- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- The Tennessee women's basketball program got stung an inordinate amount of times last season. Now, this is a group of grew-up-the-hard-way players who are ready to sting back. Baylor coach Kim Mulkey expected that, which was why she wasn't too upset after a 74-65 loss to the Lady Vols in Sunday's State Farm Tip-Off Classic.
"I brought them into a hornets' nest," Mulkey said, referring to her five freshmen, led by 6-foot-8 sensation Brittney Griner, who -- let's get this out of the way -- didn't dunk but scored 15 points and looked very good from the foul line (9-of-10), where she is bound to spend a great deal of time in her career.
Mulkey knew the stars probably were not aligned for Griner to come away with a victory in her first college game, seeing as it was at Thompson-Boling Arena on the court named after Tennessee coach Pat Summitt, who, to the surprise of many, got this bee in her bonnet: begin the game with a zone defense and mostly keep it.
"That's the first time ever, in 36 years, that we started in a zone and played it throughout the game," Summitt said. "How about that?"
Pretty stunning. Some folks might have shaken their heads and rubbed their eyes to be sure their vision was clear. However, it's just a rumor that one older Tennessee fan, after watching that many minutes of orange zone, was heard exclaiming, "Good Lord, you can take me now, because at last I've seen it all!"
Mulkey, who always says, "Nothing ever surprises me in this business," repeated that phrase before admitting that, yes, actually, she was surprised at how long Summitt kept the zone.
"Have you ever watched a game where Pat Summitt played only two possessions of man-to-man defense?" Mulkey said. "That's respect for us. That's an intelligent coach; that's why she's won over 1,000 games.
"People ask, 'Is Brittney Griner going to change the game of women's basketball?' Well, you saw it change today -- did you ever think you'd see the day Tennessee would zone somebody like that? Her presence changed the game -- and she didn't even have a great game by her standards."
Summitt, though, said the zone was not only because of the big kid in the middle.
"They play so well off the bounce," she said. "We knew we had to play out long on their shooters. We just worked on it. I said, 'They can take you off the dribble better than anyone I've seen on tape for this year. We have got to keep them in front of us.'
"When we extended it, they started throwing it over the top and getting some open looks. That's when I said, 'Let's just pack it in the paint.'"
Asked her thoughts on Griner, Summitt said, "Well, of course I've seen her [before]. I tried to recruit her. I guess she didn't like orange. That's OK.
"But she's a difference-maker in this game. And she's only going to get better with experience. That's the difference right now with Kelley."
Summitt was referring to Kelley Cain, a sophomore out of Atlanta who did opt for orange. The 6-6 Cain had some first-half foul trouble but otherwise looked comfortable as the centerpiece of Tennessee's post attack. She finished with 15 points and seven rebounds.
But the most impressive player for Tennessee was sophomore Shekinna Stricklen, who had 25 points and 14 rebounds.
"We came out with high energy, and the whole team was fired up about this game," Stricklen said.
For good reason: The last time before Sunday's game that a national television audience saw Tennessee, the Mighty Orange Crush lost to NCAA tournament first-timer Ball State 71-55. Mulkey knew the fuel from that defeat was still burning for Summitt.
"She's mad at her team. They lost in the first round; they've been kicked out of the locker room," Mulkey said. "[But] you think I wasn't sitting there proud as a peacock when we had a lead at halftime? And proud at the end of the game? Absolutely.
"But I'm not into moral victories. I've been around too many winners in my life. This will be a loss where we will go back and watch film and get better."
Well, every team should improve after its opener. However, Baylor seems likely to get a whole lot better. Tennessee already has -- compared to last season, that is.
Summitt's crew had never been stopped short of the NCAA tournament Sweet 16 until that amazing streak was ended by Ball State this past March. It was Tennessee's 11th loss of last season, and after the initial shock of it, the players weren't quite sure what do to. They'd set a precedent that they'd never wanted any part of.
But Summitt didn't let them mope through the rest of March. Instead, they took advantage of the opportunity to practice while the tournament was still going on.
"That first practice, they thought of it like, 'We're being punished,'" Summitt said. "And so the second day, I was like, 'Wait a minute. We're not punishing you. We are hopefully going to capitalize on the time we have to make a difference between now and when we finish our workouts. Look at it as a great opportunity.'"
Still, Summitt figured her players would be a little nervous Sunday, and they were. Baylor, picked by the Big 12's coaches to win the up-for-grabs league, led 26-24 at the break. The presence of Griner -- known for her YouTube dunks -- had made this an even more anticipated and hyped Tip-Off Classic game than usual.
"We didn't have great composure," Summitt said. "Sometimes having a big crowd [12,824 fans] like this, and it's our opening game well, I told them at halftime, 'Hey, we can settle down, now. Really, most of the people in this building are cheering for you.'"
Although there was a Baylor contingent present, too, which got to see a team with terrific promise being led by junior Melissa Jones, who had 21 points.
And there was a great sense of history for the game: Summitt and assistant Holly Warlick both are in the nearby Women's Basketball Hall of Fame, as are Mulkey and Leon Barmore, her former boss at Louisiana Tech who is now an assistant at Baylor.
"I thought," Mulkey said, "you saw the past, the present and the future."
No one symbolizes the latter more than Griner, who said she felt some nerves but wasn't too overwhelmed.
"There's always going to be a little bit of butterflies, especially opening the season here at Tennessee," Griner said. "I would say I had a couple. Experience is going to play a big factor for me. Our freshman class is really talented, but with more experience we'll get better. Definitely one thing I've made a goal, from looking at the stats, is to rebound better."
Cain says she has no doubt Griner soon will do everything well.
"She's strong, and she definitely has that turnaround jump shot -- it's crazy," Cain said. "She did that two or three times on us. I was stunned by it. But it's just about getting more experience. She's going to be good by the end of this year, I guarantee it."
Actually, it won't take that long for Griner. Or for Tennessee.
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at email@example.com. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.
In winning its season opener Sunday, Tennessee held Brittney Griner in check and put some more distance between the painful end of last season, all while playing -- surprise! -- a zone defense most of the game.