Lady Vols pass early season test

Four WNBA scouts watched Tuesday's matchup of top 10 teams and while there was senior star power on both teams, several youngsters likely caught their eye in Tennessee's 92-76 win over Miami.

"The Summitt" court at Thompson-Boling Arena had State Farm and Tipoff logos on the floor as the game was a tie-in to the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame, and the clash had a spring-like vibe as opposed to fall.

"It certainly felt like a March game in November," Tennessee Coach Pat Summitt said. "It was amazing … what intensity. I'm proud how our team responded. Obviously, this Miami team was really, really good and we knew that going in. Overall, I was very pleased."

The game also had a March feel because of unseasonably warm temperatures in Knoxville that felt like Miami packed its weather, too.

Tennessee Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick and Miami Coach Katie Meier both were sweating in the post-game press conferences.

"I feel like I played the game," Warlick said. "I'm sure I look like it. I'm drenched."

Both programs could have scheduled an early season game against an overmatched opponent, won by a landslide and learned essentially nothing. Instead, Miami (1-1) wanted a "measuring stick," as Meier said.

"That's exactly why Coach scheduled this game, so we could be ready later on in the season," Miami All-American Shenise Johnson said. "We got a great lesson here."

Tennessee (2-0) was anxious to see how it would perform against heavy pressure, a style of play that discomfited the Lady Vols last season.

Freshman point guard Ariel Massengale, who played the entire first half and 11 minutes of the second half before fatigue overtook her legs – she missed nearly all of October to recover from a concussion – provided the answer with 11 points, nine assists and four rebounds.

"She almost got a double-double as a freshman against a team that was second in the nation in steals last year," Meier said. "So she brings a whole heck of a lot and obviously it freed up (Meighan) Simmons to score more and let her leak out and get some plays behind the pressure, which killed us.

"They are a very good team, and Ariel is a huge addition, a huge addition. They are tough to beat."

Meighan Simmons, a sophomore shooting guard, handled the bulk of the point duties last season, and moved rather seamlessly back into the spot late in Tuesday's game. Senior forward Shekinna Stricklen also reprised her role as point guard to help close out the contest.

Massengale watched the end of the action from the bench after hitting a wall in the second half.

"I did," said Massengale, who should welcome Tennessee's off day on Wednesday. "Miami is a great team. They like to run. We like to run, and so just getting used to the college tempo and how hard you have to play on every possession, still trying to get used to it."

The final score is not indicative of how tight the game was – the two teams were tied at 42 at the break – and after the Lady Vols used a surge to build a 14-point lead, 60-46, less than four minutes into the second half, Miami hung on and managed to close the gap to just five points, 73-68, with 7:30 to play.

"I thought we would be a little bit more mature coming out of the half and not let them jump on us," Meier said. "That was a huge disappointment just because of the energy it required to make up for that run we gave up."

Taber Spani, with two seconds on the shot clock, hit a step-back three to extend the lead to eight points, 76-68 with 6:32 left in the game.

"There was a corner three that I thought was in (that would have cut the lead to three points), and they come down in that next possession and I believe Taber at the buzzer hit that," Meier said.

"I thought that was a huge turning point in the game."

Miami's next possession ended with a shot clock violation, and Isabelle Harrison got an offensive board and hit the put-back for a 78-68 lead, a double-digit margin that Tennessee never relinquished.

"We brought all this energy to close this gap again, and you saw a point where I think we just broke," Meier said. "Pepper Wilson hasn't played in really almost two years, and she played way more minutes than I expected her to play."

Shawnice "Pepper" Wilson, is a transfer from Pitt, and the 6'6 center battled the Lady Vols on the boards throughout her 16 minutes on the floor. Wilson finished with nine rebounds, and Miami won that battle overall, 45-38, holding on to the board lead after a whopping 28-15 lead at halftime.

"I was not pleased with our rebounding in the first half at all," Summitt said. "I thought they came out with the idea that they were going to dominate the boards. That really put us on our heels.

"But after halftime, we came out and really did a great job on the boards. The second half we improved greatly and it was our half on the boards."

The Lady Vols out-rebounded the Hurricanes, 23-17, in the second half. Still, Miami took the overall crown and that rarely happens to Tennessee.

"Nobody comes into Tennessee and out-rebounds them," Meier said. "They're the best rebounding team in the history of women's basketball. That's what they do."

For the second game in a row, the Lady Vols bolted to a large lead to start the second half.

"If you ever doubt if Pat Summitt is still coaching, look at how our team responds coming out in the second half," Warlick said. "She got on them pretty hard; we all did as a staff about our rebounding effort, our hustle plays that weren't there.

"So we challenged them. We challenged them for 20 minutes, and I think they responded. We're not going to play a flawless game, but we've got to get all the hustle plays."

