Pat Summitt has fielded plenty of questions about her health lately. Certainly nothing has changed about her ability to grill her players at halftime when she’s disappointed in their performance.
The third-ranked Lady Vols came into halftime tied at 42 with seventh-ranked Miami after being manhandled on the boards. Summitt got onto them hard during her halftime speech, and they responded with a 92-76 victory on Tuesday night in the State Farm Tip-Off Classic.
“If you ever doubt if Pat Summitt is still coaching, look at how our team responds coming out in the second half,” associate head coach Holly Warlick said. “She got on them pretty hard. We all did as a staff about our rebounding effort, our hustle plays that weren’t there. We challenged them for 20 minutes, and I think they responded.”
It was the first big test of the season for two veteran teams, and the matchup lived up to its billing in the first-ever meeting for the programs.
Though the game pitted preseason All-Americans Shekinna Stricklen and Shenise Johnson against one another, the spotlight was stolen by Taber Spani and Meighan Simmons, who together hit 7 of 13 from 3-point range.
The Lady Vols (2-0) came out after intermission and unleashed an 18-4 run to take control. Glory Johnson, who struggled in the first half against Miami’s inside defense, hit a layup that made it 60-46 with 16:19 to go.
The Lady Vols got sloppy, committing three turnovers that helped the Hurricanes charge back with nine unanswered points to cut the margin to seven, and with 7:31 to go, Shenise Johnson hit a jumper to cut the Lady Vols’ lead to 73-68.
Miami (1-1) would get no closer. Two possessions later, Spani took an inbound pass with 10 seconds on the shot clock and launched a 3-pointer that hit nothing but net as the buzzer sounded.
“I thought that was the turning point of the game, as we were struggling kind of to get back in it,” Miami coach Katie Meier said.
A couple of minutes later, Spani rebounded a missed 3-point attempt by Shenise Johnson and launched the ball across the court to Simmons, who charged to the basket for a layup to make it 84-68. The basket capped an 11-0 run that began with Spani’s trey and sent the orange-clad crowd into a frenzy.
“I think it’s more mental than anything else,” said Spani, who played 39 minutes. “Obviously all of us have shot millions of shots throughout our careers, so it’s just a mindset going in and knowing that you can knock down shots.”
Simmons scored 18 points, Glory Johnson finished with 16 and nine rebounds, Stricklen added 15 points and Ariel Massengale had 11 points and nine assists.
“I thought across the board, everybody contributed in certain ways,” Summitt said. “It’s just a matter of who’s coming in. At any given moment, we’ve got enough people that somebody’s going to step up.”
The Tennessee coaches expected a strong rebounding effort by the Lady Vols, so they instead asked the players to focus on not turning the ball over. By halftime, Tennessee had just six turnovers but had 13 fewer rebounds than Miami.
By the end of the game, the Lady Vols had put enough an effort on the boards to trail the Hurricanes 45-38 in rebounding, and it was Miami that was struggling to hang onto the ball. The Hurricanes turned the ball over 21 times, leading to 23 points for the Lady Vols—10 more than Miami got off giveaways.
Riquna Williams, who led the Atlantic Coast Conference in scoring a season ago, sank 24 points for Miami. Shenise Johnson added 17 and Morgan Stroman scored 11.
The stingy defensive play by both teams forced the ball to the hands of the outside shooters during the first half, leading four lead changes and two ties.
Miami took an early edge after scoring eight unanswered points. Williams and Stefanie Yderstorm each had a 3, while Stroman hit a pair of free throws to take an 8-2 lead, their largest margin of the first half.
A few minutes later, Tennessee went on an 8-0 run of its own, capped by a 3-pointer by Simmons off a dish by Massengale. The basket gave the Lady Vols an 18-16 lead—their first since the opening basket. They slowly built their margin to 38-31 on a jumper in the paint by Alicia Manning with 4:52 in the first half, but Miami scored the final five points of the half to tie it at the break.
“Our confidence was high,” Shenise Johnson said. “(The score) was zero-zero.”
The teams launched a flurry of long shots during their streaks, and the Lady Vols hit 7 of 13 and Miami 6 of 14 from behind the arc in the first half. Tennessee finished 11 of 22 from long range, while Miami missed all nine of its second-half attempts.
The Lady Vols have now won 38 straight games at home on the court named for Summitt, dating to a 62-54 loss to Duke on Feb. 16, 2009. They travel to Virginia on Sunday before hosting No. 1 Baylor at The Summitt on Nov. 27.