After a week of final exams, Tennessee saw its way clear of another test Thursday night.
The Lady Vols parlayed a distinct height advantage over Middle Tennessee State into an 84-61 women's basketball victory before an announced crowd of 12,508 at Thompson-Boling Arena.
Candace Parker, UT's 6-foot-5 All-American, was a towering presence with a game-high 34 points. The scoring output tied her single game career high.
She snagged a game-high 13 rebounds, part of UT's 47-26 advantage. Parker also tied former Lady Vol Bridgette Gordon's single-game school record by scoring 17 points at the free-throw line, where top-ranked Tennessee (8-0) had a 28-10 edge in a game that featured 51 total fouls.
"They're a team that's real feisty,'' said Parker, who broke Gordon's record with 21 free-throw attempts. "We knew we wanted to get paint points."
Within the paint, Tennessee outscored Middle Tennessee State 34-14. UT's strategy paid off in points from the edge of the lane when it mattered the most. After the Blue Raiders (3-5) had crept to 58-53 with 7:52 left, Tennessee scored 15 of its next 20 points at the foul line.
Parker, who drew 15 of the 31 fouls called against MTSU, scored 11 during that stretch as a result of foul play. She also scored an opportunistic layup after her entry pass was tipped away but ended up in her hands with a clear path directly to the basket.
"I felt like that's when Parker took over,'' Middle Tennessee State coach Rick Insell said. "What can you say?
"They did what they had to do. That's why they're a championship team."
What Parker started, teammate Alex Fuller finished with another free throw. In less than three minutes, that skimpy five-point lead had ballooned to 78-55 with 4:39 left.
Tennessee senior guard Alexis Hornbuckle, who contributed a 3-pointer to the 20-2 scoring run, finished with 17 points. Fuller scored 16 and grabbed seven rebounds.
Parker, who was 5-for-5 from the floor in the second half, had some serious competition for top billing from Blue Raiders forward Amber Holt. The 6-foot senior cast a long shadow herself, scoring 28 points and contributing five assists while playing the full 40 minutes.
"She's just a competitor,'' UT coach Pat Summitt said. "She has a lot of composure. She makes good decisions. She's a hard player to guard. The best way to guard her is to limit her touches."
Holt agreed with that advice.
"If you let me get it, something is going to happen,'' she said.
Holt was one of the Blue Raiders' dead-eye shooters from long range, where they connected on 11 of 24 3-point attempts. They convened a bomb squad at the outset, nailing four consecutive treys. Starr Orr scored nine of her 12 points during the barrage, enabling the Blue Raiders to open a 14-6 lead.
Tennessee quickly countered to regain the advantage at 16-14. For the Blue Raiders, the challenge grew as they got smaller. Brandi Brown, their tallest player at 6-3, got into deep foul trouble jousting with Parker and some of the other Lady Vols. Brown picked up four fouls before the first half was over.
Tennessee literally pressed its advantage, extending its defense in some fashion on virtually every possession. The Lady Vols' efforts to build a double-figure lead were stymied by a combined two points from starters Angie Bjorklund and Shannon Bobbitt. They settled for a 39-30 advantage at the break.
In the end, Bobbitt didn't score a point. UT's senior point guard did receive seven stitches in her forehead after taking a blow in the second half while battling for a rebound.
"She will be OK,'' Hornbuckle said. "Just a little incident, a little blood. She's good. She's a soldier."
Middle Tennessee State, on the other hand, couldn't overcome the blow of losing not only Brown but also forwards Emily Queen and Angelique Burtts. All three fouled out in a three-minute stretch of the second half, which served to super size Tennessee's strong finish.
"We're very aggressive; we do foul," Insell said. "Hey they knocked down their free throws. They probably deserved more opportunities, to be honest."