STARKVILLE, Miss. — Outside Humphrey Coliseum the weather was sunny and clear Sunday afternoon. You could see forever.
Inside, Mississippi State couldn’t see anything against Tennessee’s zone defense. The Lady Vols came in and swept over the Lady Bulldogs like a thick layer of marine fog.
Tennessee never looked bigger or better in deploying its signature defensive wrinkle for this women’s basketball season. The strategy helped diffuse a threatening situation almost from the outset, propelling the Lady Vols to a 75-48 SEC victory before a crowd of 5,787, the third largest in State’s history.
A Saturday night video review of Mississippi State convinced UT coach Pat Summitt to use the zone alignment exclusively.
“They are very athletic,’’ Summitt said. “I thought we were able to negate some of that athleticism because of our size.”
Combine that with UT’s athleticism and efficiency and No. 4 Tennessee (14-1, 2-0 SEC) dominated. Glory Johnson and Angie Bjorklund each scored 16 points. Taber Spani added 12.
Johnson grabbed a career-high 15 rebounds.
UT committed just 10 turnovers, six in the first 33 minutes, against Mississippi State (11-5, 2-1), which had been gathering 23 per game on average.
“This was a good game for us,’’ Summitt said. “We knew coming in we had to be focused. This Mississippi State team, they’re very dangerous.”
Save for some sloppy moments down the stretch, the Lady Vols were all business. They never trailed. Their lead never dropped out of double figures after the 6:43 mark of the first half and grew as big as 32 points in the second half.
They were so intent that they still sounded wary in the post-game interview room. When asked about the game’s one-sided nature, Johnson said, “They are capable of making runs. We had to be ready for that.”
The tone was much different moments later when the Lady Bulldogs trudged in to answer for a season-low 28.1 percent field goal accuracy and all manner of insufficient effort.
State coach Sharon Fanning-Otis, a former UT graduate assistant, called several timeouts during the first half and channeled her inner Summitt in berating her team. Afterward, she was apologetic.
“Very, very, very disappointed,’’ she said. “For those of us from our area, we let you down.”
Alexis Rack scored a game-high 19 points, but the Lady Bulldogs senior guard took 22 shots and scored 12 of her points in the final 8:31.
The Lady Vols extended the front line of their zone to near halfcourt, which stopped State’s ballhandlers and steered them toward the sideline.
“I think it kind of scared them a little bit and they weren’t able to penetrate like they’re used to or kick out for threes,’’ Johnson said. “. . . I think it made it hard for them to do a lot of their stuff.”
Rack bemoaned State’s response.
“We were attacking it on the sideline,’’ she said. “We should’ve been taking it to the middle. It was hard to see over them the way we were attacking it.”
The 6-foot-3 Johnson played on the top of Tennessee’s defense. Yet she was able to get back toward the rim for 10 defensive rebounds.
On offense, she converted one of her rebounds in stunning fashion, spinning on the spot and scoring after contact.
Summitt said Johnson’s performance at both ends constituted her best game of the season.
“I think she needed this kind of game,’’ Summitt said, “not just for our team. I think she needed it for herself, to be able to go back and watch film.”
And clearly see how effective she was. The same could be said for her team.