Spani hit her first three-point attempt after a kick-out from an Angie Bjorklund drive, Stricklen found Cain inside and then Stricklen scored after a Vandy turnover for a 10-3 lead and a timeout from Vanderbilt Coach Melanie Balcomb.
But the bleeding didn't stop for Vanderbilt (13-5, 2-3) even after Bjorklund had to leave the floor because blood was running down her left leg and into her sock. The officials didn't notice, but Balcomb did and asked that the junior guard be treated.
"No idea," Bjorklund said when asked if she knew she was cut.
"I saw it," Cain said. "It was crazy."
The blood rule sent Bjorklund to the bench for cleanup – though the crowd of 16,645 let the officials have it later when a Vandy player had a bloody nose treated and play was halted until she returned to the court – but Tennessee didn't miss a beat and continued its onslaught.
Stricklen scored off an offensive board and pass from Cain and then hit a three-pointer, Johnson got a putback, Alyssia Brewer found Cain twice for high-low action, Bjorklund hit a three on a feed from Briana Bass and when Brewer got a stick-back basket, Tennessee was up 27-7 with 8:05 left in the first half.
"I thought we got off to a very good start, and then the bottom fell out," Tennessee Coach Pat Summitt said. "We quit defending. You give up the three ball, you're not closing out long, you're getting beat off the bounce. Defense is all about heart and desire, and we didn't have everyone committed."
The Commodores were playing without their point guard, Jence Rhoads, who broke her hand a week ago, and the turnovers were piling up as the Lady Vols brought pressure and harassed the perimeter players. By the break, Vandy had 16 turnovers, its average per game coming into Sunday's matchup.
"We tried not to turn the ball over and take care of the ball," Balcomb said. "We panicked at first. Obviously, with out point guard out, they pressed and forced us to go fast, and turn it over."
That enabled Tennessee to take control of the game, but then Vanderbilt hit four consecutive three-pointers – two from Gabby Smith and two from Merideth Marsh – and the lead dwindled to nine points, 27-18, in less than three minutes.
"We just let them get one too many open threes," Bjorklund said. It's what it was. I don't even know what else to say about that. … They're just a very disciplined team. They do a great job executing their plays and they take advantage of every opportunity when we break down defensively.
"They're going to take advantage of it, and every single one of them can shoot lights out, so if you give them any room … . I thought that was definitely a challenge. We know who the shooters are, which was basically everyone."
Vandy also settled down and started running its offenses.
"We tried to slow down and get some mismatches, attack and get some wide-open threes and we did that and knocked them down," Balcomb said. "Defensively, we started getting some stops. We worked harder defensively. I thought we tried to do a better job on Stricklen and Bjorklund and made them miss some shots. We hit threes and gave up some twos once in a while. Three over two – you start catching up."
The Commodores did indeed, though Johnson got to the rim, and Bjorklund hit an 18-footer to send the Lady Vols into the locker room with a 37-29 lead.
Bass, who relieved Stricklen in the first half after the sophomore guard struggled following a fast start, played solid defense and got a shove from Marsh as she left the court in a game that got physical on the inside, too, as Cain seemed to turn in to human flypaper and had Commodores sticking to her every time she tried to get position or receive the ball.
"I'm used to it," said Cain, with an exasperated look that also indicated she was weary of the defensive approach on her that rarely yields foul calls, though Cain was whistled for questionable offensive ones when smaller players slipped underneath her and went down with minimal contact.
In one first half play, Johnson received the ball inside, squared up, held the ball for a second while standing still, watched her defender fall to the floor and then went up for the layup, much to the delight of the crowd, which was unhappy with the officiating for most of the evening. On the flip side, Johnson also got away with an elbow early in the game on her way to the basket.
Vanderbilt started out the second half the way it closed out the first half and hit four three-pointers – three in the first three minutes – with Elan Brown connecting once, Marsh twice and Lauren Lueders once.
