better in the second half of the season.
"We're going to go through something when I get finished with our group by the end of December," Stringer said. "(Right now) I don't know if we're going to get blown out. I don't know if we're going to play well. Defense you can dictate. Offense you can't dictate as much. We have got to get considerably better.
"I think I can always get our team right defensively. But the shots that we're missing are not surprise shots. We've been doing that so I am not going to sit up here and pretend I am so stunned we missed those shots. I see that every day in practice. We've got to do a better job and hopefully we will."
Tennessee played man defense primarily in the first half and switched to its 2-3 matchup zone for most of the second half.
"Our zone, it's really been interesting," Summitt said. "I like what I saw. The reason is we weren't keeping them out of the paint. We've got good size. When you've got Kelley and Lyssi and Glory on the floor, we're long and rangy. I think that's helped us keep people in front of us. We double-teamed on the baseline, we didn't do as good a job there as we could have, but I thought we did manage to disrupt them some with it."
The intent was to slow down Rutgers, which tries to get the bulk of its points by driving to the paint.
"They were trying to penetrate a lot and with the zone we had help-side a lot easier," Johnson said. "Playing man it's kind of hard. If you've got a shooter out on the wing like Brittany Ray, you don't want her to get the ball, but it's a lot harder to help off (your man).
"With zone you always have to help and make sure you're guarding someone. If someone drives, it's easy to help because you're close together. I think it helped a lot limiting touches for a lot of players, and we were able to trap and double team out of that, too."
The one player unaffected by either defense was Ray, who was 9-16 from the field, and played all but 11 seconds of the game. To the Lady Vols and Ray's credit she often stuck shots with a defender on her.
"She's a player," Summitt said. "She can do it all. She can get to the hole, pull up and do what she wants to do. We knew going in that she would be the player that would probably pose the most problems for us. Did we do a great job? No. We could have done a much better job of denying and defending the penetration. She got to go where she wanted to go."
But Ray can't do it alone and Stringer needed only to look at the box score to see why Rutgers lost. The Lady Vols had a slim 22-20 lead on the boards at halftime but stretched that to 43-32 for the game. Tennessee had eight second-chance points to five for Rutgers.
"It's really important," Johnson said. "If we're giving them second-chance shots it's lowering our chances of winning. Box them out and make sure they're not getting second-chance shots. It's hard work and it's dedication, putting your passion into boxing out and making sure your player's not getting the ball down low."
Both teams turned the ball loose - 19 for Tennessee and 17 for Rutgers - but the Lady Vols got 21 points off miscues to 11 for the Scarlet Knights. Rutgers was 7-13 from the line - Ray got there 10 times and hit six - and Tennessee was 26-33. The 33-13 difference in attempted free throws was, oddly enough, the score at halftime a year ago.
"If you want to lose, don't rebound, turn the ball over and don't go to the free throw line," Stringer said. "We didn't do what we needed to do. We should have opened the game up and run (against the slower big players). They're big, and I don't blame her. They did what they needed to do. We didn't. All we wanted to do was hit jumpers. We don't play a very smart game in my opinion."
Stringer was flummoxed at one point early in the game by what offense her team was running.
"The first couple of minutes I don't know what we were running," Stringer said. "I looked at the bench and said, ‘Dang, didn't I call a spread?' They said, ‘Yeah, what's that?' I said, ‘I don't know.' I don't know what that was and it lasted for five minutes and then we regrouped."
Rutgers was effective from behind the arc - 7-15 compared to 2-9 for Tennessee - but the Lady Vols were much more effective when the ball went inside either by passes to take advantage of its size or penetration, primarily from Stricklen.
"We had been jump-shooting so much," Summitt said. "Our mindset is to play from the inside-out, and we just got a little shot happy and then when we corrected that I thought we had some great looks both inside and out."
