It didn't start out that way as the Lady Vols hit six of their first seven shots, including three layups by Kelley Cain, to take a 12-7 lead in the first four minutes. But Lauren Lueders connected on a three-pointer, and the margin stayed close until Vanderbilt slipped out to a 28-20 lead with 4:08 left in the first half.
The Commodores worked the shot clock to single digits to make Tennessee defend their various offensive sets deep into every possession, a situation made easier by the placement of Glory Johnson on the bench after she picked up two fouls and played just five minutes in the first half.
But the Lady Vols went on a 8-0 run to end the first half behind a layup by Cain, two free throws by Taber Spani, a jumper from Shekinna Stricklen and two free throws from Alicia Manning. That knotted the score at 28-28 at the break.
"It was good to have a little momentum going in at halftime, no doubt about that, and I thought we had a good halftime session," Coach Pat Summitt said. "Overall, it was very positive and it needed to be because we needed to feel good about ourselves coming out of that locker room. "
Vanderbilt didn't waste any time scoring in the second half when Lueders nailed a three-pointer from the corner 16 seconds into the start of play, but Cain answered with another layup to pull the Lady Vols to within one, 31-30, with 19:21 left to play.
The score remained stuck there until Merideth Marsh hit a layup with 15:32 left to put Vanderbilt up, 33-30.
Marsh led Vanderbilt with 19 points and was 6-12 from the field. She had a knack for getting inside the defense and getting up a shot as the shot clock was ticking to zero.
"Merideth did what Merideth does," Vandy Coach Melanie Balcomb said. "She makes hustle plays; she's smart. She made smart drives. Merideth does what she does, and she did it well."
The Commodores tried to create some separation, but Cain, Alyssia Brewer or Johnson got inside to score when Tennessee needed an answer – Brewer finished with 10 points, as did Johnson – to keep the Lady Vols hovering in a gym of 6,005, about half of which packed the upper deck in orange attire.
But the Commodores managed to build a seven-point lead, 47-40, with 8:41 left, much to the delight of the black-and-gold fans who occupied most of the lower level, except for the sections directly behind the Lady Vols bench. Vols Coach Bruce Pearl, his staff and the Vol players – the Vols play Vandy on Tuesday evening and were already in town – sat there and cheered for the Lady Vols. At halftime they became the featured attraction, as Tennessee fans flocked to their section to get photos and autographs.
Johnson, who picked up a third foul less than three minutes into the second half, had returned to the game midway through the half and immediately made a difference on the boards. Manning had started the second half in place of Kamiko Williams – the freshman struggled in her second start on both sides of the ball – and was instrumental in the comeback as she fed Angie Bjorklund the ball for a three-pointer to trim the lead to 47-43 with 8:28 remaining in the game.
"I thought she did a great job," Summitt said of Manning. "She's very athletic, one of the most athletic players on our team."
Summitt opted for experience in the second half – Stricklen played the entire 40 minutes and had five assists to just one turnover – and played Williams just one minute in the second half. Backup point guard Briana Bass logged six minutes for the game.
"I did," Summitt said, when asked if she wanted an experienced player at the point in a tight game and the odd configuration of Memorial Gym. "Kamiko, she's learning, and she's going to be a great guard for us. We just kind of threw her into the fire in a couple of big games here, and I think that it's been a little hard for her, because she's had to have a lot more responsibility running the point, and she'll get there.
"Right now we went with Stricklen, because she has the experience."
Vanderbilt answered Bjorklund's three when Lueders hit another three-pointer to pad the lead to six, 51-45, with 7:07 left.
Lueders was 4-6 behind the arc – she didn't attempt any shots that were not three-pointers – and scored 12 points for the Commodores.
Vandy got a stop on the defensive end when Stricklen missed a jumper, but Johnson drew a foul after getting the offensive rebound, and she hit the front end of the one-and-one to trim the lead to 51-46. She missed the second free throw attempt, but Manning got the rebound to pull Tennessee to 51-48.
That series stuck in the mind of Balcomb after the game.
"We gave up offensive rebound after offensive rebound and that's their strength," Balcomb said. "We didn't take their team strength out. That hurt our offense once they out-rebounded us over and over, it was kind of like our sails went, ssshhh, down."
