Bonner scored a career-high 35 points and the unbeaten Tigers earned an 82-68 victory over the No. 10 Lady Vols on Sunday before an overflow crowd of 12,067, which broke the 20-year-old school mark by nearly 5,000 fans.
“I couldn’t even find a parking spot,” said Bonner, who arrived nearly two hours before the game and had little further difficulty finding open spots.
Both the fans and players were sensing a real shot at a rare win for Auburn (20-0, 5-0 Southeastern Conference) over the Lady Vols. The Tigers hadn’t beaten Tennessee (15-4, 4-2) in 12 years or at home since 1991, losing 24 of the previous 25 meetings and 16 straight — including an 85-52 rout last season.
Auburn opened 1,500 extra seats in the upper section of the arena for the game. The attendance topped the previous high of 7,150 against Tennessee in 1989.
The Tigers put on quite a show in the unfamiliar atmosphere.
“For Auburn it was truly a magical day, from walking out there at the beginning of the game and seeing the arena with that many people in it and playing in a game of that magnitude,” Tigers coach Nell Fortner said. “I know Pat (Summitt) has played in a lot of big games and the Tennessee program has. But this staff and this team has not. I think we played some very good basketball, some very inspired basketball.”
Summitt remained stuck at 998 career wins with a Lady Vols team that showed its youth against the quick, opportunistic Tigers.
“I’m learning something about patience,” she said.
Her teams had already forced the Tigers to do that.
Auburn hadn’t beaten Tennessee since a 61-59 win in the SEC tournament championship game on March 2, 1997. The Tigers are off to their second-best start in school history behind only the 1988-89 team, which won its first 28 games.
Top-ranked Connecticut (19-0) is the only other unbeaten team in Division I.
Summitt and Tennessee are used to playing before such big crowds, but she was glad to see the team catching on in Auburn.
“It’s about time these Auburn fans got into the gym and watched the women play basketball,” Summitt said. “Nell has done a great job. She’s got a great team.”
Bonner had 21 points in the second half and finished with nine rebounds and six steals. She made 14-of-16 free throws.
Whitney Boddie had 17 points and nine assists for Auburn. Alli Smalley scored 16 and the Tigers shot 48 percent while forcing 23 turnovers and converting them into 29 points.
Shekinna Stricklen led Tennessee with 26 points. Glory Johnson had 13 points and 10 rebounds.
The Tigers frequently swiped passes and outran Tennessee to the basket. They made seven fast-break layups in the opening 10 minutes of the second half.
Bonner and Boddie had back-to-back layups off the break and each was fouled and drilled the free throw during an early 10-0 second-half run that gave Auburn control.
“That was a great run,” Fortner said. “We changed up our defense. We pressed them in just a little soft press and changed our zone. I think that that made a difference. We got some steals, got our running game going. That’s a good thing for us.
“We like to push the ball. We have the ability to do that. I thought that was the difference in the ball game.”
Bonner’s off-balance bank shot gave Auburn a 73-49 lead with 4:23 left. The Lady Vols promptly scored the game’s next 14 points but couldn’t get within single digits.
“They got all the hustle plays and they just looked like they wanted it more than we did,” Stricklen said. “The turnovers really hurt us. That’s really what killed us in the game. We could see they had a lot of effort. They were in the passing lanes. They were just stealing the ball.”
The Tigers went on a 9-0 run late in the first half after Tennessee took its first lead at 23-22. Then, Briana Bass drilled a long 3-pointer at the buzzer to make it 31-26 at the half.
“The first half we don’t go to the free throw line,” Summitt said. “Maybe that says something about us not being aggressive enough. I think that’s the first of my career.”