Lady Vols 'back Pat' with Bama win

Pat Summitt

The Lady Vols backed Pat Summitt and stayed perfect in the SEC with Sunday's win over Alabama. Go inside with InsideTennessee for game analysis and videos.

The Lady Vol players broke formation before the national anthem and followed the coaching staff to the front row across from the bench. There sat Pat Summitt, the head coach emeritus of Tennessee, and one by one the staff members and players hugged the woman responsible for the Lady Vol legacy.

"We were all going to do something," senior Taber Spani said. "It was a team decision to let the coaches go over and have their time, and then go over together."

Some 12,512 people were in the arena and all eyes were on that front row with fans, most wearing "We Back Pat" shirts and orange or purple attire, standing and cheering with some also wiping away tears.

"We watched a film about people from Iraq and how they appreciated Pat," Meighan Simmons said. "It was really emotional for all of us to have a coach who has made such an impact on everybody's lives and our lives. It was a really emotional time.

"We just let her know we appreciate her and we love her, but then we had to get ready for this game. We refocused after that."

Summitt told the players that she loved them and then she also reminded them to go get the win before they left her embrace.

Tennessee (15-3, 6-0) did just that with a 96-69 win over Alabama (11-7, 1-4), a team that Holly Warlick had fretted about because of its athleticism.

The Lady Vols opened in a matchup zone and Shafontaye Myers and Daisha Simmons quickly got them out of it with two three-pointers. The Lady Vols then struggled in their man defense.

"The first four minutes we struggled to defend them," Warlick said. "When you get up on the ball, which we wanted to do and you're guarding a great athlete, you have to run your help-side defense to get the ball and the first four minutes we didn't do that."

Alabama, which plays a four-guard offense, attacked the rim - something a zone is designed to stop - and the Lady Vols had to stiffen their defense.

Alabama took an early lead of 17-14 after Daisha Simmons hit a layup at the 13:22 mark, and the Rutgers transfer poured in a quick 15 points. But the Lady Vols, mainly led by Jasmine Jones, contained her - she scored just four points the rest of the way - and got their up-tempo game on track.

Post players Isabelle Harrison and Bashaara Graves, who had struggled mightily at Auburn, were 10-10 in the first half against Alabama to help stake Tennessee to a 49-35 halftime lead.

A Graves jumper tied the game at 18 and a Jones pass to Harrison underneath gave the Lady Vols a 20-18 lead at the 10:20 mark, and they never trailed again.

"We didn't have a great game against Auburn," Graves said. "We couldn't get shots off. It was terrible for us. We wanted to come out for the Alabama game and make up for that game. I think we did that."

Graves finished with 19 points and eight boards. Harrison had 14 points and six rebounds. They were among five players to reach double figures for Tennessee.

The others were Meighan Simmons, who tallied 16 points and Taber Spani and Jones, who had 14 each. Warlick was able to use all nine players, and every Lady Vol who took the court got in the scoring column.

"We were just trying to take what they gave us," Spani said. "A lot, we got out of transition. That's our game. We were trying to push on every possession.

"It was a great game and a confidence booster. A lot of us got into double figures. For everyone to get some playing time is good."

The Lady Vols scorched the nets in the first half at 62.9 percent. They cooled off in the second at 45.7 percent and shot 54.3 percent for the game, a particularly impressive number considering the fact Warlick emptied the bench and played assorted combinations.

Despite the lopsided score, Warlick spent most of the game on her feet coaching whatever assortment of players she had on the court.

"I have to say, this is the first game I've coached in orange tennis shoes, and I kind of like it," said Warlick, whose staff wore "We Back Pat" T-shirts and the orange shoes. "I can do a lot more stomping and can get up and down the court a bit more."

Spani and fellow senior Kamiko Williams played the final seven minutes with three newcomers on the floor in Nia Moore, Jasmine Phillips and Jones.

No Tennessee player reached 30 minutes on the court - Spani came the closest at 29 and eight were in double figures in minutes played.

It was an ideal situation for Tennessee with a tough road game up next on Thursday at Vanderbilt. Notre Dame is lurking after that for a "Big Monday" ESPN matchup on the same night Tennessee will raise a banner in honor of Summitt.

"With Vanderbilt, it's a healthy rivalry for both teams," Warlick said. "It's a very tough place to play - they're very offensive-minded and we're very defensive-minded, so what's going to give?

"Our opportunity against Notre Dame is to establish ourselves on a national level. These are two huge games for us - huge for this week. We need to be mindful that we need to focus on Vanderbilt first but then as coaches, we have to prepare for Notre Dame as well at the same time.

"Notre Dame is important for us, but it's also important to get an SEC win, so that will be our first and foremost focus."

Spani knows the Lady Vols can't expect to go into the odd configuration of Memorial Gym in Nashville and expect to shoot the way they just did at home.

