Kelley Cain was missing a great women’s basketball game and there wasn’t much she could do about it.
Tennessee’s 6-foot-6 center stood near the end of the Lady Vols’ bench like a lonely sentry, rocking from one foot to the other. After picking up two fouls in the first three minutes, nine seconds of the State Farm Tipoff Classic against Baylor, she went from a lead performer to a supporting role.
“Just cheering them on,’’ she said, referring to her teammates. “That’s all I could do.”
Cain was back in character after halftime and her presence was instrumental in the Lady Vols’ 74-65 comeback victory before a crowd of 12,824 Sunday at Thompson-Boling Arena. She scored 13 of her 15 points in the second half. Seven came in the first 3 1⁄2 minutes, as No. 8 Tennessee converted a two-point deficit into a 36-26 lead. She also played a part in Baylor center Brittney Griner picking up three quick fouls. Suddenly, the roles were reversed for the two centers. The course of the game followed suit.
“Kelley Cain picked up two quick fouls and that handcuffed us,’’ UT coach Pat Summitt said. “But we had some people step in and do a good job. Last year when that happened, we struggled.”
No Lady Vol did more than point guard Shekinna Stricklen, who cobbled together an All-American-like performance with 25 points, a career-high 14 rebounds, five assists and three steals. After Baylor pulled within 62-55, the 6-foot-2 sophomore, who played the entire 40 minutes, swished a clutch baseline jumper with 4:41 left. She iced the outcome with four free throws in the final minute.
“When (Stricklen) makes those shots, it really picks up our team and lets us know that we’re still in it and that we aren’t going to let them come back,’’ Cain said.
Angie Bjorklund was Tennessee’s other double-figure scorer with 13 points.
Melissa Jones led No. 7 Baylor with 21 points, hitting all 10 of her free-throw attempts. Griner played 32 minutes and scored 15 points. She had three baskets but no dunks. Morghan Medlock had 10 points and 13 rebounds.
The Lady Bears lost the battle of the boards 42-39 and committed a game-high 22 turnovers.
“It was a great way to start off the season, other than the loss,’’ Baylor coach Kim Mulkey said.
While UT didn’t expect to play without Cain for most of the first half, the Lady Vols did have an unusual defensive plan for Baylor. Concerned about the Lady Bears’ dribble penetration as well as Griner’s looming presence, UT opened in a zone alignment and rarely budged.
“That’s the first time in 36 years that we started in a zone and stayed with it throughout the game,’’ Summitt said. “How about that?’’
Mulkey considered the strategy to be a compliment.
“Let me say this: This basketball program at Baylor is gaining respect,’’ she said. “Have you ever watched a game where Pat Summitt only played two possessions of man-to-man defense? That’s respect.”
The zone didn’t prevent foul trouble as Baylor built an 11-0 edge at the foul line in the first half. And it couldn’t cover for the Lady Vols misfiring at a 28.9 percent clip (11 for 38) at the break.
“We didn’t have composure and we rushed at the opening of the game,’’ Summitt said. “I told them at halftime, ‘OK you can settle down now. Most of these people are cheering for you.”
As soon as Cain wasn’t one of those people, they were fine.