When Tennessee went on its second half run it was fueled by paint points as Johnson hit a turn-around in the lane, Bjorklund found Cain inside and when Johnson was double-teamed, she passed to a cutting Brewer, who hit the shot for a 48-39 lead plus a foul. Johnson drove on the next possession after receiving a pass from the wing and hit the shot and free throw for a 51-41 lead.
Stricklen got a deflection and steal in the open court for another basket and also scored off an in-bounds play be streaking to the basket and getting the pass from Cain. Bjorklund took a handoff from Cain, used the screen and sunk the wing jumper for a 57-45 lead.
Sykes hit a three-pointer for Rutgers to pull the Scarlet Knights to 61-54 with 1:55 to play, but Stricklen answered with a jumper after reversing her side of the court and losing her defender, and Cain blocked Sykes' next shot attempt.
After the game, Stricklen saluted Rutgers' defense. The game was physical and strenuous - at one point Cain came out in the first half after getting poked in the eye (the same thing would happen in the second half) and told Summitt she was trying to catch her breath - and several players logged a lot of minutes, Bjorklund with nearly 40, Stricklen with 36 and Cain with 34.
Tennessee flew back to Knoxville late Sunday evening and will take off from practice Monday.
"Their defense is great," Stricklen said. "Their intensity on defense is high. They are all up in your face. They pressure the ball really well. Coach told me not to stay on the sideline, to stay in the middle of the court, and we have to take care of the ball and try not to get in a trap. But I feel like we did have a lot of turnovers, though."
Summitt added, "They made us play faster than we wanted to play Because we didn't have the intensity, particularly in the first half. I thought in the second half we matched their intensity and we did a much better job of taking care of the basketball. And you have to do that against Rutgers because you just know Vivian's team, they're going to come at you, they're going to get in your grill."
Summitt will watch film and find plenty to work on - the Lady Vols host Louisville on Wednesday and play at Stanford on Saturday - but she sees a different team on the court this season than a year ago.
"I think their mental attitude and their competitive drive (are different)," Summitt said. "I have to give a lot of credit to this team and to Heather Mason, who is our strength and conditioning coach. We did a variety of things when we lost in the first round to Ball State. We came home and we went back to practice and they were kind of having a little pity party not understanding why, so I made it pretty clear that it's not acceptable. What we did was not acceptable. We're going to learn from it. It's not punishment; it's an opportunity to get better.
"They ran Gate 10 at the football stadium, and they pushed grocery carts with about 350 pounds of weight. They got down on the ground and raised their legs … what do we call that Glory?"
"Wheelbarrow," Johnson said of the two-member wheelbarrow races the team held with one player crawling on her hands and the other holding up her legs. "The whole length of the football field."
"Needless to say, mentally that helped us a lot," Summitt said.
Cain struggled in the last game against Rutgers - she had missed practice and games because of a concussion and her right knee was aggravating her - but she was a big factor in this one on both ends.
"There is a lot that Kelley can get better at," Summitt said. "She's gotten a lot better at sprinting the floor. She's got great hands, soft hands, soft touch on the glass. She uses the glass as well as any post player I've coached. I think she'll get better. When she plays a couple of more years I think they'll be standing in line waiting for her in the WNBA."
Summitt and Stringer was asked at the post-game press conference about the effect on the game of WNBA franchises folding. Sacramento ceased operations last month, and Detroit moved to Tulsa, Okla. One of the league's most successful franchises, Houston, disbanded before the 2009 season and players were allocated to other teams in a dispersal draft.
"Obviously it's disturbing and hopefully we're not going to lose our league," Summitt said. "I think that we all have to rally for the cause, and it bothered me when I heard it and it still does. I think that's why all of us in the women's game need a voice."
Stringer delivered a stirring speech with her answer.
"There was a time when we played for the love of the game," Stringer said. "Let me give you two answers on this. One is, I think that maybe parents will back off, and maybe kids will begin to play the game for the right reason. I say that because you also notice, coincidentally, during this time that we've had the WNBA success, there has been a whole lot of transferring. There is whole lot of kids that are coming in here thinking they are all that, always looking for the program that allows them to have the mat and they do their thing.
