"Watching our team in practice we had a presence that I thought was going to really help us when we did play zone, because of our length and our inside game, so we went with it. I knew last night before I went to bed. I said, ‘I know how we are going to open up.' Because they are very athletic, and I thought we were able to negate some of the athleticism because of our size."
It could have been a risky strategy because Mississippi State's Alexis Rack and Mary Kathryn Govero have deep three-ball range, but instead 6'2 Shekinna Stricklen and 6'3 Glory Johnson – two long-limbed athletic players – set up at the top of the extended zone pressure to slow down the Lady Bulldogs and then dropped back in a half-court scheme.
The result was a Mississippi State team that could not do what it wanted – penetrate to the paint – and was forced to loft contested outside shots that often misfired.
No. 4 Tennessee (14-1, 2-0) took advantage of the Lady Bulldogs' misfortunes on offense by shooting 54.5 percent to open the game – Kelley Cain got the first basket of the game on a feed from Angie Bjorklund with a lot of ball movement on the opening possession – and the Lady Vols never trailed.
The statistic that stood out to both coaches was the turnovers, or relative lack of them for Tennessee.
Through the game's first 33 minutes, Tennessee had just six miscues. Mississippi State's opponents averaged 23.1 turnovers a game coming into Sunday's contest. The final tally was 10, but four of those came late in the game, including two ill-advised passes that were picked off and a travel call. Tennessee's five starters accounted for just three turnovers, and Bjorklund, Cain and Taber Spani had zero.
"I am very pleased that we did a better job of taking care of the ball," Summitt said. "Our turnovers came late when we went to our bench, which was disappointing that we didn't do a better job there. But I think overall with our starters and a couple of others coming off the bench we were very, very efficient in that area."
A signature of Mississippi State teams is that they get after people on defense and make opponents uncomfortable on the court. The Lady Vols took care of the ball and met little resistance from the Lady Bulldogs, until late in the game when Tennessee's reserves played out the clock.
"Why do you think I am so ticked right now," Mississippi State Coach Sharon Fanning-Otis said. "Tennessee is a great basketball team, and I give them credit. I am looking for us to find a way to step up and make people uncomfortable. If they're bigger inside, you've got to figure out how to turn them, you've got to figure out how to rotate down on the weak-side and make them make an extra pass. When you're playing a good team that means you're going to have to work extra hard.
"You're going to have to have a 40-minute player if you're playing them and you're going to have to be able to go hard."
Johnson went the distance in the first half – her full-time services were not needed after the break as Tennessee's lead swelled to 32 points – and set the tone for the game inside on both ends, especially with her ferocity on the boards.
"Quick up and down," Fanning-Otis said. "She's just a quick athlete."
Johnson had one play in the first half that dropped a few jaws on press row after Alyssia Brewer fired a jumper and knew it was off.
"Get it, Glo!" Brewer yelled at Johnson, who was already en route to the rim.
Johnson swooped it from the right side, grabbed the rebound and landed on the left side of the basket. The defense collapsed on her and she spun to the left and then made a counter-spin to the baseline that left the defender leaning the wrong way. Johnson went up for the shot, hit it and was fouled.
"She is such a quick jumper," Summitt said. "I think that gives her a great advantage because she can elevate and play around the glass. Glory, because she's so athletic, a lot of times when she goes against other players that are real athletic, she gets overanxious.
"But she did not do that today. I thought she played within herself and, again, had the composure. She would pick and choose her options on the offensive end based on the what the defense was doing. When she's on, she is really, really good when she's playing within herself and not trying to do too much."
Johnson had the double-double by halftime with 12 points on 6-7 shooting and 10 rebounds and finished the game with 16 points on 7-12 shooting and a career-high 15 boards.
Among other stellar plays were her handling of a tough pass by Spani into a double team that she converted for a basket and a slashing drive to the rim that left her defender looking at the name on the back of her jersey. Johnson's one miss in the first half even was noteworthy. She got the board and was back up for the basket before anyone else left the floor to give Tennessee its first double-digit lead, 22-11, with 8:27 left in the first half. On the next play at the other end, she got a steal on the low block.
"Very efficient with her touches, working to get open, composure, a lot of composure," Summitt said. "I'm pleased because I think she needed this kind of game, not just for our team, I think she needed it for herself.
"She'll be able to go back and watch some film, and I think this game overall was her best game because it just wasn't what she did offensively, it was what she did on the defensive end as well."
Johnson got double-digit scoring help from Bjorklund, who had 16 points and hit 4-9 from behind the arc, and Spani, who had 12 points and was 5-10 from the field.
Spani hit two 3-pointers, but she showed more diversity in her offensive game by also sticking a baseline turnaround shot after grabbing an offensive board and hitting a fadeaway.