On Vandy's next possession, Cain got a steal on the defensive end of the floor for Tennessee, and Bjorklund stepped inside the arc to pull the Lady Vols to within one, 51-50. Cain came up big defensively again as she blocked a shot by Gabby Smith, and Manning grabbed the ball and headed down court. She hit the layup to give Tennessee its first lead, 52-51, of the second half.
"That gave us a lot of momentum," Summitt said. "I think it was big for us and just motivated our entire team."
"That block, when I saw it, that definitely got me hyped and the rest of the team," Bjorklund said.
Neither Cain nor Manning was done.
When Smith missed a three-pointer on Vandy's next possession, Hannah Tuomi grabbed the offensive rebound, but Cain ripped it away for another steal and fired the ball to Stricklen, who passed ahead to Manning, who hit another layup for a 54-51 lead.
"It was big," Summitt said. "Every basket was big, especially coming from behind but then you get the lead and you want to try and maintain what you've built, and she (Manning) was very good, very efficient."
Vandy three times got the score within one after that, but Stricklen found Brewer inside for a layup and then Bjorklund hit her second three-pointer – she now has 201 for her career – and Tennessee led 63-57 with 1:47 left.
"We did a great job for certain points in the game but when the game came down to it at the end of the game, who had wide-open looks? Bjorklund," Balcomb said. "So it didn't really matter that (nearly) all game we didn't let her (make a three). At key times, who do you think is going to catch the ball? We've got to figure it out in key situations. Is it mental? Yeah, obviously. We had some mental lapses. I don't think it was physical to let their best shooter open."
Bjorklund was 0-1 from behind the arc in the first half – Tennessee was 0-3 in the first half – and it seemed like Tennessee's streak of 396 games with a made three-pointer was in jeopardy. But the Lady Vols finished 2-7 from long range – both makes by Bjorklund, who has 71 three-pointers this season and is now tied for fifth place in the record books with Shannon Bobbitt for the single-season mark. Shanna Zolman holds the record with 103 three-pointers in the 2005-06 season. Kara Lawson (77, 79) and Bobbitt (78) hold the second, fourth and third place spots.
It wasn't a shot that Bjorklund was looking for until late in the game, because of Vandy's pressure on the ball.
"They were very aggressive on the guards," said Bjorklund, who was face guarded for much of the evening. "They did a great job of switching out, especially on our screens and they knew our sets pretty well. Their scouting report defense was right on.
"The guards' focus tonight was getting the ball inside. Our inside game was the most efficient. We went in at halftime and said, ‘We need to get them the ball.' We weren't really looking (to shoot from long range)."
With less than two minutes remaining in the game, Tennessee ratcheted up the defensive intensity, and Vandy misfired on its next four attempts as the Lady Vols extended deep on the shooters, and Cain patrolled the paint.
Stricklen and Johnson each hit two free throws for a 67-57 lead. Johnson hit two late free throws with seven seconds left – Vandy tried to foul her in the backcourt, and Johnson dribbled the length of the court and went to the rim, although Tennessee usually runs out the clock with a lead and the shot clock off – and Jence Rhoads hit a three-pointer with two seconds on the clock for the final 69-60 score.
"Obviously, I'm really proud of our basketball team because we could have lost that game but we didn't give up and we did step up late in the game," Summitt said. "I had a lot of people contribute down the stretch. Obviously Glory Johnson did a great job. Shekinna struggled a little bit offensively, but she handled the ball, kept her composure and just played them some adversity."
Summitt was referring to a technical foul assessed by Bryan Enterline at the 14:19 mark of the second half. Stricklen was waiting to receive the in-bounds pass from Cain, when Jessica Mooney bodied her up from behind. Stricklen shifted to get better position to take the pass from Cain, and Mooney crashed to the court. Enterline signaled for a technical, a call that shocked Stricklen and Summitt, and Mooney jumped up clapping her hands and smiling. Marsh hit the two free throws for a 35-32 lead.
"Bryan said that she moved her hip as if she was moving into her, and he said, ‘You can't do that, so I called it,' " Summitt said. "That was it. He said you can't move like that and she did move and he said, ‘I just felt like I had to call it, because she was moving to position herself to receive the ball.' "
When asked if she had ever seen a technical called in that situation, instead of just a foul, Summitt replied, "Never in 36 years."
Cain was the first one to reach Stricklen.
"Stuff happens," Cain said. "You've got to take it and move on with it. I just told her, ‘It's OK.' "
In the close loss to Georgia last month, Cain had received a technical foul late in the game and fouled out, so Cain has been in that uncomfortable situation.
