Lady Vols return to practice court

The Lady Vols returned to practice Thursday after a day off following the up-tempo Miami game and used the session to "clean up" some aspects on the offensive side of the ball, according to Assistant Coach Mickie DeMoss.

Next up for Tennessee (2-0) is a matchup on the road against Virginia (3-0). The Lady Vols will depart Saturday for Charlottesville with tipoff set Sunday for 2 p.m. Eastern at John Paul Jones Arena. The game is not being televised but is available on (formerly ESPN3) via cable providers.

"We took a punch, and we have to throw a punch on Sunday," Virginia Coach Joanne Boyle said. "I don't mean that literally, I'm just saying we have to come out more prepared and we have to be physical."

Boyle's remarks came after Virginia's 67-41 win over High Point on Wednesday. Boyle, who played at Duke and coached at Cal, is in her first year at the helm for the Cavaliers.

"I don't think we played physical, and I don't think we boarded well early," Boyle said. "We got pushed around and that (caused) us to be tentative out there. I don't want to be a tentative team so we're going to have to rebound the basketball and play physical against them, really move the ball around, change them up, and we have to take care of the ball.

"Slow them down, they're a good team, they're a fast team, a great team."

Virginia has opened the season with wins over Appalachian State, Providence and High Point.

"We've had to take it one game at a time and now we can look forward to that game and start preparing for (Tennessee)," Virginia sophomore forward Jazmin Pitts said.

The Lady Vols had planned to take an off day Wednesday and the wisdom of that decision was underscored by the up-and-down pace of Tuesday's 92-76 win over Miami.

"They needed to rest," Assistant Coach Mickie DeMoss said.

Point guard Ariel Massengale played the entire first half after missing nearly all of October to recover from a concussion.

"I didn't think that we did a great job of substituting with Massengale and Taber in the first half," DeMoss said.

Forward Taber Spani played all but one minute before the break and the entire second half. Massengale headed to the bench late in the second half after hitting a wall.

In hindsight, DeMoss said the staff decided the two players needed a breather in the first half.

"We were very aware of it (the fact both were on the floor for extended minutes early), but we knew Miami was so explosive that one bad combination in there they could have gone on a run," DeMoss said. "We were just being cautious, but we learned we've got to get her (Massengale) out and get her some rest. It caught up with her in the last five minutes of the game."

Massengale's take-charge attitude has put her in the starting lineup immediately at the sport's most critical position. Midway through the second half with Miami charging back, Massengale had the presence of mind to call a timeout when Meighan Simmons got trapped on the baseline and was about to get a five-second call.

Massengale also is a freshman who missed three weeks of preseason practice, including conditioning sessions. Spani is a junior who was finally healthy after dealing with foot and elbow injuries and spent the off-season working on her conditioning.

"She's healthy," DeMoss said. "Her body has changed. She moves better. She has a lot more confidence."

Spani was 7-14 from the field overall, 4-8 from long range – her step-back three in the second half with two seconds on the shot clock after Miami had cut the lead to eight deflated the Hurricanes – and 2-3 from the line for 20 points with five boards, three assists, one steal and just two turnovers against a withering defense in 39 minutes of play.

Spani was recruited because of her shooting ability, but her defense is earning kudos.

"She worked on her defense this summer, and it shows," Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick said after the Miami game. "I think Taber is no longer a liability on the defensive end as she was probably last year. I'm very proud of Taber and the game and the numbers she's putting up."

Spani had been limited on that side of the ball in her first two seasons, especially with the serious foot injury, but has been an active and energetic defender in man and zone schemes in the first two games.

"We had her on their All-American," DeMoss said, referring to Miami senior guard Shenise Johnson.

Johnson had a quiet start to the game but then got into a bit of a rhythm before halftime. She finished with 17 points on 8-19 shooting overall, 1-5 from behind the arc and was critical of her overall play in the post-game press conference.

Freshman forward Cierra Burdick (two minutes) and senior forward Alicia Manning (seven minutes) were possible replacements for Spani but the coaches didn't feel Burdick was ready because of the perimeter defensive assignment.

"I thought the game with Miami, because we had her at the three, she was going to have to guard a really quick perimeter, a senior (in Johnson), and handle their press," DeMoss said. "It was a tough call right then. We were just not quite sure she was ready for that game, the tempo, handling the ball.

"I talked to her today and said, ‘We didn't feel comfortable putting you in that situation. Will you be ready? Sure. I hope by midseason we'll feel good about you stepping into that spot (under similar circumstances).' "

Manning had zero boards in her six first-half minutes, a surprising stat, because the gritty senior typically crashes the glass on both ends when she takes the court. Manning is likely to redeem herself in that category quite soon.

"She wasn't rebounding," DeMoss said. "We had to play people that we thought could help us on the boards."

Also, because Spani was shooting so well, the coaches didn't want to remove a player who had such a hot hand.

"Good lord, she shot the ball well," DeMoss said.

The team got back on the practice court Thursday with a couple of WNBA representatives in attendance, as scouts often want to watch those sessions in addition to games. How a player practices – and especially listens and learns – is another indicator for scouts seeking players who will be successful pros.

Tennessee's defense was stout in Tuesday's game, especially its matchup zone, which flummoxed the Hurricanes for the most part as they shot 0-9 from behind the arc in the second half.

"Our zone defense looked really good in the second half," DeMoss said. "It just stagnated them. They didn't get a lot of great looks out of it.

"We handled their pressure OK. We had a little spurt there (in the second half where the ball got too loose). Massengale got fatigued. But if you take that out of the equation, I thought we handled their pressure pretty good. Six turnovers at halftime is pretty dang good."

Thursday's session focused on the offense and tweaking some of the looks, especially since scouting film is readily available with the first two Tennessee games being televised.

"Keep fine-tuning our offense," DeMoss said. "We had to clean up some things with a couple of our half-court sets. People are scouting us. We've got to make things work. We've got to make better reads."

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