KNOXVILLE -- It wasn't all that long ago that Tennessee coach Pat Summitt was talking about how depth is the defining measure of this season's Lady Volunteer squad, especially since it so clearly has been a factor in what will soon be another 20-win season.
But on Sunday afternoon in a 72-63 victory over rival Vanderbilt, the Lady Vols -- and Summitt herself -- got another indication of how a bench of former high school all-stars can be both a blessing and a curse.
With the Commodores in early foul trouble, Tennessee's starters -- fresh from Summitt's ability to substitute liberally in the first half -- produced a 10-2 run to close out the period with a nine-point lead, 38-29.
The Lady Vols then started the second half by increasing the difference to 16 points, enough of an advantage for a team ranked No. 5 in the nation to signal the Commodores' bus driver to crank it up for the trip back to Nashville.
It didn't quite work out that way.
Each time Summitt subbed in the second half, the Commodores seemed to get stronger, despite having to play starting forward Carla Thomas and point guard Dee Davis with three fouls, and top shooter Abi Ramsey with three and then four marks against her.
As Ashley Earley seemingly scored at will under the basket, Vanderbilt rallied against the Lady Vols' rotation to cut the bus-cranking deficit down to only four points, 67-63, with 1:55 left to play.
That's when the Commodores got "fouled up" in managing what was left of the game, with Ramsey missing three crucial shots and point guard Davis fouling out trying to put the Lady Vols into a one-and-one situation. With 48 seconds still on the clock and only six points separating the two teams, Vandy was without a floor leader and its top 3-point shooter.
The Lady Vols hit 5 of 6 free throws to put the game away, but the message had been sent.
"Our team needs to be more consistent," Summitt said. "Our bench was not strong today and we're playing in spurts. My substitution. If we don't come out with a win, I'm going to be upset that I substituted in a couple of situations."
But it was more than a couple of situations.
Tennessee's predicament as the postseason approaches is similar to one a few years ago when the roster was full and there were too many choices when Summitt looked down her bench. Had injuries not removed two freshmen from playing time this season, the substitution pattern could have been even more frenetic. What at times this season has been a rotating buzz saw coming off the Tennessee bench has at other times lacked teeth, as was the case on Sunday.
With the exception of Shyra Ely, who didn't start because of poor showings in two of her last three games, UT's five players off the bench combined for seven points and four boards, and the two players who got the most time on the floor contributed the least.
So it shouldn't have been a surprise that Vandy was able to rally using mainly its starting five against 11 different Tennessee players.
That, Summitt vows, is going to change by tournament time, and it will be the players who decide how much depth this team will utilize in the SEC and NCAA tournaments.
"What I told this team is they have between now and postseason to establish their roles," said Summitt, who has often done her best coaching jobs with teams limited by injuries to seven or eight players.
"We'll evaluate them in practice and try to get them in game situations. Whether we shorten our bench or use the depth that we have will depend on them. Some players may play themselves into a role and some players may play themselves out of a role. Nothing is predetermined between now and the end of the SEC Tournament."
And -- as the Lady Vols well know -- nothing is predetermined once that tournament begins.