"I thought she played well for us today and played well defensively," Summitt said. "When you can play Taber in a zone it's going to help her because she's not having to play 94 feet, but she's having to go in and play in a zone. I thought that helped her a lot, and she got some good open looks."
Tennessee worked extensively on its zone in practice Friday – and specifically how to guard Mississippi State in the 2-3 matchup – and Spani executed her role well Sunday.
When Tennessee is in its man looks, Spani guards inside and Johnson picks up a perimeter player because of her lateral quickness. With Spani on the perimeter in the zone, that meant Johnson was in the back, closer to the basket and in better position to rebound.
Of Johnson's 15 boards, 10 came on the defensive end.
"I was down there with the posts and every time my man goes to the board I try to make sure that they don't get the rebound," Johnson said. "She was crashing every time but making sure that she wasn't getting her offensive rebound was my goal. She was crashing hard, but I happened to be there before her, just boxing her out and making sure she's not getting the ball."
Statistically, Tennessee's edge on the glass was a relatively slim 47-40, but Fanning-Otis said that was misleading.
"I know the rebounding is somewhat close, but to me it wasn't even in the park," Fanning-Otis said. "We had 20 missed shots at halftime; we had four offensive rebounds. If you're missing shots, you're going to have to find a way to turn the defense up and to get extra shots, and that means you're going to have to rebound the ball offensively."
Mississippi State (11-5, 2-1) was 7-27 (25.9 percent) from the field in the first half and had more turnovers, nine, than made baskets.
Tennessee opened in its matchup zone – made even more effective by extending it to half-court and trapping with Johnson and Stricklen – and stayed in it throughout the game.
"We played all zone," Summitt said. "We extended. We ran what we call our ‘Charlotte' defense. I think just the size and being able to take away the middle and force them to the sideline is obviously a good thing, but again, that's where our size was effective and our length. We're doing a better job of playing with hands up and getting a lot of deflections."
Johnson thought the element of surprise was on Tennessee's side Sunday.
"They probably figured that we weren't going to start in a 2-3, because we normally start in man," Johnson said. "Staying in the 2-3 and pressing, I think it kind of scared them a little bit, and they weren't able to penetrate like they used to or kick out to threes because we were always moving within our 2-3. I think it made it hard for them to do a lot of their sets.
"I think our zone defense worked so well today because of the surprise. Usually we come out in our normal man defense so when we started with a 2-3 zone, they were not expecting it. We reduced their penetration, which they are so good at because of their athleticism, and kept them from getting to the basket."
Rack, who had scored at will on Tennessee in past games at Starkville, said the Lady Bulldogs didn't make the necessary adjustments.
"We should have attacked it different," Rack said. "We were attacking it at the sidelines, and we should have been attacking the middle. It was hard to see over them the way we were attacking. We should have adjusted better than we did."
Rack still tallied 19 points, but it was on 7-22 shooting overall, 5-14 from behind the arc and zero trips to the free throw line because Tennessee kept her from driving middle to the basket.
"I think I could have got there," Rack said. "In the first half, when I was getting to the middle, I was forcing up shots, so we were trying to work it around and reverse the ball and then penetrate, but it didn't work out that way."
Fanning-Otis understood why Tennessee stayed in the zone all game – it worked the entire way.
"They didn't need to change because what they were doing was working, but we had to get inside out of it," Fanning-Otis said. "We didn't do our job. You have to have the courage to go through there. You're going to have to take it at somebody."
She opened her post-game remarks with an apology to those who witnessed the lack of effort from her team. The 5,787 in attendance at Humphrey Coliseum was the third-largest crowd for a women's basketball game.
"I am very, very, very, very disappointed relative to work ethic," Fanning-Otis said. "For those of you that are from our area here, we let you down in a big way relative to just the character and class in which we played.
"We are going to strive to coach better, and these girls are going to strive to play better. I say that because I expect to win. I don't expect to just come in and just play a game and to say, ‘Great effort.' I expect to compete to win every game."
Summitt, meanwhile, opened her remarks with praise that doesn't come very often in two specific areas – defense and board play – and the Lady Vols hit the trifecta when the head coach also liked the offensive display.
"I am really pleased with our defensive intensity, our board play and our execution offensively," Summitt said. "I know that our coaching staff has been demanding a lot of this basketball team, and the reason you do that is when you see the potential that they all have individually and collectively.
"Certainly Angie and Shekinna they've just been terrific leaders and obviously two great guards, and you've got to have great guard play I think to advance in this game and to continue to get better, so I was very pleased."
Stricklen tallied a pair of nines in points and rebounds with eight boards coming on the defensive end. She also had six assists to just two turnovers. Freshman guard Kamiko Williams had four assists in the first five minutes that she was on the floor in the second half.
"Our goal was to continue to work the ball around," said Bjorklund, who had two assists. "We're looking for games like that where we're really sharing the ball."
