Against Georgia, after a technical foul sent Kelley Cain to the sideline and the Lady Vols committed critical turnovers late in the game, it was too much to overcome and Tennessee (16-2, 4-1) suffered its first SEC loss of the 2009-10 season.
Cain, who had 10 points and nine boards, had to take a seat on the bench with 4:13 remaining in the game and while she cheered for her teammates and counseled backup center Alyssia Brewer during timeouts, the redshirt sophomore center broke down outside the locker room after the loss and buried her head in her hands.
"It is very hard," Cain said. "Why would I do anything to harm my chances of being in the game and helping my teammates? I definitely let us down."
Summitt had warned her team that a result like what happened Thursday was coming and after the game she perused a box score that showed Angie Bjorklund and Shekinna Stricklen combined for 13 turnovers and a 28.6 percent shooting performance from the floor.
"You've got to look here," Summitt said. "Ang and Strick, they were six of 21 for the field. They combined for 13 (of Tennessee's 23) turnovers. That's guard play, and Georgia's guard play was a lot better than ours."
It is particularly vexing for the coaching staff because until the past three games, the play of Stricklen and Bjorklund was the brightest spot for the team, with the post play needing to catch up. Now, the starting post play has been solid, and the starting guards have faltered.
"It's hard to win when you've got two players that are just playing pretty much by themselves and not making shots," said Summitt, who added she would think about a possible lineup change. "I thought our guards would be a lot better (against Georgia). Right now I am very concerned about it.
"I like our post game. I thought Lyssi Brewer gave us some quality minutes. Glory Johnson. Kelley. I don't know if (Stricklen and Bjorklund) are putting too much pressure on themselves. They appear to be pressing at times. I think they feel a big responsibility to help this team win, but they lack composure.
"Georgia, they kept their composure. I thought their inside game stepped up big. They shared the ball. They deserved to win."
Georgia (18-1, 5-1) was led by Ashley Houts with 12 points. Meredith Mitchell added 11 points, and Porsha Phillips contributed 10 points, including the Lady Bulldogs' final three points of the game – the go-ahead layup and then two free throws to seal the game, 53-50, after getting an offensive rebound off a missed free throw by Jasmine Jones and then getting fouled.
Tennessee set up a final shot for Bjorklund to try to launch a three-pointer, but she was smothered and Stricklen's long attempt from the wing was short.
"It really wasn't for me, but time was running down," Stricklen said. "I should have shot faked and went into her or something, but that wasn't the play."
Georgia Coach Andy Landers said the focus was on both players.
"We didn't know what they were going to come with on the last play, but you had to believe it was going to be Bjorklund coming," Landers said. "In the back of my mind, I knew that Stricklen wants to make that play. Our defense was so good that we literally took about eight to 10 seconds off the clock and confused them before they could throw up a bad shot."
Freshman forward Taber Spani, another long-range shooter, played just three minutes in the first half and then sat for the rest of the game because of a flare-up of a painful foot condition known as "turf toe."
"I thought about it several times," Summitt said of putting Spani back in the game, including at that late moment. "But with her turf toe right now she's just not as mobile."
Sophomore forward Glory Johnson, who led Tennessee with 14 points and was 6-9 from the field, said the issues were communication and nerves.
"I think we're kind of jittery at the beginning of the game," Johnson said. "We're a little hesitant to make certain passes into the post and it's causing us to force turnovers. And not being on the same page as far as communication. If a guard goes backdoor, they need to call backdoor. That way you don't throw the ball out of bounds. It's a communication level that we're not all on the same level."
After the game Stricklen fielded questions from several members of the media and focused on lack of ball security by the guards. Both Stricklen and Bjorklund had turnovers late in the game when Tennessee was trying to somehow escape another close game with a victory.
"I give the posts all the credit," Stricklen said. "They are working their butts off. They have really been keeping us in the game. The guards, we've been shooting horrible, we've been turning the ball over. We've got to pick up everything. We've got to talk to each other and calm each other down. We're the team leaders, and the team is looking at us and we've got to step up.
"Me and Angie are rushing. We feel like we have to make something happen and we're not. Just take care of the ball and get the posts the ball and play off the posts. That's what we've got to do."
Tennessee had one less post to play with after Cain fouled Mitchell with 4:13 left in the game and the Lady Vols still clinging to a one-point lead, 43-42. After the foul call, which was Cain's fourth, she said something and was called for a technical. That was foul number five and sent Cain to the bench and Houts to the line to shoot two free throws because of technical. When Mitchell also made her pair, Georgia had a 46-43 lead.
