Pressure defense paces Lady Vols

Taber Spani can fill up a box score with points – and she did so Tuesday with seven treys in the 93-45 exhibition win over Union – but it was her effort on the defensive side of the ball that stood out with deflections, ball denial and four steals.

Tennessee completed its exhibition portion of the season with the win over Union University, an NAIA powerhouse that was overmatched by the length and athleticism of the Lady Vols.

"I'm glad they didn't press the second half," Union Coach Mark Campbell said in the post-game press conference.

Tennessee called off its press after halftime, when the Lady Vols led 51-16 and the Lady Bulldogs had accrued more turnovers at 20 than points.

"I think we had 20 turnovers in the first half on 44 possessions," Campbell said. "I was really excited we were only down six rebounds, but then I remembered we didn't shoot very much."

The Lady Vols shot 53.3 percent in the first half aided by Taber Spani's 7-10 marksmanship overall before the break. Tennessee had a 19-13 edge on the boards that expanded to 39-23 by the end of the game. The Lady Vols shot even better in the second half at 57.1 percent and finished at 55.2 percent for the game.

The shooting against Carson-Newman last week was anemic by comparison at 44.0 percent, but that game also was preceded by a defense-only, up-tempo practice session because the coaches were peeved after a lackluster scrimmage on the last weekend of October. The day before Tennessee played Carson-Newman, the players didn't get to touch the ball on offense.

"That is as mad as I've seen her all year," Assistant Coach Mickie DeMoss said of Pat Summitt after the staff watched the scrimmage film.

The day before Tennessee played Union, the players worked on both sides of the ball, but Summitt and her staff had definitely made their point: Defense matters this season.

"Absolutely," said Spani, who was more excited after the Union game about her sideline steal than her offensive output. "I think it is our focus and the coaches'.

"That's what this program is built on. That's what we take pride in, and that's what we're going to have to do to get where we want to go. I think that the personnel that we have, everybody has really stepped up and taken a lot of pride individually and also as a team.

"I think it's showing. Obviously, there's a lot of room for improvement, but I think it's a good start."

Tennessee had 16 steals and scored 37 points off of Union's total turnovers of 31. In the first two exhibition games, the Lady Vols' opponents have lost the ball 65 times.

The ball squirted free from Union in a variety of ways – five-second call, three seconds in the lane, shot clock violation, passes tossed out of bounds, blocked shots, traveling violations, the player with the ball stepping on the sideline while caught in a trap and the vise-like effect of the Lady Vols' new zone trap defense that brings the frontline players to the top to harass the guards.

Freshman Isabelle Harrison, who played volleyball in high school and whose sister DeeDee Harrison is a standout Lady Vol volleyball player, was particularly impressive with four blocks and four steals, swiped mainly because of her sense of timing.

"I love Izzy up on the press," Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick said. "You can tell she's got a little bit of volleyball in her because of her timing and her blocked shots."

Harrison, a 6'3 forward, often teamed with fellow freshman Cierra Burdick, a 6'2 forward, to create havoc at the top of the press.

"I love Izzy's aggressiveness and Cierra's as well," Warlick said. "We're trying to put different people in different spots so that we won't get locked into a certain position.

"So, overall, I am very pleased with those two and the rest of the team as far as pressing tonight."

Seniors Glory Johnson (three steals) and Alicia Manning (four steals) also were effective in their traps. The tallest player on the roster, 6'4 Vicki Baugh, didn't even play, as she had a Tuesday evening graduate school class that she could not miss because students are not allowed multiple absences.

"Vicki had contacted me (Monday) night and said she needs to miss tonight because of class," Warlick said after the game. "She was in class tonight while we played, and she'll be able to miss (class) on Tuesday night when we play Miami (next week)."

Campbell noted the length and mobility of Tennessee's frontline this season.

"I think obviously that they are a little bit more athletic," Campbell said. "Isabelle makes them a whole lot more athletic inside, and they are a lot more mobile than they were in the post last year with (Kelley) Cain (a skyscraper at 6'6 who was hobbled by hip and knee ailments)."

The storyline besides the defense was the play of the three freshmen, Harrison, Burdick and point guard Ariel Massengale. The trio, so far, aren't playing like newcomers.