Bjorklund has been a beneficiary of that ball movement and the screens that can block out the sun that Cain and Brewer are setting. Brewer picked a player clean in the first half – she came in when Cain picked up her second foul – and Bjorklund was left all alone at the top of the key.
"Another place I think we have gotten a lot better is in our screening action and not getting impatient, so we got a lot of screen assists," Summitt said.
That was another place for Fanning-Otis to be steamed after the game because Bjorklund had been identified as a priority for the defense, and she didn't see the desire to defend the junior guard until the game was already in hand for Tennessee.
"You can't do things when the game's over, when it's slacked up," Fanning-Otis said. "You've got to do it when it starts, from the get-go, execute, work hard, find a way to get a loose ball, find a way to get a rebound, talk in transition, communicate, where the screens are, where the flares are. You can't be coming off of something soft.
"Bjorklund is hitting 50 percent from three going into this basketball game. If they set a screen where she's coming off for a jump shot, you'd better switch it."
On the flip side, Fanning-Otis saw her team's screening action and penetration fall well short of expectations.
"You're going to have to find a way to penetrate the seam," Fanning-Otis said. "There were times when we did that, but times against a great team like Tennessee does not get it. They're too aggressive, too intense, they have 10 deep. Three people that are in their eight, nine and 10 rotation, so to speak, are players that played significant minutes and sometimes started last year.
"A team like this, you have to guard hard. You have to be alert. We did not execute offensively from the get-go in terms of setting screens and everybody being on the same page and then when things didn't go well offensively then we backed down defensively. You can't do that against a great basketball team. So, I am just totally disappointed in our effort.
"I know that we are going to regroup, we'll look at, evaluate it and go on. We've got to move on to the next basketball game. You have to give credit to the Tennessee team for who they are and what they've accomplished this season, and I think they have tremendous potential.
"We want to face them in a championship game somewhere along the road. We surely didn't do our job today but hopefully we learn from this and we move on and learn how much effort that we have to have to win any game in this league, not just a game against Tennessee."
Mississippi State does have shortcomings with regard to personnel as senior point guard Marneshia Richard, who did not play last year because of knee surgery, is out this season because of an Achilles tendon injury she suffered in October. Tysheka Grimes, a junior guard/forward, was in a protective boot Sunday and her availability for the rest of the season is not known yet.
"I realize that we have a starter out, and I realize that there are some new people in some new roles," Fanning-Otis said. "But that just means that everybody else that does have experience is going to have to step up and communicate harder and play harder. There were several phases of it where we just totally, totally shut down, and we can't do that and win any basketball games."
Fanning-Otis didn't foresee an outcome like Sunday.
"No, I expect this team to compete," Fanning-Otis said. "That is all I am thinking about. If I start thinking about seeing something coming, then I am not thinking about the right things. Whatever the situation was, these guys have got to communicate with me on what I can do to help them, and they've got to help themselves. There can't be excuses. The only thing we can do is go inwardly to ourselves. What can I do as a coach to do a better job? What can these guys do as a team to do a better job?
"We are in January and February and we're in the league. You have to play your very, very best. I don't care who it is, I don't care when it's played, I don't care where it's played. We got to have best effort, and we didn't have that. Find a way to get it done. If it goes with effort and they beat you? Fine. But I didn't see the effort that I am expecting from this basketball team."
Summitt didn't always see that same expected effort a season ago, and the Lady Vols struggled on the road in the SEC. The memory of last season – there were collapses in the first half, the second half and sometimes both – still lingers for Tennessee, to the extent that Johnson and Bjorklund talked after the game as if they were never at ease.
"This is a team, yeah, we started strong, but they can easily come back," Bjorklund said. "I thought we really focused throughout the entire game, all the way down to the end, that we can't let this team come back."
The Lady Vols also were aware that Mississippi State had been down 15 points to Vanderbilt on Sunday and came back to win, 90-76.
"We probably took off around late second half but at the same time knowing that this team tends to make their runs in the end, tends to make their runs in the second half," Johnson said. "Even though we are up we still have to be ready for the team. They are capable of making runs late in the game so we had to be ready for that, even though we were up."
Tennessee was up 39-18 at halftime after shooting 50.0 percent (18-36) and tallying 10 assists to just three turnovers. The Lady Vols led from the first possession and steadily built the lead in the first half until it was in double digits for good, 24-13, at the 6:43 mark on a layup by Alicia Manning, who used a Brewer screen to go in untouched on the right side.
Johnson went on her own 8-0 run with four consecutive layups to take a relatively close game to a 32-15 lead for Tennessee with 2:45 left before halftime.
"I wasn't slowing up, and my teammates were running with me and pushing with me," Johnson said.