"There is a discrepancy between what she said and what the official said," Summitt said. "He said that she said something that was inappropriate. I asked her about it, and what he said she said and what she said was different. So I am not going to get into that battle. It was a ‘he said, she said.'
"I just think he misunderstood what came out of her mouth, and that was costly. She shouldn't have said anything."
Cain didn't want to repeat it after the game, but accepted the blame for the outcome.
"I can't turn back the hands of time," said a very tearful Cain. "What's done is done. It's over. We've just got to move on. It really doesn't matter now (what was said). He called what he called. I shouldn't have opened my mouth anyway, but what's done is done."
Brewer replaced Cain and hit both free throws after getting fouled in a one-and-one situation and then converted a three-point play at the line after hitting a layup. Brewer finished with eight points and seven rebounds and was 4-5 from the stripe.
"I just told her to keep going hard," Cain said. "They can't stop her. She is a phenomenal post player and if she keeps playing strong like she's been, nobody can stop her."
Despite the lead Georgia got from the line after the technical, Tennessee reclaimed it on a Stricklen layup – Kamiko Williams found her cutting to the basket – and the free throws by Brewer to bring the score to 47-46, with 1:51 left.
But James reclaimed it for Georgia, 49-47, with a three-pointer after starting the game 1-11 from the field. Tennessee got it back, 50-49, with Brewer's three-point play with 1:07 to play, but Phillips got behind the defense for a layup and the 51-50 lead with 40 seconds left. She sealed it at the line with two free throws with 18 seconds left for the final margin.
"Phillips, Houts and Robinson, I've got three terrific veterans that pull the wagon," Landers said. "They pull it. Those freshmen do everything they can do to make that load as light it can be. They chip in sometimes, and they pull for a minute or two. We're not as good as we can be. I've got kids out there that still don't know in-bounds plays."
Angel Robinson, a fifth-year senior, was 4-9 from the field for nine points. Houts, a senior who played the entire 40 minutes, was 2-8 from the field but hit a key three late in the game, and Phillips, a junior transfer from LSU, iced the game for Georgia.
"When we got inside about 10 minutes, I told all three of the perimeter players that they each had to hit one three, and if each one of you do then we win this basketball game," Landers said. "I told them to not tighten up and don't worry about what you haven't done, just hit one.
"I was wrong because Meredith didn't need to hit one, but Houts and James both stepped up and knocked down two big three pointers. As we were coming back we hit free throws, but I just knew that we were going to have to hit threes not to catch up, but to win."
Georgia hit 4-16 (25.0 percent) from behind the arc while Tennessee managed just 2-9 (22.2 percent) from long range. The Lady Bulldogs were 17-23 from the free throw line, while the Lady Vols were 6-7 and didn't attempt a free throw until 9:44 was left in the game, and Johnson went to the line.
"Defensively, we just kept doing what we've done so well all year long, which is stop people," Landers said. "So, the threes were huge and the free throws by Porsha and Meredith were very big. … We hit free throws, and we didn't foul. We're playing hard defensively, but we're not fouling."
Cain apparently disagreed – she was hacked early in the second half with no call, and Johnson and Brewer were also fouled on the way to the rim without a whistle – and the fourth foul on the center set in motion her disqualification from the game.
Johnson expressed sympathy for Cain after the game.
"She thinks just because she got a technical foul and she got out of the game it (the loss) was her fault," Johnson said. "But she helped us so much during the game. With the technical foul, which had a lot of confusion between her and the ref, they were kind of on us from the beginning, so you just have to know (when to stay composed).
"The refs were kind of iffy on both sides, but at the same time we've got to play through that and not let that get to us. We've got to play our game no matter what."
Landers acknowledged that the technical had an effect on the game, but he also noted it was a game in which everything mattered.
"Everything like that that happened – this was a possession game, sixteen lead changes, (10 ties, margin never more than (four) points," Landers said. "Everything was important. Me telling the manager to get the water out of the huddle with 18 seconds left, for God's sake, was important. Do we need to be drinking or talking about what we're going to do the next 18 seconds?
"Can we survive? Will we stay hydrated 18 more seconds without this cup of water? I think so. Get that water out of this freakin' huddle, please. Everything we did tonight was important. What did that (the technical) change? The biggest impact that made was the immediate points that it produced for us.
"After that I don't know what it really would've changed. Was she going to score more on the block than someone else? I don't know. I can't say that. They've got so many good players. Does it really matter?"