"They were six of nine and then right out of halftime they were four of seven," Johnson said. "We had to stop their threes; otherwise we were going to get blown out. Because we weren't hitting, and they were hitting threes and whenever they weren't scoring we weren't scoring either, so we had to separate ourselves, and we eventually did that.
"At first, we were in a 2-3 (defense in the second half), and we kind of struggled with that as far as moving and helping each other on screens. So we went back to our ‘five' (man) defense and making sure everyone was switching. The communication had to be there. When they started missing their threes, they kind of lost their confidence, so we stuck with our five."
With 15:47 left in the game, Lueders hit Vandy's 10th and final 3-pointer of the game.
"We broke down in our communication (in the zone)," Summitt said. "We went to our five defense and started switching, and when you switch, you've got to close out long, and we had a lot of short closeouts. Once we adjusted to that I thought late in the game we were much better."
Tennessee still held the lead at 45-43, but it was finally wiped out completely, 45-45, when Jessica Mooney got a steal off an in-bounds play and scored.
Tennessee was able to shut down the scoring from the arc, but then Vandy started putting the ball on the floor.
"That's something we have to take a look at and get back in the gym (Monday) after we watch some tape and try to figure out why we are giving up dribble drives so much," Summitt said. "You've got to build a wall."
Tennessee went up 47-45 on a layup from Cain, and then the scoreboard malfunctioned and posted the score as 147-46 in Vandy's favor. After at least five minutes that issue was fixed – it took a reboot of the system – and then the shot clock didn't start twice when Tennessee tried to in-bound the ball.
The players went to timeout huddles and then Tennessee retook the court and stretched and jogged in place. The PA system played the audience-participation song, "YMCA," and the crowd also chanted, "Go Lady Vols," to fill the time.
"I was pouting," Summitt said with a smile and then added with a frown, "I hope we got that fixed (for the future)."
After another five minutes the shot clock was fixed, too, and when Tennessee in-bounded the ball, and it started a 30-second countdown, the crowd cheered.
Tennessee managed to build a six-point lead, 53-47, on a Kamiko Williams jumper and two free throws from Bjorklund.
"We had a long break there when we had momentum (and with) the clock, I don't think we came back from that break real well," Balcomb said. "Our execution wasn't as good."
The Commodores did come back again, though, and had the lead to one point, 53-52, after a Mooney layup plus the foul, but she missed the free throw to tie the game.
Tennessee couldn't score on its next possession, and Vandy had a chance to take its first lead of the game, but the Commodores were called for a travel with the shot clock at three seconds.
Bass was fouled and hit both free throws in a one-and-one opportunity for a 55-52 lead with 6:20 to go.
"We didn't execute on offense the way we needed to down the stretch," Balcomb said. "I've got three freshmen on the floor and we're trying to put those freshmen in a position where they don't even have to make decisions right now. That's hard to do at the end of the game when they've never been at this level against the competition.
"It put a lot of weight on the shoulders of Jess and Merideth, the two seniors, and we were trying to sub offense for defense, because we were in foul trouble. There was a lot going on and for us to not be able to execute down the stretch was kind of expected at that point."
It was still a two-point ball game, however, at the 1:42 mark, 57-55, when Johnson hit a layup for a 59-55 lead. Stricklen and Cain sealed the win from the line – Cain was fouled well off the ball with 40 seconds to go after missing two free throws at the 2:45 mark but drained those two for an eight-point lead, 63-55.
Williams hit one of two from the line, and Marsh hit a six-footer for the final score, 64-57.
Stricklen's two free throws were her first points since she hit a three-pointer at the 13:39 mark of the first half.
Her final stat line was 10 points, four rebounds, three turnovers and zero assists.
"She was sick the last game (against Florida)," Summitt said. "I don't know what she was tonight, basically a no-show for us after she got off to a good start. We're not going to win an SEC championship or get to a Final Four if she's playing the way she's playing right now. It's not going to happen."
