Pat Summitt promises she isn’t running out of material to whip up her Tennessee Lady Vols even in her 37th season.
“Oh, I can make stuff up,” she said.
She must have come up with a doozy at halftime Sunday because No. 4 Tennessee rallied from one of the Lady Vols’ worst first halves ever and beat Vanderbilt 65-57 Sunday for their 15th straight win.
“We had a real good halftime,” Summitt said. “I like halftime more than anything I think. … I ripped everybody. You know, nobody was really stepping up and taking ownership and leadership.”
The Lady Vols (24-2, 12-0 Southeastern Conference) played their third game in seven days and were sloppy scoring only 15 points in the first half, the third-worst scoring performance for 20 minutes in Tennessee’s history.
They came back with a 50-point second half keyed in part by freshman Lauren Avant, who scored all her season-high 11 points in the final 20 minutes. Shekinna Stricklen scored 14 points, and Glory Johnson had 10.
Assistant coach Mickie DeMoss suggested Summitt put Avant in for the second half after the freshman played only three minutes in the first. Avant played 17 minutes in the second and also grabbed two rebounds with four steals.
“She stepped up big time,” Stricklen said of Avant. “She had it all today. She’s the one who brought the energy to us in the second half. She had No. 11 (Jasmine Lister) all frustrated, you know. When you see one person who has defense like that, it brought our energy. We just started being more aggressive on defense. We started making them play faster.”
Avant played only eight games as a high school senior due to shoulder surgery, and illness and injuries had limited her to 58 minutes in nine games coming into Sunday.
“I was definitely nervous, but I just tried to show my confidence, kind of fake it a little to get my teammates upbeat,” Avant said. “We just all responded well to each other. I’ve always had confidence in my defense.”
Vanderbilt (17-8, 8-4) snapped a four-game winning streak that had moved the Commodores from fifth in the SEC to second, just three games back of Tennessee. The Commodores couldn’t hold on for what would have been only their eighth victory all time against Tennessee, blowing an 11-point lead with 13:52 left.
“You hold somebody to 15 and then they score 50?” Vanderbilt coach Melanie Balcomb said. “I mean 20 might not have been enough at that point. The frustrating piece, until the last eight minutes we were beating them, and they’re the No. 4 team in the country and there’s a lot to be said for that.”
Jence Rhoads had 15 points for Vanderbilt, and Stephanie Holzer added 10.
Summitt stared stonily at her Lady Vols through the first half when they scored a measly 15 points, shooting 20 percent (5 of 25). That is the third-worst scoring half ever behind the 13 scored against Rutgers on Jan. 3, 2009, and 14 against Virginia in an NCAA tournament regional championship March 25, 1996.
She ripped them heavily at halftime, probably just as she did in those other games.
“It was almost like roll call, trying to find out who’s going to step up and really bring what we had to have,” Summitt said. “But we found a way to win. That’s what championship teams do. They just find a way to win, and I don’t necessarily like watching as we struggle through a lot of possessions. But I think this team has a lot of maturity now, and hopefully we’ll build on it from this game.”
The Lady Vols won both of those, and they came back to win this one too despite being so cold in the first half that even when Taber Spani stole the ball from Lister, her pull-up jumper off the fast break hit off the front rim for Tennessee’s 15th miss of the half.
Tennessee didn’t score a point in the final 5:33 after a fast-break layup by Kamiko Williams pulled the Lady Vols within 24-15.
Vanderbilt didn’t take advantage of the Lady Vols’ woes. The Commodores led only 28-15 at halftime because only Holzer scored on a layup, and Elan Brown added two free throws while Tennessee couldn’t score down the final minutes.
Vanderbilt led 39-28 when the Lady Vols finally got going with a 16-3 run. Avant, hobbled by injuries and illness this season, came off the bench and provided a spark. She scored on a driving layup and converted the free throw and then hit a 3-pointer to pull Tennessee within 42-41 with 7:31 left.
“We couldn’t stop them off the dribble in the second half, and a lot of it was her,” Balcomb said of Avant. “We got caught on switches and had some mismatches and didn’t have our best defender guarding her a lot of the time, and they attacked us.”
Meighan Simmons, who had been 1 of 8 from the floor, hit a 3-pointer from the top of the key that capped the spurt with 5:55 left and put Tennessee ahead 44-42—the Lady Vols’ first lead since 5-2.
The teams went back and forth with Vandy last leading at 49-47 before Williams’ layup tied it up, and Simmons hit a jumper that put Tennessee ahead to stay at 51-49. The Lady Vols led by eight three times down the stretch.