As far the manager, "I think it hurt her feelings," Lander said. "I'll go find her and take her to IHOP and make her feel better."
Landers was in a good mood after the game and with good reason. It was Georgia's first win against Tennessee since 2004, the first at home since 2000, and the Lady Vols had won the last eight in a row.
He also is seeing signs that Georgia basketball is back, after a tough 18-14 season a year ago in which the Lady Bulldogs barely slipped into the NCAA tourney and bowed out in the first round. Had Duluth, Ga., not been a host site – and Georgia the host school – the Lady Bulldogs could very well have missed the Big Dance.
"What it does – somebody else can talk about what it means to the program; I'm just a coach. I'm not the spokesman for the program – but what I said to the players before the games sometimes we do things where we have to validate tickets, parking tickets," Landers said. "It would appear that we've made some serious changes with this team in terms of our competitiveness and today we had a chance to validate that ticket. That is something I said to them before we played. I think we validated that there is a change and that the change is real.
"I know before tonight that there have been people out there that questioned how good we really were. I know they beat Oklahoma but, they beat Rutgers but, they beat Georgia Tech but, they beat Virginia but. One of the TV commentators said Kentucky should have beat Georgia. Bull crap. We had them by 10 and blew it. There is no way they should have beat us.
"We won all those games but still you have people going out saying, ‘I don't think they're that good.' Why? Because we don't put a lot of points on the board, but I will be shocked if by some time in that first, second week of February that this team is not scoring 15 more points a game than it's scoring now. We've got the ability. We've got people that can shoot the ball."
Georgia was 16-44 (36.4 percent) for the game, got some nice looks at the baskets and misfired on a lot of them. Tennessee also cut off driving angles to the rim, blocked four shots and altered several others.
"I am not sure we've ever played against a team with that kind of height," Lander said. "It created some problems."
Tennessee was 21-50 (42.0 percent) for the game and was shooting well – 53.8 percent at the break – when it held onto the ball. The Lady Vols also had 15 assists on the 21 made baskets – five assists by Stricklen and three by Bjorklund, the much-maligned guards – but the miscues were costly and numerous.
"I think in the half-court they're really good, and they play well together," Summitt said of Georgia's defense. "A lot of them we brought on ourselves but Georgia played really strong defensively."
Tennessee also turned the ball over with travels, double dribbles and poor passes.
"Not so smart decisions, and we're rushing things," Johnson said. "Some of the walks and double dribbles you think someone is going backdoor, and they're not going so instead of throwing it, you walk. We were just a little jittery at the beginning, and we should have worked through that. We should have been ready for that.
"This is Georgia. They do have a great team, but at the same time we know what we can do individually and as a team. We know how great of a team we are."
As the final buzzer sounded, the Georgia players celebrated on the court as the crowd of 7,728 – the majority of whom were wearing Lady Bulldog red – expressed its appreciation.
"This has been a very good defensive basketball team all year," Landers said. "It does some things very, very well. The team plays hard. Let me pay our team the highest compliment anyone can pay them. I've said this for a long time selfish players won't play defense. You're not going to get a selfish player to play defense, so the greatest compliment that I can pay our team is this is a very, very unselfish group of kids because we don't put anybody on the floor that doesn't just play their tail off on the defensive end."
Tennessee was left with the feeling it let the game slip away.
"We know we should have won this game," Stricklen said. "This game might come back on us, and I hope (not), but we should have won it."
"To me I know for a fact that it should have been a win but the way we played today and the way we started off it's kind of rough to put yourself in that position at the beginning of the game and try to come back and win," Johnson said.
Johnson said the solution was to get back to practice, which the team will do Friday afternoon after classes.
"Go back to work, get back in the gym and figure out why we're letting teams rile us up and why we're having so many turnovers and getting so frustrated and rushing at the beginning of the game," Johnson said. "It really is going to hurt us if we have that many turnovers and trying to separate from teams when you have this many fouls or this many turnovers is rough."
Tennessee has to get ready for a trip to Baton Rouge to play LSU on Sunday. Stricklen said making sure Cain is OK was one objective.
"I feel like she is going to be upset tonight but when we go to practice tomorrow that's when we've got to talk to her and just pick her up," Stricklen said Thursday before the team departed Athens. "I feel like she's going to bump back up quick, and I think she's going to come out ready against LSU."
When asked how his team would avoid a letdown on Sunday, Landers said, "I'll probably have to yell and scream and act like a fool tomorrow."
He won't be the only coach in the SEC.