Tennessee (18-2, 6-1) did need a little time to get going as the Lady Vols opened in its zone defense, and Auburn (11-10, 2-6) promptly shot them out of it behind the marksmanship of Alli Smalley, the lone returning starter from last season for the Tigers.
A year ago, Auburn was stacked with senior starters and Tennessee was relying on freshmen and sophomores. The result was two consecutive losses to the Tigers for the Lady Vols, and that wasn't far from their minds Thursday.
"Definitely," said junior guard Angie Bjorklund and one of still only two upperclassmen for the Lady Vols. "We're always thinking about last year, especially our road games. We haven't beaten this team in the past couple of games. This is our time to come in, this is our home court, so we really were on a mission tonight, and we got it done."
Smalley hit back to back three-pointers against Tennessee's zone defense – both baskets were assisted by freshman point guard Morgan Toles – to stake Auburn to a 12-8 lead at the 16:00 mark.
"I thought for the most part we did some good things," Tennessee Coach Pat Summitt said. "We didn't start out playing the way I had hoped we would play. We obviously wanted to make sure we could take away the three-ball and make them play off the dribble.
"I thought we got better after about the first four minutes. I thought they focused in and did a much better job with our scouting report defense."
Bjorklund answered for Tennessee in the corner to pull the Lady Vols to 12-11 at the 15:37 mark, and they went into their man defense on Auburn's next possession and were switching on every screen. The result was a shot clock violation, one of three in the first half for the Tigers.
"It was definitely bothersome because they're big," Auburn Coach Nell Fortner said. "They were moving good and being able to stop our penetration. I don't think we did a great job of attacking that kind of defense. But we'll go back and learn from it, and hopefully do better next time."
Tennessee switched from its 2-3 matchup zone, a staple in the last two games against Georgia and LSU, to its man defense and switched on every screen on the perimeter. When the Tigers managed to penetrate that line of defense Kelley Cain was lurking in the paint to block – she had three swats – or alter shots, though Smalley somehow got up and under her and made a layup with the ball nearly banked off the top edge of the backboard shortly before halftime that brought an appreciative nod from the crowd.
"We just didn't come out and defend (initially), and I was very disappointed," Summitt said. "We talked about it and that's one thing about this team. They know the three-point shooters and sometimes it takes them a four-minute segment to realize who they are. Well, we've been watching film on them, we've identified them, but they didn't identify them. Again, that's an area where as we continue playing in this league, we have to know personnel and how we're going to defend it and then we've got to be dedicated and committed to it.
"Once we settled down and committed to what he had to do, I thought we did a really nice job. I thought our closeouts were long. I thought our defensive positioning (was good), once we quit giving up dribble drives to the middle, because we forced baseline. You wouldn't know it in that first few minutes, but they responded out of the timeouts and they responded throughout the game when we made some adjustments defensively and offensively."
Just 11 days ago Tennessee jumped out to a 20-point lead over Vanderbilt and then let the Commodores back in the game before halftime before eking out the win. That collapse wasn't on their minds.
"We're looking forward, and we know that we have to play to our potential, and we know that we should never let teams back in the game once we shut them down," sophomore forward Glory Johnson said. "When they are down by that much you have to keep going and keep pushing and keep pushing them down, and we'll be more successful."
Johnson was barely looking at the basket when she hit her first career three-pointer – she was 0-2 from long range last season – as the shot clock was about to hit zero. Taber Spani got the ball deep under the basket on the left side, had no angle to the rim and shoveled a pass to Johnson on the right wing, but the pass was a little high and off to the side, and the ball slipped so Johnson had to corral it off her feet. Johnson was aware that the shot clock was in the low single digits.
"I just saw the ball rolling at my feet and I was like, ‘Man, there is no way I am going to get this shot off by the time the shot clock goes off,' " Johnson said. "I kind of just hooked it trying to hit the rim to start the 30 seconds back up, and it went in. It was crazy."
That lifted the lead to 37-25, and brought the crowd and the Lady Vol bench to their feet. Spani was credited with an assist, because Johnson didn't dribble or move from the spot where she caught the ball before lofting a shot intended only to at least draw some iron. Although Johnson was off balance when she tossed the ball - with a defender bearing down - she landed square to the basket and the ball hit nothing but net.
"She'll probably do it a couple more times," guard Shekinna Stricklen said with a smile.
Summitt also smiled about the shot after the game.
"Lucky three," Summitt said. "Total luck. No skill involved."
It apparently emboldened Johnson into believing she was a guard as the 6'3 forward had a few stints afterwards of taking the ball down the court – she found Stricklen for an open three for her assist – but a turnover on her next foray with the ball put a halt to that.