"The play of our freshmen was better tonight," Pat Summitt said. "They came in and didn't try to do too much. Really let the game come to them. I think getting those first game jitters out of the way in the Carson-Newman game was huge for them.

"Ariel came in from the start and got us going … having her in the role as our true point guard has a calming influence on this team. She gets everyone involved and is such a great distributor of the ball.

"Izzy continues to alter shots, and she is so long and rangy. She is only going to get better and better. She doesn't act like a freshman in the paint. I like the way she plays within herself. She likes to get it right every time and has great focus.

"Cierra continues to improve on defense. She is a great passer and likes to get her teammates involved."

Massengale, who had just been cleared last week after missing three weeks with a concussion, came off the bench in her first exhibition game. She started Tuesday against Union, a role that should become permanent based on her steadying effect on the team.

"It was a lot of fun," Massengale said. "I had a week of practice under my belt after being out for three weeks with an injury, and so I'm just getting back in the flow of things and playing with my teammates and getting ready for the season to start."

Massengale logged 22 minutes with four points, six assists, two rebounds and her steal. Her value to the Lady Vols won't always show up in the box score, but it's apparent to those watching the game, especially from the bench.

"When things weren't going right she put the ball under her arm and just totally took control, and that's what Massengale can do," said Warlick, a standout point guard for the Lady Vols from 1976 to 1980. "She, it's not slighting anybody else, Massengale, she's going to get the ball to where the ball needs to go.

"We said in the huddle, ‘You have to be ready at all times, on the break, in the half-court game.' She just understands how to get players the basketball, and that's the sign of a great point guard. You cannot teach how to pass to an open player. You can work it, work it, but in a game situation, she delivers the ball."

Massengale takes control on the court, and that has been missing for three seasons with two players, Shekinna Stricklen, a small forward, and Meighan Simmons, a shooting guard, forced into the position. Massengale has been playing the role for years and on big stages.

"I think it just comes from experience," Massengale said. "At a young age, I've had the opportunity to travel the world with USA Basketball, and I've played with some of the best in the world and the best in the United States of America.

"Just challenging myself and always being a student of the game, wanting to learn and be better, doing what I can for my teammates and my team."

Massengale also won't hesitate to correct a teammate and will do that even more as she gains more court time.

"If you have a solid point guard, and that's what she is for us, she gives a comfort level," Warlick said. "We had players come up after missing a shot and say, ‘Man, I'm sorry I ruined your assist.'

"I think our players understand the impact she has on our team. She's made Bree (Bass) a better point guard. She's made Meighan a better point guard. Those kinds of things are the signs of a great point guard. I just think she's going to get better and better for us."

Stricklen, who lined up at power forward against Union in Baugh's absence, smiled when asked about Massengale. Stricklen has willingly accepted playing all four positions at Tennessee, but she is relieved to have Massengale on board. Massengale and Briana Bass handled the point guard duties Tuesday, freeing Stricklen, a preseason All-American, to do what she does best – score.

"She makes a whole lot of difference," Stricklen said. "Just her tempo and pushing the ball up, she sees the whole floor very well and she's looking for the open player. She really looks to get us open, and she knows when she can drive.

"She is a good point guard, a true point guard. That's what we really need and we finally have that."

Stricklen tallied 17 points by working inside – she was 1-2 from behind the arc – and also added six rebounds, three assists and a block. She remains one of the most versatile players in the country as she can play one through four, and Summitt has started Stricklen - her consecutive starts are now in triple digits, including exhibition games – all over the court.

"I just wait (for her decision)," Stricklen said. "Wherever they put me is for the best of the team, and there's no complaining at all. Wherever they put me, that's where I'm going."

In the first half the ball was going to Spani.

"Taber was in a ‘zone' in the first half and forced them to pull a little bit out of their zone defense," Summitt said. "It was good to see her shoot the ball like that."

Of the junior forward's seven made shots before the break, six came from assists – two from Massengale, two from Burdick and one each from Stricklen and Manning.

"When she knocked that first one down, I said, ‘Well, let's keep running the same play until they stop it,' " Massengale said. "And she kept knocking it down, so of course we're going to go to the person who's hot."