It was the second consecutive game that the perimeter players struggled – Bjorklund had nine points but was 3-11 from the field in 37 minutes on the floor – while the post players stepped up.
Johnson led Tennessee with 17 points and nine rebounds while Cain added 14 points and nine boards.
"I thought that our inside game did a lot of good things," Summitt said. "I thought Kelley and Glory worked well together. … I am pleased with Kelley and Glory overall. Our post game has been pretty solid. Our perimeter game right now is just not where it needs to be."
When Stricklen struggles there can be a domino effect, especially for Bjorklund, who has to try to take up the slack and finds herself saturated with defenders.
The bright spot for Summitt was the play of Bass, who had struggled in the past two games.
"Bree did a great job," Summitt said. "I am really pleased with Bree."
Bass' stat line read as 11 minutes of play, two points from the line, an assist, a steal and no turnovers, but it was her defense that was particularly outstanding. She blanketed Marsh and didn't let her see daylight from the perimeter. Marsh didn't score from the 17:12 mark of the second half when she hit two free throws until a drive to the basket with 6.7 seconds left in the game.
"I thought Briana came in and did a terrific job," Bjorklund said. "She has struggled the past couple games but she just kept her confidence up and she continued to work and continued to have a positive attitude, and I think that really helped our team. She came in and really pushed the tempo and played tremendous defense. I'm proud of what Bree was doing."
"Briana Bass, little body but she has a big heart," Johnson said. "She can go. When you tell her to do something, she does it. She's little and can't box out easily because everyone gets rebounds over her, but at the same time, she's quick. That helps us so much."
Johnson and Cain combined for 18 of Tennessee's 32 rebounds, and Vandy nearly nipped Tennessee in that stat with 31 boards. Marsh had seven, and Tiffany Clarke added six, with Lueders picking up five rebounds.
"We did the best job we possibly could rebounding," Balcomb said. "Being a coach that has lost most of her post players and just lost her point guard and to rebound with Tennessee the way we did, I was extremely impressed. That was probably the best rebounding job that we did since I've been at Vanderbilt."
Marsh led Vandy with 23 points and was 5-8 from behind the arc.
"We didn't close out on her," Summitt said. "We gave them open looks. Go figure that out. We all knew their names and their numbers, but we didn't have a sense of urgency."
Brown added 10 off the bench and was 2-5 from long range. As a team Vandy was 10-19 (52.6 percent) from behind the arc, accounting for more than half of their 57 points. Overall, the Commodores shot 42.9 percent (18-42). They were 8-23 (34.8 percent) from the field without the three-point shots.
"I think they knew that they were going against a lot of size," Summitt said. "Melanie does a great job. She is one of the best coaches in the country, and we knew that they would be tough, that they would change up what they were doing and run a lot of different sets.
"She's got quite an offensive package to choose from, but I thought once we committed in the second half to defending the dribble drive and defending the hand-offs and switching on screens I thought we were a lot more effective in keeping them in front of us."
Marsh has moved into the point guard slot with the loss of Rhoads, and she tallied nine turnovers, including a travel call that returned the ball to Tennessee with 44 seconds left in the game. When Cain hit the two free throws to stretch the lead to eight points, 63-55, that effectively sealed the game.
"Merideth had to move to the point with Jence out," Balcomb said. "She's been backing up Jence, but hasn't played point much since her freshman year. It's different. We're looking for Merideth to still shoot the ball. We ran a lot of ball screens, she got some good looks off the ball screens right away, and knocked them down.
"She's a senior; she's our rock right now. She's doing everything she can. She's leading, she's making shots, and she doesn't want to lose. I think it starts with Merideth right now."
With Vandy hitting 10 three-pointers and Tennessee hitting just 3-12 (25.0 percent) from long range – though the Lady Vols did shoot 44.2 percent (23-52) for the game – the battle was won in the paint and off turnovers.