"The one thing that has always been true about women's athletics is that it was always for the love of the game. You played and gave everything you possibly can just because you enjoyed playing team basketball together. And then it gets to the point, ‘Well, where's mine, because I've got to make sure that I'm in the draft,' so you begin to lose this team thing and you begin to wonder what are you looking at?
"So, I am sad in a way because we need a lot of opportunities for young women. So if we're smart, the athlete will realize that at the end of the day you had better focus on your academics. That's what it was always about before. And then I think the byproduct is if you happen to get an opportunity to play on the professional level, that's good, but the other side is what athletes in college don't realize is that there is two full teams of outstanding athletes that are floundering somewhere in the States because they don't have a job. You shouldn't be in school to play this sport as a professional. I think that is the biggest mistake you can make.
"It should be for the reasons that we used to tell athletes all the time, but you begin to change your conversations, and you begin to say what everyone else says - well, you might have a chance to play professionally knowing all the while that most often they don't understand the work ethic and they don't understand that there are a lot of players who wished they had jobs who did play that no longer have jobs."
Summitt also was asked about recent remarks, including those of NBA Commissioner David Stern, that a woman would play in the NBA.
"I'll probably be gone by then," Summitt said, her face indicating she thought the notion was ludicrous. "Does that tell you how I feel about that? I don't think I'll live that long to see it. I don't know why anyone would want to do that. I wouldn't understand it."
The line of questioning wasn't typical for a post-game press conference, but the venue was Madison Square Garden in Manhattan with a crowded media room afterwards. The double-header - Baylor beat Boston College, 68-55, in the first game - was held in memory of Maggie Dixon, the coach at Army who died unexpectedly at the age of 28 from a heart condition in April of 2006.
Between the two games of the Maggie Dixon Classic the players and coaches from all four teams were on the floor for the presentation from Dixon's siblings, Jamie Dixon, the men's coach at Pitt, and Julie Dixon Silva, of the Maggie Dixon Courage Award. The two recipients were Stringer and Lt. Col Kim Kawamoto, a former All-American at Army and associate athletic director and senior women's administrator at West Point. She just returned from a year's deployment in Kabul, Afghanistan, to help train national security forces.
Tennessee made its debut Sunday in the classic, which is in its fourth year. Tennessee was the last team to play Army in March 2006 in the NCAA tourney when Dixon was the coach.
"It's special," Summitt said. "She was just a great person. We knew that we were going to be facing each other in postseason and we happened to wind up at the same restaurant so I got to spend some time with her and she had a great mind for the game. She made it very clear that she wanted her players to have competitive drive and that toughness. I enjoyed getting to know her. She was just a great lady.
"We don't know why the good Lord takes some of the best first. She was special in lot of ways, so to be a part of this today meant a lot to me and obviously we talked to our team about it as well."
Health screenings for heart disease were held at an expo in the Garden in conjunction with the game, and a huge walk-through inflatable heart was on display for educational purposes. Loree Moore, a former Lady Vol now playing for the N.Y. Liberty, and Sue Wicks, a former Scarlet Knight and retired Liberty player, signed autographs at the expo.
The Tennessee players said they enjoyed their New York experience.
"I think everyone on the team was all excited and it was my first time being here," said Stricklen, who had a career-high tying five steals, plus three assists and three rebounds to go with her team-high 19 points. "We were pumped about it. We had great fans here and the environment was good. Everything was good."
"I enjoyed it, too," Johnson said. "It's an historical place and just looking at some of the pictures on the wall (throughout the Garden and outside the locker rooms and in hallways of athletes and entertainers who have performed there) and seeing Michael Jackson and Beyonce, we came here to play and they come to sing and do the best they can do and show off their talents.
"We came to do the same thing."