KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- There was a time this was the place teams came to prove themselves. Or at least it was a place where they came to try, even if the team that took the court in orange inside Thompson-Boling Arena proved too much to overcome most days.
So the script felt familiar Sunday as the faithful filed in nearly 10,000 strong for one of the grand old rivalries of women's basketball. Familiar but not quite the same.
In this case, the home team had something to prove in Knoxville. And the shade of orange that stood in the challenger's way wasn't bright but rather burnt orange.
Unbeaten but also largely untested through its first nine games, No. 11 Tennessee beat No. 2 Texas 82-75. With members of three former championship teams looking on, part of a halftime ceremony honoring their place in Tennessee lore, the current Lady Vols won a game that lacked precision for long stretches but offered ample passion and intensity. And a team with four players on the court who had never before played a college game of this magnitude looked far more comfortable playing through mistakes than the team that started juniors and seniors.
"I think this is one of the toughest teams we've had," Tennessee coach Holly Warlick said of her Lady Vols. "They're very, very competitive. They don't like to lose. They compete. They don't appear to let things bother them. It's not too often we lose our composure. So, yeah, I think this is one of the -- well, it is the toughest team I've been with as a head coach."
The game -- the 39th meeting between Tennessee and Texas -- was a roller coaster of both emotions and statistics. It featured three technical fouls and 45 personal fouls yet never descended into out-and-out dirty play. The Lady Vols and Longhorns combined to score 65 points and shoot 63 percent from the field in the fourth quarter after they combined to score 56 points on 30 percent shooting in the first half. But through all of it, the one thing that never changed was the lead. Tennessee held that for nearly 38 minutes, including all but 16 seconds after it scored the opening points of the game.
Fittingly, when Texas briefly pulled even early in the third quarter, Tennessee freshman Evina Westbrook hit a 3-pointer on the ensuing possession -- the first 3-pointer by either team.
Tennessee needed senior Jaime Nared to persevere her way to 23 points and 13 rebounds in a marathon 40 minutes on the court. It needed redshirt senior Mercedes Russell to come up with 15 points and 12 rebounds. But it also needed the combined 40 points, 15 rebounds and 102 minutes offered by freshmen Westbrook, Rennia Davis, Anastasia Hayes and junior Cheridene Green.
They had played the likes of Alabama State and Troy at home. They hadn't played Texas.
"Being young and having all these fans in a big game like this, they kept their composure," Russell said.
It was never a secret that Tennessee's season, and quite possibly Warlick's tenure as coach, would rise or fall on the debuts of four McDonald's All-Americans and a junior-college transfer in Green who sat out last season with an injury. (The fourth freshman, Kasiyahna Kushkituah, recently returned from injury and didn't play Sunday.)
All the perils of that were on display against the Longhorns. They were clear for all to see when Davis launched ill-advised 3-pointer after ill-advised 3-pointer in the first half, when Hayes dribbled to no discernible end through most of the shot clock soon after checking in for the first time, or when Westbrook threw a risky inbounds pass with under two minutes to play, the start of a sequence that ended with Texas' Ariel Atkins hitting a jumper to pull her team within 74-71.
Tennessee had 18 turnovers. It shot 69 percent in the fourth quarter and still missed 40 shots.
Its freshmen made freshman mistakes. The difference is they made them fearlessly. They made the mistakes while trying to make plays. Plays they also made at other times. Hayes finished a bold drive through traffic in the final three minutes -- a possession or two after she hit Davis on a perfect baseline cut for a clean finish. Green was relentless on the offensive boards in the final 15 minutes. Westbrook hit that 3-pointer when the score was tied and played so effortlessly.
They looked good most of the time. They looked confused some of the time. They never looked scared. That is wonderful freedom to have, to be something less than perfect.
"I've taken a different approach to our turnovers," Warlick said. "As long as we're trying to make a play -- if the ball gets stuck in our hands or it goes off our foot dribbling, then I'm going to be upset about that. But a lot of our turnovers are attacking, trying to get the open player the ball. We're trying to get it inside and those type of things. We'll go back and watch it. ... Do we have to get better with our turnovers? Absolutely. I haven't seen the tape, but I think the majority of them were trying to get us better looks. And I'll take that. I'll take that right now."
And when they made mistakes on offense, they turned around and played defense.
There is some urgency in all of this, no matter how bright the future looks for the freshmen. They only get one season with Nared and Russell, which means next season could be a step backward or at least a tricky recalibration. And Sunday was not a blueprint for how this team can win in March. It might not even be a blueprint for how to win at Stanford next week.
They have to mature. They can't do things like draw technical fouls, as Westbrook did after blocking Brooke McCarty, an emotional lapse for which she took full responsibility afterward.
"I know I have a lot of freedom, especially as a point guard ... but I can't make mistakes," Westbrook said of her overall freedom to play. "Everyone is waiting on me to call a play, tell them where to go, tell them what to do. My part is huge, and I never shied away from it. I always embraced having the part that I have, and I love it. I just have to do what's best for my team, and I know that I have to make the [least] mistakes on the team.
"I had, what, seven turnovers? I can't have that. I have to take care of the ball better."
For all of that, the most surprising thing about the afternoon might not have been how well Tennessee's young players dealt with their surroundings but how poorly Texas did. Granted, the Longhorns are without Joyner Holmes, suspended until late this month. They have their own new pieces and old pieces in expanded roles. But this was the No. 2 team in the country, led by senior standouts in Atkins and McCarty. Atkins was brilliant in the second half, even with it interrupted by a vicious collision on a screen. But McCarty's frustrating day, which saw her foul out after hitting just 2 of 15 shots, summed up so much.
Independent of anything Tennessee did, Texas had opportunities to win this game. The missed layups and open 3-point looks should haunt them. But when they didn't get those breaks, they didn't do anything to help themselves.
"We're used to those shots going in with Brooke," Longhorns coach Karen Aston said. " ... If our shots don't go in, we don't quite know how to buckle down and do the dirty stuff. That's what I found out about our team today. So we'll go back to the drawing board and see who we can find in this mix of players that can really get down and dirty when the shots aren't going in. Because ultimately, if you're trying to win championships, you're going to go through games where the ball doesn't go in the net."
Knoxville has always been a place for would-be challengers to prove their toughness and their resiliency. The team that did so Sunday just happened to be the home team.
"We're really good," Russell said. "I mean, if that was the No. 2 team in the country, where do we stand we now? Because 82-75, there is your answer right there."
Now they need to keep proving it for the next three and a half months. And not just here.