"I thought she was trying out for point guard, but I let her know that we had plenty," Summitt said.
Johnson brought the crowd to its feet again as she scored a layup in transition and got high enough to consider dunking the ball. But she dropped the ball over the rim – her hand was above it – for the 59-32 lead on the feed from Alicia Manning.
Johnson tallied a double-double with 15 points and 13 boards – an endorsement of the staff's decision to start her inside again and bring Alyssia Brewer off the bench – and she started the game with a defensive board, block and a drive inside to draw a foul off Auburn's KeKe Carrier, a 6'7 center, after the Tigers had taken a 5-0 lead.
"The thing about Glory is that she's so athletic and she plays very hard, and sometimes she gets out of control, because of it," Summitt said. "But I'd rather have to calm her down than try to wind her up. Her little toy is wound up every day so we've just got to make sure she's got composure to go with it."
Carrier was affecting the Lady Vols' shots inside – she had six blocks in 19 minutes of playing time but was limited by foul trouble and a sore hamstring – so Johnson used Carrier's lack of mobility against her by getting the ball at the high block and beating her to the rim.
"We started a little slow at the beginning of the game," Johnson said. "A lot of us were trying to figure out ways to get around KeKe. She's a big girl, and she stays in the paint so if we were driving and trying to get a shot off in the paint she was either going to get a piece of it or we just had to get around her. So trying to get around her and tried to be quick with it.
"Sometimes it worked, and sometimes it didn't, but we just had to keep trying."
The result was two fouls for Carrier and a spot on the bench with just seven minutes of playing time in the first half.
"She was ready to play; she's just not 100 percent," Fortner said. "I thought she gave us what she had – playing 19 minutes. She got into early foul trouble, which slowed her down. To warm up and have to sit again, and then get it all started again, it's a little difficult for her. It was unfortunate the two fouls came kind of early. She's still trying to get back to 100 percent."
Fortner had plenty of size to bring off the bench in Pascale West, a 6'8 freshman center. But like most first-year players, the pace and tempo of an SEC game was too much to handle, and West logged just six minutes in the game and didn't attempt a shot.
Smalley, a junior guard and the only starter from last season, agreed that this year is a different challenge with so many new players on the court.
"It's definitely a big difference, but I feel like this team competes hard and we know that it's going to take a lot of work," Smalley said. "We know we're young. We know that each night in the SEC is going to be a tough game because every team in the SEC is good.
"It was definitely tough getting off shots, especially against the Tennessee defense. They were switching out on everything. They make it extremely tough. It's a lot different."
Johnson is one of Tennessee's freshmen from a year ago that has made the leap to second year.
"I know who Glory Johnson is," Fortner said with a smile and added she didn't need the player's number to identify her for comment. "A year older and just a more mature player, more confident and that's what a year gets you. Their whole team is a year older and you can tell."
Brewer is another Lady Vol sophomore that has made the transition from sporadic play as a freshman to understanding how to compete in the league.
She also went right at Carrier after getting a loose ball rebound and driving to the rim. That was Carrier's second foul, and she took a spot on the sideline at the 11:37 mark. Brewer made both free throws for a 19-14 lead and then Bjorklund hit back-to-back threes for a 25-16 lead midway through the first half.
Spani got an offensive board and flipped the ball to Brewer, who made the basket and drew the foul for a 28-18 lead with 8:21 left in the first half.
Tennessee continued to be unselfish with the ball as Manning found Spani in the corner, and she drove to the basket, drew the defender, and then hit Brewer with a no-look pass for a layup and a 30-18 lead. On the next possession, Kamiko Williams found a cutting Manning for a 32-21 lead.
Manning, Williams and Spani combined to shoot 3-13 – they each hit one shot – but they also tallied 12 of Tennessee's 19 assists, added nine boards and had just two turnovers among them.
The beneficiaries were Bjorklund and Stricklen, who shot a combined 14-28 and hit nine 3-pointers. Bjorklund led the way with 20 points and a 6-10 night from behind the arc with Stricklen right on her heels with 17 points.
It was a game the two guards needed.
"It felt so good," a beaming Stricklen said after the game. "I don't even know what to say. When we hit a shot, we were all just smiling. It felt like our guards haven't had a good game like this in a long time, and it really helped us and built up our confidence."
The Tennessee players spent two days at practice emphasizing movement – and especially cutting without the ball – to make the defense work and to keep Auburn off balance because the shots could come from inside or outside.