It was Tennessee's offense – once again jump-started by its defense – that can be credited with tilting the momentum in the Lady Vols' direction.

"I think it was once again us picking up our defense and just really focusing on crashing the boards," Glory Johnson said. "They were hitting shots, and they weren't missing really in the first half.

"We were hitting shots, so something's got to change, so we've got to pick up our rebounding. They were out-rebounding us. Ultimately they ended up out-rebounding us, but once we picked up our defense, that changed a lot of things."

Tennessee got the first basket of the game on a turn-around layup by Vicki Baugh, but Miami answered 10 seconds later with a three from Riquna Williams. Miami got the lead to 10-4 after a Johnson steal and lay-in – precisely the thievery that had worried Tennessee – but the Lady Vols started connecting behind the back-to-back-to-back marksmanship of Spani, Simmons and Massengale.

Massengale's biggest contribution, however, was her ability to push the tempo and distribute the ball. When the Lady Vols went down early at home, it was the freshman who provided stability with the ball in her hands.

"I thought Ariel was key in the first half," Warlick said. "She played for 20 minutes, and you could see toward the second half, she got a little worn down, got a little physical. As a freshman, that kind of wears on you, and I don't think she's seen that much quickness and the game being that physical for her.

"I thought in the first half, she handled the ball and hit some key layups. She just gets the ball where the ball needs to be, and that's the great sign of a true point guard."

The first half was exactly what both programs expected, and it delighted the crowd of 12,151 that made it for an earlier-than-usual tip on a rainy evening that also brought fog because of the warmer weather.

"I thought this was going to be a huge test for us early," Warlick said. "I'm glad it was at home. Miami, they challenged us a lot. They challenged us to make sure we took care of the basketball.

"They challenged us to play one-on-one defense. It was a strong test for us, but we always schedule to get us ready."

Meier's team came to Knoxville ranked number seven in the country and planned to leave town with a signature win – Tennessee is now 343-20 all-time in the arena with a 38-game win streak. Instead, the Hurricanes get valuable game film in a page out of Summitt's scheduling philosophy – play teams who will expose weaknesses so that they can be addressed before postseason.

"When you have a weakness or do something wrong against a great team like Tennessee, they drive it down your throat and burn you for it, and they did," Meier said. "We expected it, and that was a good lesson for us. We wanted to win and we're planning on winning, we really were. There was no intimidation or anything like that. We were planning on winning this one so we are very disappointed, but we also came up here to get a lesson.

"That 3-2 zone was a great lesson for us, the length of that 3-2 zone. I told the kids, I know it's easy for me in a timeout to just draw up a play and say screen this one, roll down here or whatever, but it is a lot different out there for you because of their length. They had length on us in every spot out there and that was a very effective defense and a great job of coaching by them."

Tennessee switched back and forth from man-to-man to matchup zone with Glory Johnson causing issues anywhere she lined up for the Lady Vols.

"I don't know what position Glory Johnson plays," Shenise Johnson said to laughter in the post-game press conference. "She's a beast. She's a monster.

"We are a lot smaller than them, and we wanted to try and squeeze it in there (against the zone) and get inside the lane and we weren't able to do that with the size and length they had."

Harrison, a 6'3 post, also seemed to confuse Miami once when she got a defensive rebound, and nobody stopped the ball. Harrison went all the way to the other end, got fouled, and hit both free throws for an 80-68 lead with 5:24 left to play.

Tennessee's game plan was not for the posts to break Miami's vaunted pressure.

"We were really concerned about that, but I thought our guards handled it," Warlick said. "You saw our post players bringing the ball up the floor. We like doing a couple dribbles, but that wasn't by design that Izzy Harrison dribbles the length of the floor and shoots a layup, but we'll take it."

Harrison's three-point attempt late in the game when the outcome was in hand brought disbelief and then laughter from Tennessee's bench.

"We were all like, ‘Izzy!' " Spani said. "It almost went in, but I'm really glad Strick got the rebound. She (Harrison) came in and provided a great spark for us.

"She had to calm down a little bit, went out of the game, and then came back in, and she was ready to go that second time. We needed it. She stepped up."

Spani was ready to go from the opening tip. The junior sharpshooter was 4-8 from behind the arc and led Tennessee with 20 points.

"I think she's more comfortable with our system," Warlick said. "I think she's more comfortable just in her total game, and I think that happens when you do that in the summer and put a lot of time and effort in your game and work on fundamentals. I think that's what Taber did.

" … You're seeing her with a lot more confidence. We're putting her in situations where she thrives. She hit big threes for us, and she's answering. She's answering anything we ask her to do."

Tennessee's accelerated style of play has benefited Spani, who has been able to spot up for perimeter shots while the defense scrambles to stop the ball.

"Well, I think that's just a testament to obviously the system but to Rel and our point guards really pushing the ball," Spani said. "If we get out and run, then they're going to look for us, and that's what great point guard play does.

