A visit from the U.S. national team brought out the competitor in virtually every Tennessee Lady Vol.
As for their inner rebounders, they were waiting for another day or a less imposing opponent.
That's the sort of trade-off Tennessee wrestled with throughout Sunday afternoon's women's basketball exhibition game. The best the Lady Vols could do against their accomplished opponent was to make crunch time matter.
They literally scrambled to within three points before the U.S. asserted its final authority to win 83-72 before a crowd of 13,927 at Thompson-Boling Arena.
"They obviously made the big plays when they had to make the big plays,'' UT coach Pat Summitt said. "I thought we had a great run late in the second half."
Senior guard Alexis Hornbuckle, balancing on one foot near the sideline, saved a loose ball and set a transition play in motion that ended with Shannon Bobbitt's 3-pointer, pulling UT within 73-70 with 3:48 left. The U.S. responded by scoring the final four baskets and 10 of the last 12 points, snuffing any chance of Tennessee recreating the rally of 1999 that ended in a 65-64 victory over the national team.
"We had a great challenge,'' said U.S guard Kara Lawson, a former Lady Vol who hit the game-winning shot against the U.S. in '99. "Tennessee played very, very well. They forced us to execute in the second half and get the win."
U.S. guard Diana Taurasi reprised her role as Tennessee tormentor by scoring a game-high 28 points. The former University of Connecticut star also grabbed nine rebounds and dished out four assists.
The UT fans were mostly cordial to their old nemesis. Taurasi complimented the new and improved arena.
"It looks great,'' she said. "It's like an NBA arena with the seats and boxes. I don't see why Knoxville wouldn't be the next franchise for the WNBA."
Taurasi was one of four U.S. players scoring in double figures. Center Lisa Leslie, who's four months removed from having a baby, scored 18 and grabbed a game-high 12 rebounds. She more than covered for her seven turnovers with six steals, six blocks and five assists.
"I haven't been through a pregnancy," teammate Seimone Augustus said. "But to see Lisa (Leslie) come back and be in that great of shape and form, to be able to come back and do what she's done, it's amazing."
Augustus added 12 points, and Sue Bird had 11.
Tennessee's best response came from Candace Parker, who recovered from a slow first half to record team highs for points (22) and rebounds (seven). In her first start, freshman Angie Bjorklund scored 13. Hornbuckle played 39 minutes, gathering six rebounds, five assists and five steals to go with her seven points while committing no turnovers.
Summitt predictably zeroed in on the 45-31 disparity in rebounds. The U.S. advantage essentially snuffed Tennessee's final rally. After Bobbitt's aforementioned trey, Taj McWilliams-Franklin rebounded a Leslie miss and was fouled. She converted both free throws for her only two points. On the next U.S. possession, Leslie scored a rebound basket. The Lady Vols never recovered.
"Our board play has got to pick up,'' Summitt said. "... We talked about this a year ago. We're talking about it the first exhibition game."
This wasn't any exhibition game, however. Hornbuckle realized that every time she jousted with the opposition.
"Those are some big girls,'' said Hornbuckle, who was quick to emphasize: "Not in a bad way."
Regarding the rebounding, she said the physical disparity sometimes made her feel like a girl going against women.
"They own you like a little kid,'' Hornbuckle said.
Likewise, it's not every day that Parker faces a hero. She said that she's been watching Leslie play since she 10 or 11 years old.
"I'm not aging her on that,'' she Parker said. "I'm just saying I've grown up watching her. (She's) been my hero."
At 6-foot-5, Leslie presented an imposing challenge. The U.S. also used extra defenders to shadow Parker and eclipse her at times in the first half.
"I think it was just me,'' Parker said. "I wasn't demanding the ball in the first half. I made an adjustment."
If it wasn't for Tennessee's freshmen, the game could've been a rout by halftime. Bjorklund and Sydney Smallbone, who scored eight points, combined for the Lady Vols' first five baskets and 14 of their first 16 points.
A Smallbone 3-pointer gave UT its first lead at 16-13 at 10:25 before halftime. The first-year guard also scored points by getting back on defense despite losing a shoe after a driving layup.
"I thought Angie and Syd had a lot of composure,'' Summitt said.
As noted, the Lady Vols also had a lot of fight, but that wasn't enough.
"I told our basketball team we didn't invite (the U.S) here just to compete with them,'' Summitt said. "We wanted to beat them."