Seeing Spani loft high-arcing three balls is a familiar site during Lady Vol games. But Spani also earned praise after the game for her defense. That is a new development.

The game opened with Spani swishing treys from opposite corners, followed by Stricklen scoring at the rim for an 8-3 lead. Then, Spani deflected an in-bounds pass on Tennessee's end of the floor, gathered the loose ball, drove the court and flipped the ball to a trailing Simmons for a 10-3 lead.

Later in the half, she stripped a pass intended for a Union player, dove on the floor to recover the ball and, while still down, passed ahead to a teammate.

"Definitely the steal," Spani said when asked which she liked better – thefts or raining treys. "The threes are the easy part."

Spani spent her first two season on campus dealing with injury – a serious foot condition that severely limited her for more than a year and then a buildup of scar tissue in her elbow that required preseason surgery. She's healthy now and showed signs Tuesday that her defensive game could complement her offensive one.

Defense has been emphasized by the coaches since workouts started in late August, with the players getting the message that they have to play both ends to log extended minutes. With Tennessee down to nine players with Baugh in class and Kamiko Williams still in knee rehab, Spani tallied the most minutes at 30.

"It's wonderful to see," Warlick said. "I think Taber gets a lot of energy off her three-point shooting, and obviously tonight she was lights out from the three-point line.

"Taber's worked really hard in practice on her defense, and I think tonight it carried over."

"I think the fact that I've had an off-season to actually get in better shape and not rehab something has been great personally," Spani said.

The crowd, announced at 11,332, enjoyed the defensive play – that pressure style has been missing the past three seasons – and Summitt saluted them after the game.

"I'd like to mention our fans … over 11,000 for our exhibition games," Summitt said. "Hats off to the Lady Vol fans! Our crowds have been great in the first two exhibitions, and our players really feed off of their enthusiasm."

Tennessee's press was swarming and there wasn't a letdown when the coaches went to the bench.

"We've put a lot of time in our press, and it makes us very aggressive," Warlick said. "We're an athletic team, and we should be very good at it. Right now we are good at it, and I think the last two games have given us an opportunity to work on our press, on our defense.

"It's going to be a staple for us this year just because of how active and athletic we are."

Perhaps the surprising aspect of the press is that the three freshmen aren't just trying to keep up – they actually can improve the defense when they are on the floor. Midway through the first half all three were on the floor together, and there was no drop-off.

"I thought they had the ability, but until you see them out there and play, you don't really know how they're going to perform," Warlick said. "I think especially with Izzy up on the press, I think she's had a chance to watch Glory and see what Glory's done.

"She's picked it up really well, and Cierra and Ariel (are, too). They like that style of play, and they did it this summer (with USA Basketball), so I think it's natural to them. It kind of fits into our scheme."

Still, Massengale's rapid development has been eye-popping, especially since she missed nearly all of preseason.

"I think Ariel is a lot better defender than I thought," Warlick said. "I thought she'd be good. She has the potential to be a great defender for us. She's really tough on the ball, puts a lot of pressure, and that's what we're preaching: ball pressure, being aggressive, and she just does it naturally.

"From that standpoint I was a little surprised, but when I'm around her and the more I see her play, now I'm not surprised because I've witnessed it, and I see how relentless she is."

Massengale is preternaturally calm – a welcome attribute for a point guard – and smiled when asked if adjusting to defense, often a struggle for freshmen, has been a challenge.

"No, it's been pretty easy," Massengale said. "My high school team was very up-tempo, trapping, pressing other teams. On USA Basketball, defense was the main thing, and we get after it day in and day out, so one reason I chose Tennessee was because of the way they play defense.

"That's how I like to play."

Summitt raised eyebrows when she announced a year ago, right after Signing Day, that Massengale would be her starting point guard this season. Now, that pronouncement – uttered before Massengale even stepped on campus – doesn't seem so startling.

"She's had that confidence," Warlick said. "She's put in a lot of time. I know she's worked with her father (Carvel Massengale) a lot, and she's developed a lot of confidence.

"We're glad she's at Tennessee."

Tennessee started the game by hitting shots, led by Spani with Massengale directing the ball her way since the junior had the hot hand. Union crowded the paint to deal with the Lady Vols size and athleticism inside – Stricklen was a fill-in post, but she's 6'2 – and left the outside vulnerable.

