NEW YORK – Up on the concourse level at Madison Square Garden fans were getting their blood pressure checked at a health expo.
Meanwhile, downstairs in Tennessee’s locker room, coach Pat Summitt was checking pulses.
It was all part of the Maggie Dixon Classic, a women’s basketball event honoring Dixon – the former Army coach – who died at age 28 because of an undiagnosed heart condition.
Summitt embraced the spirit of the occasion, commending Dixon’s ambitions and saying “We don’t know why sometimes the good Lord takes some of the best first.”
The heat of the moment, though, was motivating her actions. A 14-point first-half lead against Rutgers had melted to five at the break and Summitt was frustrated and perplexed.
“I thought we started out playing pretty good,’’ she said. “Then for whatever reason, the energy level went down.”
So on a Sunday afternoon, Summitt convened what she called a “prayer meeting.”
The Lady Vols responded, finishing what they started for a 68-54 victory before a crowd of 7,190. Guard Shekinna Stricklen led No. 4 Tennessee (8-0) with 19 points. Glory Johnson and Alyssia Brewer each scored 10.
Brittany Ray scored a game-high 29 points for Rutgers (7-5).
Tennessee overcame 19 turnovers with a 43-32 edge in rebounds and by converting 26 of 33 free-throw attempts (78.8 percent). The Lady Vols also shot 52 percent from the floor (13-for-25) in the second half.
Neither the locker room scene nor the second-half performance matched the drama of last season, when UT erased a 20-point deficit against Rutgers for a 55-51 victory. But that didn’t detract from the satisfaction.
“All in all,” Summitt said. “I thought we had a pretty good close out.”
Despite Johnson going to the bench with early foul trouble, the Lady Vols utilized their height advantage by working the ball inside and bolting to a 21-7 lead.
The Scarlet Knights didn’t help their cause by starting four guards. Still, coach C. Vivian Stringer noticed one of her biggest players – 6-foot-2 Chelsey Lee – standing next to Tennessee’s 6-6 Kelley Cain on the court and marveled at the difference.
“She looks like a child over there,’’ Stringer said of Lee. “She looks like a midget.”
The Scarlet Knights reconfigured their lineup as best it could. Their best strategy was using their defense to cut Tennessee down to size. They limited the Lady Vols to just three baskets and nine points in the final 10 minutes, 54 seconds of the first half.
Rutgers’ gritty, determined work enabled them to close within 30-25 at halftime.
“Their defense was great,’’ Stricklen said. “They were everywhere. Their intensity on defense is high. They’re all up in your face.”
Watching the lead shrivel added to Johnson’s discomfort as a spectator.
“Me getting in foul trouble isn’t helping anybody,’’ she said. “It’s tough sitting there, watching them struggle.”
While Johnson returned in the second half, Ray wasn’t going away. One of her five 3-pointers pulled Rutgers within 40-39 with 13:17 left.
“She’s a player; she just can do it all,’’ Summitt said. “Did we do a great job? No. I thought we could’ve done a much better job of denying and defending penetration.”
UT’s defensive work on Ray’s teammates, though, wasn’t too shabby. Nine other Scarlet Knights combined to score 25 points and shoot 26.8 percent (11-for-41) from the floor.
“We needed a lot more help other than Brittany Ray,’’ Stringer said.
Tennessee finally slammed the door on any Rutgers’ comeback with Stricklen swishing a pull-up jumper and hitting four free throws in the final 1:42.
“When patterns broke down, Tennessee made plays,’’ Stringer said. “When patterns broke down for us, we have young people that need to step up.”