KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Five former Tennessee players in the coaching ranks have tried to beat coach Pat Summitt. UCLA coach Nikki Caldwell came close to being the first to succeed.
After a slow start by the Lady Volunteers, Taber Spani scored 16 and helped sixth-ranked Tennessee (5-0) hang on to beat the Bruins 61-47 on Saturday.
“It certainly wasn’t pretty. I’m not happy. I’m glad we won,” said Summitt, who wore her trademark stare for much of the game and told her players they’d be practicing Sunday instead of taking the day off as planned.
Caldwell, a native of nearby Oak Ridge, Tenn., played for Summitt from 1990-94 and worked as her assistant coach from 2002-08 before taking over the Bruins.
“At shootaround I just went and sat at the visitors’ bench, and I thought, ‘Wow, this is a little different,”’ Caldwell said. “I never feel like a visitor coming back home though.”
Her team’s style of physical defensive play bore a close resemblance to Tennessee, and UCLA (4-2) smothered the Lady Vols in the first half, forcing 12 turnovers.
The Lady Vols shot only 29 percent from the field in the first half, and the Bruins grabbed a 25-14 lead off a jumper by Rebekah Gardner with 4:56 left in the first half.
UCLA cooled off as Spani began finding some rhythm. The freshman hit two 3-point baskets and a pair of free throws before halftime, and the Bruins’ lead was cut to 27-25 by the break.
“The first half we didn’t bring it consistently energy-wise. That cannot happen against any team, especially a team like UCLA,” Spani said.
The Bruins trailed 43-40 with 9:10 left when the Lady Vols launched a 10-2 run. A 3-pointer by Angie Bjorklund gave Tennessee a 53-42 lead with 5:12 left, and the Lady Vols kept a double-digit lead for the rest of the game.
Bjorklund hit three 3s and finished with 12 points, tying Shannon Bobbitt for fourth in the Tennessee record books with 147 career 3-pointers. Glory Johnson added 11 points, and Kelley Cain grabbed 11 rebounds.
Markel Walker, who is almost averaging a double-double this season, led UCLA with 19 points and 14 rebounds.
Tennessee grabbed 49 rebounds, compared to UCLA’s 35, and scored 30 second-chance points.
Most of the attempts by Summitt’s former players turned opponents have ended up as Tennessee blowouts. North Carolina State coach Kelly Harper was the last to try as coach of Western Carolina last season, but the Catamounts lost 83-56. Tanya Haave’s San Francisco team lost 68-39 earlier in the 2008-09 season.
Maine coach Patricia Roberts came the closest to beating her mentor with a 77-64 loss on Dec. 13, 1990.
“I never doubted that (Caldwell) would be successful,” Summitt said. “They’ll win some games in the Pac-10.”
Still accustomed to tutoring the players in orange, Caldwell told Spani, Bjorklund and Johnson as they listened to her post game press conference that she was in agreement with Summitt’s decision to make the Lady Vols practice on Sunday.
Caldwell also said she brought a bag of UCLA clothing for her family members to wear to the game.
“They are loyal (Tennessee) fans,” she said. “I threatened my mom today. I told her, ‘Three hundred and sixty-four days out of the year you can be all about Tennessee, but this one day that we play you have to wear the blue and gold.”’