Tennessee got 30 of its 64 points in the paint, while Vandy got just 12 points inside. Tennessee converted Vandy's 27 turnovers into 28 points, while the Commodores got just nine points off Tennessee's 16 miscues.
"I think the biggest difference in the game obviously was offensive turnovers," Balcomb said. "They got 28 points off turnovers. All we had was nine. They shot layups. They're big. They're bigger at every position. That was our goal was not to give them point blank layups. They shot 44 percent, and we shot it 42. They shot the ball better."
Vandy got 20 points from its bench to just 11 for Tennessee, and Summitt said she expects better play from the reserves.
"I think that our bench right now is not giving us enough help," Summitt said. "Just look at the stats. Brewer is 2 for 5, 0 for 3 from the line, four boards. She's got to come in and help us at a different level of play, because Kelley Cain is having to play a lot of minutes.
"If we can play both of them together and they're both bringing their ‘A' game then that makes the whole difference in people getting paint points or not getting paint points."
Johnson and Cain were getting deep position inside and once that occurred, Vandy didn't have defenders to stop them.
When the double team collapsed on Johnson early in the first half on the right-side low block, she fired a pass over to Stricklen, who was alone on the left wing. Stricklen nailed the three.
"We talked about it at shoot-around that the posts make sure they get deep in the paint," Johnson said. "That makes it easy on the guards to hit us and for us to hit them back when they double team."
For the second straight game, Tennessee has started well, struggled – against Florida the Lady Vols had to come back from an eight-point second half deficit – and found a way to win. Despite Tennessee's struggles, Vandy never got a lead in the game.
"I'm very proud of our team that we pulled out a win, especially with our crowd," Bjorklund said. "It was very nice to be back home, that's for sure, to have home court advantage. The post game really stepped up. If we're not shooting (well), they step up every time and that's what it's going to take."
But do these games wear out the Tennessee players or provide a lift?
"I think a little bit of both," said Bjorklund, who looked wiped out and pondered the question before responding. "It shows that we can pull through in a close game and I'm proud of our team that we did pull through.
"But at the same time, we need to learn to play a 40-minute game. Coach keeps telling us that every possession counts, and it really does. The minute you give in that's the minute the other team is going to make a run."
The losing coach saluted her team's effort in a place where the Commodores have never won. Tennessee is now 25-0 against Vanderbilt in Knoxville.
"There are a lot of positives from this game," Balcomb said. "I am really proud of their effort. I am proud of their heart. We can build from this and keep getting better as long as we keep getting the experience that we're getting from our freshmen. They're extremely coachable right now, so I'm just enjoying coaching this young team."
Summitt was clearly displeased after the game – watching her team surrender a 20-point lead by not guarding the three-ball properly and having her starting point guard struggle for the second straight game frustrated the coach – but she was grateful for the win.
"Don't get me wrong," Summitt said. "I would have been very disappointed if we lost, and I am very pleased that we found a way to win in these last two games.
"I don't know about the team, but I know how the coaches feel. We don't want to live on the edge the rest of the season. We want to try and separate ourselves a little bit from the rest of the pack."
Tennessee is the only SEC team undefeated in league play, and two of the teams picked by the coaches to finish in the top three, LSU and Mississippi State, already have two losses. Georgia is in second place with a 4-1 record – the Lady Vols play in Athens on Thursday and at LSU on Sunday – followed by Ole Miss at 3-1 in the standings. Vandy beat Georgia last Thursday but is now 2-3 in league play.
At SEC Media Days last October, the expanded schedule to 16 games was discussed, and LSU Coach Van Chancellor predicted that the league champion could have as many as three losses – a scenario that has never occurred in the SEC – when all was said and done.
"(The extra two games) is what I think is interesting," Balcomb said. "Everybody wanted to play two more times. I don't know if that's going to be good or bad. We're sure going to find out. It's very competitive. It's always been in the eight years I've been here. No win is easy, especially on the road.
"We're going to all play two more games, so that's two tough games compared to playing somebody out of conference. How it plays out is going to be interesting."