"Vanderbilt is always tough to play at their place," Spani said. "Defense has to be our rock, really, because you can never count on offense in a place like that.

"Specifically, ball pressure for 40 minutes and great help-side. We need to be one out on the floor."

Spani is spot on. Alabama presented problems because the Crimson Tide is athletic and uses four guards with Kaneisha Horn anchoring the post.

"Their guards are small," Spani said. "It's a little bit harder because most of us are taller. They were getting by us.

"Jasmine, Kamiko, and Ariel, they came in and did great things. They had ball pressure. That's when you can see us get out in passing lanes and get blocks. That's what our focus has been since Auburn - defense."

Kamiko Williams and Ariel Massengale are guards and should always be able to pressure the ball. Jones is a 6-2 forward and is carving a niche on the team because she can also do so, and Warlick put her on Daisha Simmons to slow her down.

Jones also got on offense on track this game with 14 points on 5-9 shooting and eight boards. She also had four blocks, including two from behind - the second off the glass - that brought shouts of approval from the fans, who were able to relax and enjoy the rout.

Tennessee had 23 assists on 38 made baskets with Massengale and Williams dishing out six each. Massengale added eight points and two steals and didn't commit a turnover.

Warlick has emphasized in post-game press conferences that the team has stressed defense and board play - glass work was deficient at Auburn and a major focus of Friday's practice - and the Lady Vols out-rebounded Alabama, 50-38.

Warlick also noted that the team hasn't worked much on offense, yet Tennessee shot well the entire game and even went 19-23 (82.6 percent) from the line.

Warlick joked that the approach seemed to be working and then offered a serious explanation.

"We got good looks because our defense got us good looks and we got the ball inside," Warlick said. "If that's the case, then we should shoot a high percentage.

"We just have to rely on our defense to create our offense, and I think we did."

Warlick also joked that coaches Jolette Law and Kyra Elzy were in charge of the three-point shooting for the Alabama game. Tennessee was 1-11 - Massengale had the lone make - and shot 9.1 percent from long range. But that just makes the overall shooting percentage even more impressive.

Simmons, who has averaged 20 points a game in SEC play, continued her hot shooting - she was 7-13 from the field and 2-2 from the line for her 16 points.

Simmons has elevated her overall game this season and especially so on offense since Cierra Burdick went out with a broken right hand. But an area Simmons needed to improve was her board work, and she did so Sunday with seven rebounds.

"I knew that there was something I needed to do besides score and to play defense and put ball pressure on them," Simmons said. "It was one of those things. It was my goal today to have five rebounds. I ended up with seven, so I'm very proud of myself for that."

Simmons needs to continue to get on the glass. With her quickness and slippery moves, it would be hard to box her out. Crashing the glass also didn't take away her dynamic play in the open court as she went coast to coast after one defensive board and converted the stop and pop.

Spani, who also grabbed seven boards, smiled and congratulated Simmons during the post-game press conference.

Spani also has stepped up in Burdick's absence, and for the end of the game sounded like a schoolteacher as she gathered the youngsters in huddles and quickly explained a mistake or what needed to happen next.

Playing for Summitt is never an issue for Spani, who hugs her former head coach before every home game. Former doesn't even really apply for the senior.

"Pat Summitt for myself and everyone here, is always going to be our coach," Spani said. "Nothing is going to change. When we come back in 10 or 15 years, I'll still think of her as my coach.

"She's still involved in our program. When you see someone in practice and you can talk to them about basketball or life, she's definitely a part. She'll always be our coach."

Alabama coach Wendell Hudson couldn't tell from the game that Summitt had ever left the sideline.

"I thought Pat was over there coaching. Holly was over there?" Hudson said to laughter in his post-game presser.

"I think Holly's done a great job in stepping into a role, especially stepping into Pat's footsteps. She's done a great job and got the team playing at a very high level. And, watching them play not only play in our game but watching them play, I thought Thursday night down in Auburn when Auburn was playing really well and was really fired up, I thought Tennessee just kind of willed their way through that one.

"I think Holly's done an outstanding job."

Willing their way to a win is patented Pat Summitt. So is defense and board play, and the Lady Vols delivered both on a day in which the Lady Vols played the "We Back Pat" game as part of the SEC's weeklong emphasis on Alzheimer's awareness and the Pat Summitt Foundation.

"We wanted to play this in honor of Pat and hopefully she saw what she has built this program on, and that's hard work and a foundation of defense and rebounding," Warlick said. "That's a lot of what we talked about. We talked about Pat's sacrifices and what she's meant to everyone.

"We used it to honor her and not to be worried, we just wanted to make sure we represented UT and Pat in the nature we needed to."

VIDEO COVERAGE

Game highlights from utsportstv

Holly Warlick

Bashaara Graves, Taber Spani, Meighan Simmons

Coach Wendell Hudson, Kaneisha Horn

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