Spani connected on back-to-back three-pointers – both were assisted by Manning – to give Tennessee a 37-18 lead. On the second one, Spani was left all alone in the right corner after Mississippi State tried to trap Stricklen in the backcourt. The ball ended up in Spani's hands and when it went through the net, Stricklen reacted with a smile and a fist pump. Bjorklund hit a wing jumper for the final basket of the first half.
Mississippi State opened the second half with a turnover, and Johnson hit two free throws after a foul for the 40-18 lead. The starters extended the lead to 28 points, 49-21, at the 15:06 mark and Stricklen took a seat on the bench, presumably done for the day. With 12 minutes left in the game, Summitt had just one starter on the floor in Johnson.
But after back-to-back turnovers on a bad pass and then a travel call with 10 minutes left in the game, Summitt had to get Stricklen back on the floor. The coach called a couple of second-half timeouts to express her displeasure with a few plays from the bench.
"I told them every moment is a teaching moment and I wasn't real happy with some of my students at that point in time," Summitt said. "I told them, ‘We want to be in the Final Four. We want to cut down nets. So we've got to pay attention to detail in everything we do.'
"We had some players come off the bench and didn't respond very well, and I am not very happy about that. So we may have to cut our numbers down as far as how many people we play, but if we can find seven, eight people, we've got a chance to really do some good things with this team, and that's what I'm looking for."
Still, the outcome of the game was never in doubt in the second half, and the Tennessee bench contributed 16 points to none for Mississippi State. Brewer had eight points, including a drive from the high post to push the lead to 58-31. Manning added six points off the bench, and Williams connected on both free throw attempts.
Williams didn't shoot well – she was 0-4 from the field – but she displayed the athleticism that shows how dangerous a weapon she could be for Tennessee this season. She went for a steal in the second half, just missed the ball and recovered in time for the block, one of two she tallied. She also drove to the basket and dished off to Brewer inside for one of her four assists.
Tennessee dominated the paint scoring, 42 points to 16 for Mississippi State.
"We didn't play to the potential that we have," Govero said. "If you see the points in the paint, we didn't play team defense like we needed to. They were a lot bigger than us, but we have to have each other's back out there."
Tennessee got 19 second-chance points to 12 for the Lady Bulldogs, but that's just one of several ways that this Lady Vol team can fill up a box score when effectively playing inside-out.
"I think Tennessee teams, through the years, they've won championships on second shots," Fanning-Otis said. "It hadn't been on first shots. Right now, though, they have some really great shooters. They have two or three people that can knock down threes. You're going to have to know their matches. You're going to have to find them."
Too often, Mississippi State didn't, and Rack thought that was the downfall of the Lady Bulldogs.
"We weren't getting stops," Rack said. "We're used to getting stops and that turns into our transition offense, which is a strong point in our game, and we weren't getting it.
"I think we struggled mainly on defense and that carried over. We weren't getting the transition buckets and getting out in the floor and running and getting some easy shots."
Mississippi State shot 28.1 percent for the game and 26.7 percent from long range. Govero added 13 points to Rack's 19, while Chanel Mokango chipped in with seven points and nine rebounds.
Tennessee shot 46.4 percent for the game and 31.6 percent from long range.
This is essentially the same Lady Vol team as a year ago – with the added firepower of Spani and athleticism of Williams – and Tennessee struggled in Starkville a year ago but was ready from the opening tip this season.
"It's huge," Bjorklund said. "We always try to start the game off strong. I thought it was a tough game. I think Mississippi State is one of the toughest teams in the league, and I thought our defense really slowed some things down for them that maybe they weren't used to.
"We expected them to come out and be aggressive right from the beginning, and that's what they did. We tried to do a lot of our pressure releases on them because they are a very aggressive team and a tough team. They're going to play out in the passing lanes."
Ball security had been an emphasis in practice – the team will get Monday off from the practice court – and the Lady Vols passed that test Sunday.
"That was definitely one of our keys to victory on our scouting report," Bjorklund said. "I thought we did a great job of that. The key to that was really just composure. We've been working on that, not rushing, working the ball around and keeping our composure."
Fanning-Otis, whose team lined up against Tennessee twice last season, is very familiar with the Lady Vols program. She sees a team that simply gained experience and learned from it.
"They still have some youth to them, but just the experience of a year," Fanning-Otis said. "You're talking about a heck of a lot of All-American kids that are out there. They had injuries last year that really made a different look at times.
"I'd say they're playing with a chip on their shoulder. They surely didn't finish (last season) the way a Tennessee team has finished and you have a lot of determined young ladies, and you expect them to step up."
The SEC schedule doesn't get easier for Tennessee as the Lady Vols, including the Mississippi State one, play four of five games on the road. Next up is Florida in Gainesville on Thursday. The Gators beat Tennessee at their place last season.
"It was definitely key just to have that confidence going into the SEC on the road games and some of the hostile environments that we need to get used to, and this was a good example of that," Bjorklund said. "It's going to get tougher and tougher as the season goes on."