"Exactly. That's what I told her," Cain said. "It's OK. You just go on."
It was also Cain who answered immediately with a layup – on an assist from Stricklen – on the other end to get Tennessee back to within one, 35-34.
Cain finished with 19 points, seven rebounds, five blocks, two steals, one assist and no turnovers.
"Kelley Cain, eight for 10. What can you say?," Summitt said. "She just needed more touches. … I don't know of another post player in the women's game right now that has the size and skill set that Kelley Cain has. You're talking about really two post players. Lyssi Brewer is not far behind her. Kelley worked hard. I thought our guards got her some great touches. She is rebounding out of her area and she is moving better in the paint. I think her knee is about as strong as it's been and that's allowing her to be a lot more mobile and a lot more aggressive."
Cain logged 36 minutes – she tallied 33 in last week's game against Arkansas – in another indicator that her surgically repaired right knee, which hindered her all last season because of migrating screws that are now out, can withstand the pounding.
"I definitely do," Cain said when asked if she felt better. "That might just be me getting stronger over last year and learning to deal with it. It's unfortunate that I have to deal with a lot of pain, but now it's not on my mind. I don't think about it. I just think about doing what I need to do for my team."
Cain is one of just three true post players on the roster because of injuries to Vicki Baugh, Amber Gray and Faith Dupree – all three are out this season – and she is getting help from Brewer, who has made the leap from spot duty a year ago to major contributor.
Brewer logged 21 minutes, much of it in relief of Johnson, and had 10 points, seven rebounds – five on the offensive end – and one assist to just one turnover.
Vandy got Johnson in early foul trouble only to be greeted by the 6'3 Brewer – Cain said she was 6'4 – coming off the bench.
"It's very beneficial," Cain said. "Lyssi might be two inches shorter than I am and we're kind of built the same, so it had to be a nightmare for other teams to guard two people (that tall) with the ability that Lyssi has and the ability that I have."
"Very difficult, absolutely, but I don't think we did a good job in keeping them in front," Balcomb said. "Our timing getting around the posts – we didn't keep them high enough – we got around late, and then you can't double if you don't keep them in front in the first place. I don't think we did a good job of executing what we worked on.
"Are they bigger, stronger, faster? Yeah. Every year, same thing, but if we do our job and execute our game plan, I believe any team can beat anybody, but we didn't do that tonight."
After the game, Balcomb cited breakdowns in the game plan – especially losing Bjorklund late in the second half behind the arc and failing to box out on defense – and the Commodores felt as if they let the game slip away.
"I think we kind of gave it to them, said Rhoads, who missed the first Tennessee game with a broken hand and had 15 points in Monday's game. "Bjorklund hit a couple of big shots in the end, but I think it was mostly what we didn't do that gave them the game.
"We had a bit of miscommunication and didn't check out a couple of times (when Tennessee made its late run), and that led to easy points for them, and they were able to get ahead."
Part of Vandy's game plan was to pull Cain out of the paint to clear some space for the guards to drive. Vandy is undersized and doesn't have traditional posts, so Cain and Brewer often had to track the players they were defending to the arc.
"We were trying to pull Kelley Cain out because that just opens up the lane," Lueders said. "We were trying to bring her out, so we could drive and kick, just give us more room in the paint to work with. I mean, it's difficult (to contend with size), but, as Jence said, I think it was just more what we didn't do.
"We know how to handle their size. We play against size every game in the SEC. So, we have to be on the same page more and know what to do."
Summitt played most of the second half with a lineup that had a player at least 6 feet tall at each spot – 6'2 Stricklen at point, 6'0 Bjorklund and 6'1 Manning on the perimeter and a combo of 6'6 Cain and 6'3 Johnson or 6'3 Brewer.
"I think our size has affected a lot of people that we play," Summitt said. "I don't think they were worn down. I think they're in great shape, but I think our size worked to our advantage in the paint. I thought that was probably the biggest difference from an offensive and defensive perspective.
"We've got two players that are very imposing with Lyssi and with Kelley and then you've got one of the best athletes on our team and one of the best athletes we've had in this program in Glory Johnson. So the three combine to really help us in the paint."
Despite playing just 17 minutes, Johnson led Tennessee with eight rebounds, and it was her defensive board work that wiped out any chance for a Vandy comeback in the final minute.