"Glory got a lot of open looks from Rel. It's our job to run, and they feed us. It's a total team effort."

Spani also has gotten in on the run fun. Spani, a tremendous football fan, fired a perfect pass – she joked that she hoped it cleared the safety – to Simmons in transition that the sophomore caught in stride for a second-half layup and an 84-68 lead with 4:21 left.

Spani wasn't on any preseason All-SEC teams, but she was on the radar of the Miami staff.

"We saw that exhibition game (when Spani hit seven of 10 threes), so she was pretty high on our list," Meier said. "You wouldn't think it, because it seemed like she got a lot of open looks, but we have a ton of respect for her.

"She hits great timely shots and is very composed. She played a special game, and she is going to have a special season. She is a great one."

Spani is just a junior so the WNBA scouts in attendance – one each from the Minnesota Lynx and San Antonio Silver Stars and two from the Connecticut Sun – can't draft her just yet, but she likely got on their radar, too. Simmons is just a sophomore but showed the ability to shoot, run the floor and distribute the ball with three assists. The knock on the youngster had been her shot selection, but she played a smart game Tuesday.

"I think Meighan probably took one bad shot, and that was when she first came in," Warlick said. "I thought she was under control. I thought she handled the ball. She hit some big shots, didn't turn the ball over, so I was very pleased with Meighan's effort and her defensive effort as well."

The scouts definitely were looking at Miami's guards Williams and Shenise Johnson. A freshman guard, Suriya McGuire, played a solid game with four points and two steals, showing signs of being able to step into a bigger role when they graduate.

The scouts also got a firsthand view of a heralded player responding to adversity. Stricklen was ineffective on both sides of the ball in the first half, and Simmons started in her place to open the second.

"I think the power of the bench says a lot, and for her not to start, for her to get her game in order," Warlick said.

Stricklen entered the game at the 15:57 mark and was a different player, getting aggressive on offense and energetic on defense. She finished with 15 points and seven boards.

"We've got to have Shekinna Stricklen put up big numbers to win, and that's the bottom line, and she didn't get the job done in the first half," Warlick said. "I thought she responded, came out and had some big buckets, big rebounds, handled the ball full court, handled the pressure.

"That's what we need Shekinna Stricklen to do."

Shenise Johnson, Miami's All-American, also had a quiet start but then got into a bit of a rhythm before halftime to tally nine points, while Stricklen had just three despite playing 14 minutes.

Johnson finished with 17 points, nine rebounds and a harsh self-critique of her game.

"I thought I didn't play well at all," Johnson said. "I wasn't aggressive enough at all. I had too many turnovers, too many timely turnovers. I don't think I played well at all, so my performance wasn't good enough. We lost."

Johnson was joined in double figures by Williams, whose 24 points led all scorers, and Morgan Stroman, who chipped in 11.

Miami shot 40.8 percent overall (29-71), 26.1 percent (6-23, including 0-9 in the second half) from behind the arc and 85.7 percent (12-14) from the line. The Hurricanes had 21 turnovers to 12 assists and seven steals.

Tennessee had five players in double figures led by Spani with 20 points, followed by Simmons with 18, Glory Johnson, 16, Stricklen, 15 and Massengale, 11.

The Lady Vols shot 47.8 percent overall (33-69), 50.0 percent (11-22) from the arc – it was the most made treys in Tipoff Classic history, besting the 10 by Vanderbilt in 1993 and Oklahoma in 2001 – and 75.0 percent (15-20) from the line.

Tennessee had 19 assists to 13 turnovers and six steals and scored 23 points off Miami's miscues.

Stricklen scored the last points for Tennessee with a drive to the hoop for a 92-73 lead with 30 seconds left. A Miami and-one play from Stroman accounted for the final 92-76 score.

The Hurricanes set up their pressure when Simmons took the in-bounds pass with 20 seconds left in the game and when they realized she was content to dribble in the backcourt, the Miami players backed off and then walked up to slap hands with her. Simmons obliged with her right hand while keeping the dribble with her left.

"Unbelievable game. Exciting game," Warlick said. " … And I think probably the most important thing was that it was a great team effort. When you have five of your players in double figures, it's a team effort, and I'm just very proud of those kids and what we did tonight.

"It was an exciting game tonight, and I'm glad we came out on top."

VIDEO COVERAGE

Tennessee Coach Pat Summitt via utsportstv

Lady Vol Meighan Simmons via utsportstv

Tennessee Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick

Lady Vols Taber Spani, Ariel Massengale, Glory Johnson

Miami Coach Katie Meier, players Riquna Williams, Shenise Johnson

To see action photos of the Lady Vols' victory provided by InsideTennessee.com's Danny Parker, check out the slideshow below:


Inside Tennessee Top Stories