Mettle work lifts Lady Vols

PISCATAWAY, N.J. -- What transpired Tuesday night might yet prove to be one of the moments that defines a season for Tennessee. It was a win to savor and an effort to applaud, even if it also provided a game film to jettison somewhere in the skies between Piscataway and Knoxville.

Tennessee's 67-61 victory against Rutgers wasn't a work of art, but it was a fabulous display of mettle work.

"Tremendous effort," Tennessee associate coach Holly Warlick said, speaking as usual in place of coach Pat Summitt after the game. "That's all we can ask for. And that's what we've been asking these young ladies to do, play with a lot of heart and a lot of emotion. And I thought they did that tonight."

Tennessee had every reason to lose this game and suffer a third defeat before Christmas for the first time since the 1996-97 season. Playing without Ariel Massengale, the freshman point guard who was nothing short of a playmaking revelation before an injury sidelined her last week, the Lady Vols faced a road game against a team loaded with guards ready to put on a display of C. Vivian Stringer pressure defense. They did so barely 48 hours after facing a ranked DePaul team in Madison Square Garden. And they did so amidst another emotional display of support for Summitt, who was welcomed to the court Tuesday by a standing ovation from the home fans and a warm embrace from longtime friend and foe Stringer.

Those were just the reasons that existed before the Lady Vols took the court Tuesday night and added opportunity upon opportunity for defeat. They squandered a 13-point lead in the first half. Glory Johnson picked up two fouls in the span of 36 seconds in the first half and a third less than two minutes into the second half, leaving the team without its best offensive option to take advantage of a smaller opponent. Passes slipped away, signals got crossed, offensive rebounds went for naught and nobody could do anything about April Sykes draining shot after shot for the Scarlet Knights.

Shekinna Stricklen led the Lady Vols with 22 points, but at one point midway through the second half, Tennessee had a grand total of three field goals from players not named Stricklen. Unfortunately for the Lady Vols, Shekinna is the only member of the family on the roster.

And you know how much it mattered at the end of the night? Not one iota. The team that wilted in the second half of an NCAA tournament quarterfinal against Notre Dame a season ago and lost a mystifying decision at Virginia earlier this season stared up at the scoreboard with seven minutes to play and saw itself training by three points, not that the Lady Vols needed the visual confirmation. All they had to do was listen to the roar of the more than 6,000 fans sensing their team's biggest win in quite some time.

Then Tennessee did something about it.

Behind big shots from Taber Spani and Meighan Simmons, the Lady Vols outscored the Scarlet Knights 16-7 over the final seven minutes and handed the home team just its second loss at the RAC since the beginning of last season.

"When our backs are against the wall, we've got to learn to keep composure to play," Warlick said. "I think tonight we did. We made big plays when we needed to. In the past, we've kind of folded. We didn't fold, and we made big plays. I'm just proud of our effort, just proud of everybody. We needed big stops, we got them. We needed scores, we got them toward the end. Virginia, we didn't do it -- we waited until probably the last minute to make a run."

The biggest blows came from Simmons and Spani. Suffering through a miserable shooting night until that time, Simmons hit two 3-pointers in less than a minute to give the Lady Vols a 61-54 lead with 3:36 to play. Spani followed with a 3-pointer of her own with 1:53 to play to extend the lead to 64-54 and make the remaining seconds an extended foul-and-timeout formality.

"That's what they're capable of," Warlick said of Simmons and Spani. "We tried to get them to be not just one-dimensional. They have the capability of shooting the 3, but we've really worked on their midrange game and getting to the basket. That's what makes these two difficult to guard. When they can do both, they're very difficult to guard. I thought tonight they hit big shots for us to give us a little comfortable lead."

It was a particularly meaningful performance for Simmons. The sophomore made just 2 of 19 shots in losses against Baylor and Virginia and entered Tuesday night shooting worse than 30 percent from the floor for the season. She hit just 2 of 9 shots in the first half and looked at odds with herself, torn between her scoring instincts and trying to do her part to help run the offense without Massengale. Instead of sinking into her own head, she rose to the occasion with her first two shots of the second half.

"I feel like it's just a test to see exactly where my mentality is going to be for the rest of the game," Simmons said of the early struggles. "When the coaches told me ahead of time [the Scarlet Knights] were going to put a lot of pressure on me, I knew that I had to be mentally ready. I couldn't get upset if I turned the ball over; I just had to keep moving. I feel like my mentality was all positive today, there was no negativity today."

Speaking of which, there's nary a negative thing to say about Stricklen's performance. On the court for the entire 40 minutes, save a handful of seconds at the very end, she carried the offense in the first half, matching Sykes shot for shot and combining with Simmons, as well as Spani, to handle the ball.

"We put a lot of responsibility on her, and she has stepped up big-time," Warlick said. "We don't want Shekinna to be just an All-American on paper; we want her to go out and prove it every night. Tonight she did. That's what we need. She gives us a spark for our team, so as Shekinna plays it seems like that's how our team goes."

Tennessee will play better games than it did Tuesday night, but it will have a tough time earning a better win. Nobody was perfect for the Lady Vols, but the ending was.

"I think this team is mature enough now to understand that if we just go back to the basics, play defense and rebounding, go back to playing Tennessee basketball, we're going to be fine," Spani said.

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.