Vandy and Tennessee both had 19 rebounds at the break, but the Lady Vols finished the game with a 41-30 margin on the glass.
Tennessee added nine offensive boards to the six it got in the first half. Vandy had seven offensive boards in the first half but got just four more in the second, and the Lady Vols nipped the Commodores in second-chance points, 12-7.
"I think it's just a mentality thing," Lueders said. "It's mindset. We know each other and how each other plays and we have to be ready. When Jence driving, if she misses, we have to be there (to get the offensive rebound). If Elan (Brown) shoots from the corner, it's coming off on the other side. We know those things and in the first half we had that mindset. We wanted offensive rebounds. We just didn't have it the full 40 minutes."
It's a staple of Tennessee's program – a Summitt tenet of winning titles – but what the coach was particularly pleased with Monday was the impetus to do so.
"We always stress it," Summitt said. "Sometimes it means more to them than others, but I thought when we got down and we pulled together, we said we've got to find a way to win this game. We don't need to lose this game, and we need to pull together.
"And we did. Right then they started talking about what they needed to do. It wasn't the coaches. It was the players. And when they take that ownership, you're going to have a lot better execution because it's coming from them, and they want it."
Bjorklund said the players challenging each other was the difference in the outcome, and especially when the Lady Vols made their final run.
"I think just like Coach was saying earlier, once we take ownership the coach can say, ‘We need to pick it up,' but Kelley really stepped up and Shekinna even stepped up and spoke as a leader," Bjorklund said. "I think once we get our team saying, ‘Hey, we need to pick it up,' it builds a lot more energy. It's different coming from a teammate. It's a lot different coming from a teammate."
Tennessee is essentially the same team as a year ago – the Lady Vols are getting contributions from two freshmen in Williams and Spani – but the internal and external makeup of the team is much different.
"Mentally a lot tougher and physically a lot stronger," Summitt said. "We were very fragile with all those freshmen when they were freshmen. They invested a lot in the off-season, and worked really hard in their strength and conditioning. I think our bodies have changed but I also think our minds are much stronger now than ever before."
Tennessee will have another physical and mental challenge this week when the team travels to Oxford for a matchup with Ole Miss on Thursday on short rest. Summitt had already planned to give the team off Tuesday – with a late tip Monday the players arrived home early Tuesday a few hours before morning classes – so they could get some rest.
"I told them, ‘You're off (Tuesday), so finish out the game. You don't have to do anything (Tuesday) but go to class if we can get to class,' " Summitt said.
Summitt was referring to the snow that fell in the Nashville area during the game and the discussion of whether to take the bus back to Knoxville that evening or wait until Tuesday. But the snow changed to rain before the game ended, and the road conditions were safe on Interstate 40.
Cain smiled and said the team knew Tuesday was a planned off day, but a reminder from Summitt during the game didn't hurt.
"It helped that she reinforced it, because we always know that the schedule can change," Cain said.
A year ago, Vandy led at halftime and never let up on Tennessee, securing a 74-58 win. The Commodores had opportunities in both halves Monday to lengthen the lead, but the Lady Vols stayed within striking distance both times – tying the game before halftime and winning the game at the end.
"We had opportunities to go double digits and didn't," Balcomb said. "Turned the ball over and didn't execute and then didn't get stops and then didn't check out. They had some huge offensive (boards). To beat a Tennessee in key situations if your job defensively is to do X, Y, and Z, you have to do it. If your job offensively is to do X, Y and Z, then you have to do it. We didn't do those things and if we do a good job and then they just hit a great shot, that's one thing.
"But we just didn't do a good job of executing the game plan in key situations on either end of the floor and that's tough to swallow. Are they a great team? Yeah. Are they good at rebounding? Yeah. And when they needed it they brought their strength and we didn't stop it."
Last year, Tennessee likely would have folded at some point in the game, but the Lady Vols have found a way this season to win close games by either holding on to a slim lead or coming from behind.
"We have a confidence about ourselves this year that we know if we get down, we have to take it one play at a time to gradually get ourselves back in," Cain said. "We never hung our heads low, we always kept it positive, and that's what got us through this game."
Last year was not on the players' minds, a point they have made repeatedly this season when asked at post-game press conferences.
"No," Cain said. "It's a new year. It's not like we're dwelling on last year. We're concentrating on this year."
The players did retain one lesson from last year.
"We hate to lose to anybody, but we also learned that you never lose to Vanderbilt," Cain said.