"I think it was more important to hit shots because they were playing a zone, and that's what we're going to have to do, if a team is going to come out and take the inside away, we're going to have to knock shots down on the perimeter," Spani said.

"I think that was nice for us, to break their pressure and their game plan. Obviously, we want to play to our strengths, whatever game it is, and they were playing by packing it inside, so that's our job, to hit shots."

The Lady Vols were not only hitting shots, they were sharing the basketball. Of the first seven made baskets, six were assisted. The one that wasn't came from a Massengale steal of a cross-court pass, which led to her open layup.

When Stricklen hit a corner three on a pass from Manning, the Lady Vols led 20-8 less than six minutes into the game, and the lead stayed in double digits, swelling to a 35-point margin by halftime with the score 51-16.

The defense was the first half highlight with the Lady Vols forcing Union into timeouts in the backcourt and rushed shots when they did try to run their offenses.

The Lady Vols dropped the full court pressure in the second half and worked on their half-court man and matchup zone schemes. Union scored 16 points in the first half and 29 in the second.

"I think we really feel privileged to come and play Tennessee," Campbell said. "To not only play against great players, but the greatest coach that has ever been in women's basketball, so for us it's a privilege to be able to come.

"The thing is, it is honest. Our job, and my job as a coach, is really to present an honest picture with our team and what we have to get better at. Obviously, playing the best is going to expose those things."

Union shot 35.8 percent (19-53) for the game, 33.3 percent (5-15) from the arc and 100 percent (2-2) from the line. The Lady Bulldogs had 31 turnovers, 11 assists and seven steals.

"I was proud of our girls," Campbell said. "I felt like our effort was consistent all night long. I felt like circumstances didn't dictate our emotions and one of the best things that we can teach our kids while we are here is that exact thing – that circumstances don't dictate. I felt like they played hard."

NAIA All-American Lavanda Ross led the way for Union with 17 points, seven rebounds and four assists.

"Like coach said, just getting better," Ross said of the experience. "Tennessee is a big challenge, so it opened up our weaknesses and getting better for the season. Our goal was to work hard throughout and compete and that is what we did."

Tennessee's freshmen weren't just impressive on the defensive end of the floor. Burdick showed her midrange game and had a nice floater in the lane, and Harrison finished her layups at the rim.

Harrison was 3-3 from the field and 5-8 from the line for 11 points, while Burdick was 4-7 and 1-2 for nine points. Spani led the way with 25 points with Stricklen adding 17 points and Simmons also reaching double figures with 10.

Manning had the assist of the game when she fired a football pass nearly from the baseline after a loose ball scramble and hit Simmons in stride for a layup in the second half that gave Tennessee a 70-25 lead with 13:01 left in the game.

The Lady Vols' defense stayed aggressive with the last points of the game coming with Burdick scoring at the rim after a Manning steal with a minute to play. On Tennessee's next possession, Spani dribbled out the final 25 seconds of the clock for the final score of 93-45.

Tennessee shot 55.2 percent (32-58) for the game, 40.0 percent (8-20) from the arc and 72.4 percent (21-29) from the line. The Lady Vols had 19 assists, 17 turnovers, 16 steals and nine blocks.

The miscues were the one item in the box score that the coaches didn't like.

"I thought our biggest concern tonight was our turnovers; we had 17, way too much for us, and those are things we need to work on," Warlick said.

"I think we had a tendency to get a little complacent. … We've got to work on things we need to and taking care of the ball. We've got to get better at that."

Ross offered a scouting report for opponents who play Tennessee.

"Transition, box out and get out on the shooters," Ross said.

Campbell thanked Tennessee for its treatment. Union is making the transition from NAIA to NCAA Division II.

"If this is a representation of how Tennessee treats us when we come on the road, the NCAA does a great job of hospitality," Campbell said.

"We have played several Division I teams and no one treats us like Tennessee does. It is first class from the moment we get here to the moment we leave."


Tennessee Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick

Lady Vols Taber Spani, Ariel Massengale, Shekinna Stricklen

Union Coach Mark Campbell (with his son), player Lavanda Ross

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