"I think it was just how we were working the ball around really," Bjorklund said. "Just getting that many open shots was definitely because the ball wasn't stuck in our hands, we were playing inside out, and that opens a lot of things for the guards. When Strick is shooting like that and the other guards are hitting shots it helps out a lot to get open."
Stricklen, who was added Thursday to the State Farm Wade Trophy Watch List, made sure the first half ended on a good note for Tennessee as she took the ball the length of the floor with six seconds remaining, got to the paint, split the defense and floated the ball in the basket for a 43-25 halftime lead.
Tennessee started the second half much faster as Cain hit a layup, Stricklen got a stick-back on a missed jumper and Bjorklund penetrated the paint, executed a spin move and knocked it a 14-footer for a 49-25 lead. When Johnson found Stricklen for a three-pointer, the Lady Vols led 52-26.
"We like track meets, and that's the way it started out and a lot of possessions were that way," Summitt said. "We want to get out and run. I thought that worked a little bit to our advantage."
Tennessee also was running off missed baskets and turnovers with Bjorklund and Stricklen getting to spots before the defense could get set. Bjorklund hit a deep three on a feed from Stricklen to increase the lead to 69-43 with 7:27 left in the game, and Bjorklund found her backcourt mate for another three just 28 seconds later at the 6:59 mark for a 72-43 lead.
"I thought Tennessee played just really well," Fortner said. "They shot the ball so well. We did a very poor job of getting matched up in transition defense, which gave them a lot of really good looks from the three, and they knocked them down.
"It was a tough thing to recover from when you give up that many threes. It wasn't a good night for us. It was a good night for them. We've got to get back on the horse and ride on Sunday, and see what happens."
Auburn, the defending SEC champions, knew this season would be one of transition for a team that lost four starters, one of whom was the SEC Player of the Year in DeWanna Bonner.
"You just keep working hard," Fortner said. "They have to not lose their belief in what we're doing, and just continue to compete. I thought our effort was good tonight. I thought we worked hard tonight. We just didn't have enough. I thought Tennessee played very well, and they shot the ball so well. Offensive boards killed us, also. It was just a tough night for us."
Tennessee prevailed on the boards, 43-37, and got 22 second-chance points to 10 for Auburn. Johnson led the way with five boards on the offensive glass, and she was one of eight Lady Vols to get at least one board on the offensive end of the floor.
As a team Tennessee tallied 18 offensive boards, a number that's impressive because the Lady Vols shot 45.6 percent (31-68) for the game and 56.5 percent (13-23) from behind the arc. The 13 threes tied a Tennessee school record set three times before against Arkansas (Jan. 24, 2008), Ole Miss (Feb. 6, 2005) and Army (Nov. 30, 2002).
"If you want to win championships you've got to play great defense, and you've got to have great board play," Summitt said. "We're getting better on the boards. That's been a point of emphasis, and I think they really were trying to do the right thing and pursue the ball on the glass and rebound out of their area, which we haven't always done.
"We've been doing some drills so they're having to cover a lot of ground when they're rebounding. I think that's made us better."
Tennessee's previous title formula was man defense, but this team has become adept at playing zone and man. When Smalley lit up the zone, the Lady Vols switched seamlessly into their switching man.
"Communication was key," Johnson said. "Our bigger players being able to switch on their smaller guards and still keep them out of the paint and stop them from driving middle, I think that helped a lot and them not being able to get their quick shots off like they normally would. And talking on the screens, not getting caught on screens (to allow) open threes.
"We kept talking. I think that helped a lot. Whatever defense we play, we have to play with the same intensity, and we have to talk. When we do, whatever defense we're in, it should be successful."
The title teams also had a killer instinct – the 2007 and 2008 ones could turn it on and off as needed – but this team is still searching for its identity, a fact not too surprising considering that there are no seniors on the roster.
"I won't say across the board we have a killer instinct," Summitt said. "I think we have some players that have that. They just have the focus and the drive and the intensity and the competitiveness. But across the board I can't say that. We have to get better at some positions with that mindset.
"I think to win a championship and the teams that won championships, they competed on every play, they were intense, they were focused, they were driven. This team, we're not there yet, but we have made great strides, and we've got a lot of basketball left to play. But just having that fight and having the heart and the commitment across the board, no. We've got to get it. If not, as I've said before, if seven or eight of them get it then we'll be all right."
One thing that is apparent is that Tennessee goes as Bjorklund and Stricklen go. When both are firing on both ends of the floor, the tone of the entire team is different.
"I honestly think the energy level has to do with how we play every game," Bjorklund said. "When we come out aggressive and we play defense first, and we rebound the ball really well, I think that's when our offense flows. So it's not really us (just shooting the ball well). I think it's our defense and rebounding and that flows in to great looks on the offensive end."
Summitt's mantra is a 40-minute game – even the title teams fell short of those expectations, but the last two could switch it on when they had to – and this young squad has made progress. It is not a team that can rely on a late switch but must build to that level all season.
"We're getting closer," Summitt said. "I think that they're starting to understand that you're going to have to compete hard collectively as a group, or we're going to be substituting freely. I would like to get a real stable group that can play for longer minutes and hopefully we can do that. Our post game tonight, we got in a little foul trouble, just not quite as efficient as I would like for them to be.
"I think, as I look at our perimeter game, we are getting better. I told them tonight after the game I said, ‘We've got some people that need to look at their stats, and get in the gym. And if you're not then don't expect to play many minutes.' Everyone has to invest right now. I think that they got the message."
Summitt was able to play all 10 players on the roster – Stricklen's 29 minutes was the most on the team – and after two weeks of grinding out games that was a relief for the staff.
"Overall, we got a lot quality minutes from a lot of different players, which I think is a good thing, particularly in this league and getting ready to move forward," Summitt said. "South Carolina, I understand, won tonight, so we'll see what happens."
The mention of the Gamecocks came in Summitt's opening remarks at the post-game press conference in both an indication of the next opponent and the importance of that game. South Carolina beat Ole Miss on Thursday, which left Tennessee atop the standings in first place and the lone SEC team with just one loss. Sunday's game at South Carolina will be a rematch of the league opener for Tennessee, and the Gamecocks are playing well of late.
Her team's effort against Auburn should boost its confidence, according to the coach.
"Considering the times we've had to grind it out, this obviously was a much better effort to get out to a lead and be able to maintain as opposed to LSU when it was nip and tuck until we finally broke through and did a nice job closing that game out as well," Summitt said.
"This was obviously much better, and I think it gives them more confidence, too, because they're still trying to figure out how tough they are and how good are and how hard they have to play. But they are doing better."
All three players at the post-game press conference, Stricklen, Bjorklund and Johnson, mentioned the word confidence at some point in their remarks.
"Just being confident and knowing that we can play with a team and separate from them just shows how great our team is and what we can do to teams," Johnson said. "Once we finally separate from teams, it kind of drops their confidence level and builds our. When we can take off we need to go and when they're not hitting their shots and they hit that wall, we need to go."
"I think it just, like Strick said, builds our confidence," Bjorklund said. "It really has to do with how well we were working the ball around and setting screens for each other. We've been working on it all week so I think it wasn't necessarily hitting shots, it was getting open. That was key and then hitting shots always helps."
Auburn entered Thompson-Boling Arena on a three-game losing streak and without a win in Knoxville since 1988. That was tough place to try to stop a skid.
"What do you think?" Fortner said to much laughter when asked about trying to get back on a winning track at Tennessee. "There's no question (it's difficult). It doesn't matter if you are winning or losing, or whatever, this is a tough place to play. The biggest thing is you just want your kids to come in here and compete hard – just compete for 40 minutes.
"I thought we did that tonight and that's what we have to go back and build on, and grow from – just keep working hard."
Summitt got contributions from everyone she put on the floor – each player scored at least two points and nine players had at least one assist with Williams leading the way with five assists – but the coach indicated a few players need to find their way to the gym if they want to keep logging minutes.
"They've been getting in shots," Summitt said, referring to Stricklen and Bjorklund. "There is a reason Pratt Pavilion is there and open. I think they're committed to getting up the shots, and that's what makes a difference. Their commitment. I think as a team across the board we've got to be that committed."
Overall, Summitt liked her team's numbers. They shot the ball well from the outside, hit 10-14 (71.4 percent) from the free throw line and finally held onto the ball with just 12 turnovers. Tennessee also recorded seven blocks and seven steals.
Auburn shot 35.7 percent (20-56), though Smalley and Blanche Alverson were a combined 5-11 behind the arc to account for Auburn's 45.4 percent showing from long range. Smalley was the only Auburn player in double digits with 21 points. Alverson, Toles and Carrier each scored eight points.
"Every game, we go in focused on a 40-minute game, and every possession counts," Bjorklund said. "That's our goal is to have a 40-minute game where the intensity level and the sense of urgency is high the whole time. I thought across the board we did a great job of that tonight.
"A couple of times Smalley went off on us but other than that I thought everyone who subbed in they kept the energy level high, and I am just really proud of our team for doing that."