Lady Vols stumble against Virginia

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. - Taber Spani delivered a solid hand slap to the wall underneath the stands as soon as she got off the court Sunday afternoon, a fierceness missing from the team overall in the 69-64 loss to Virginia.

"Anytime a team's at home and playing in front of a great crowd, we understand that being the No. 3-ranked team in the country, everyone is going to play their best against us and that's what they did," Taber Spani said.

It is a situation that the junior forward apparently understands - Spani said the same thing Friday - but it has not yet seeped in team-wide as Tennessee, despite solid days of preparation leading into Sunday, stumbled on game day.

Spani did her part. She played 42 minutes with 22 points and was 4-10 from behind the arc on a day the Lady Vols shot 20.8 percent as a team from long range - and had just two turnovers despite the extended court time.

But Tennessee (2-1) had 24 turnovers overall, which Virginia (4-0) turned into 27 points.

"We had 24 turnovers, and when you have 24 turnovers that amount to 27 points, that's hard to overcome," Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick said. "It's just a tough loss for us, and we've got to get better. That's the bottom line."

Tennessee also misfired from the free throw line with senior forward Glory Johnson going 5-13.

"I've got to finish at the free throw line," Johnson said. "When I get the opportunity to go to the free throw line, knock them down."

Johnson had plenty of opportunities at the line because Virginia swarmed her when the ball went inside. Post Vicki Baugh was out for the game with tightness in her left hamstring, which had been bothering her Friday and Saturday.

"It wasn't anything that she did," Warlick said. "It was just tight, and she didn't feel comfortable with it. She has not injured her knee. She just didn't feel comfortable."

Baugh was missed on both ends. Her length makes a zone defense even more effective, and she attracts a lot of attention on offense.

"Definitely missed Vicki Baugh because she took a lot of that pressure off of me," Johnson said. "I love playing with Vicki. She is a powerful player. It takes a lot of the pressure off of me because they normally double-team Vicki. Can't wait to have her back."

Johnson was 5-6 from the field, but wasn't getting the ball that much and found little room to operate when she did.

"There was somebody always on Glory," Warlick said. "I would have liked for her to get a lot more shots, but I think it was a credit to Virginia and their game plan. They were going to make us make plays from the outside."

That can be a risky strategy against Tennessee because of its sharpshooters, but it worked Sunday because the Lady Vols lost their composure overall. Meighan Simmons moved into the starting lineup with Baugh out and played the way she had in the exhibition games - out of sync with the others on the floor. Five minutes into the game Simmons had taken five shots - and hit just one of them - while her teammates had taken one each.

Simmons finished 1-7 for the game - and spent a long stretch on the bench in the second half - and her one made shot put Tennessee ahead in the first half, 11-10, at the 15:20 mark. Spani connected on a three-pointer at the 13:34 mark of the first half for a 14-10 lead.

But the ball kept squirting loose, and the Lady Vols never got into any offensive rhythm as Virginia kept them off balance with different zone looks.

Ariel Massengale had been solid at the point for the Lady Vols in the first two games but struggled against Virginia's zone defense with seven turnovers. She did have seven assists and four steals and adjusted to the zone better in the second half when she attacked it and dished to teammates.

"We needed a little bit more penetration and getting into the gaps and into the defense," Warlick said. "Ariel was one of the main ones that was getting into the gaps."

Massengale brought the Lady Vols back in the final five minutes - she accounted for six points with a driving, banked-in shot and two assists - before fouling out in overtime with 28 seconds left and was visibly upset on the bench.

Massengale also had four rebounds, including a key offensive one in the second half, which she delivered to Johnson for a layup and 48-47 lead with 12:52 left in the game, the Lady Vols first lead since the score was 20-19 in the first half with nine minutes before the break, when the teams went to the locker room with the score knotted at 29.

The Lady Vols had followed her lead in the first two games, as Massengale showed a willingness to talk and get the team organized.

"She is a freshman and hasn't been in these environments," Warlick said. "We are still going to put a lot of trust in Ariel. She is a great point guard for us and we need her running the show.

"At times the game is physical and it's up and down and I think sometimes it wears on Ariel a little bit. I think as the game goes on and the year goes on I think she'll get more accustomed to that."

Massengale played the first road game of her college career, and while she will find her voice over the course of the season, her teammates' silence spoke volumes about the outcome.

"I think everyone just made a lot of little mistakes, and as the game was going on they just got bigger and bigger and bigger," Johnson said. "We weren't really getting back and we weren't really communicating with each other.

"It got really quiet on the floor. When we make mistakes, whether it's your fault or not, we have to talk with each other. It was a little too quiet on the floor."

It is a quirk of the team - one of the closest-ever off the court - that adversity on the court can cause the players to go silent.

"We didn't communicate very well at all," senior guard/forward Shekinna Stricklen said. "That has been a problem for us. If our offense is not going, we kind of shut down, and that is something we really want to turn around.

"We've got five seniors and a lot of this I blame on the seniors, the veterans, and I take a lot of responsibility for it, too. On the court we have to make sure we are on the same page. We have got to communicate."

Stricklen, who played 43 minutes and finished with 16 points and 14 rebounds, also saluted the Cavaliers.

"I give a lot of credit to Virginia, but I really blame myself," Stricklen said. "The energy, the communication, the defense, the free throws, our three-point shooting, myself zero for six. Taber was the only one really hitting.

"We've just really got to work on a lot. I give a lot of credit to them, but I do blame us for us."

It was a laundry list of shortcomings made all the more surprising because of how Tennessee has started the season, especially the demolition of Miami earlier in the week. But the Lady Vols also had started slow in the first two games and had relied on surges to start the second half to put away the opponent.

The second half Sunday started with four turnovers for Tennessee in a little more than three minutes and suddenly Virginia was up seven points, 38-31, with 16:42 to play.

"It finally caught up with us," Stricklen said. "We were struggling in the first half. What we do in the second half, we have to do in the first half. We have to really bring energy from the start.

"We have to go to the boards from the start. We have to bring our defense from the start of the game and not just in the second half."

Virginia held the lead until 6:57 remained in the game when Johnson hit the layup off the feed from Massengale. The Cavaliers got it back, 49-48, on a layup by Chelsea Shine and twice built it to four points, but Tennessee tied it at 54 with a turn-around by Isabelle Harrison with 3:39 to play and then again at 56 when Massengale drove and dished to Stricklen.

Virginia guard China Crosby hit a baseline jumper over Massengale with one second on the shot clock, and Spani answered on Tennessee's end with a jumper to tie the game at 58. Johnson blocked Ariana Moorer's shot with two seconds left, and the game went to overtime.

The extra session started out well for Tennessee when Massengale drove and kicked out to Spani, who buried the trey for a 61-58 lead at the 4:04 mark of overtime. But Tennessee would not score again until Spani hit a three-pointer with four seconds left. In between Tennessee lost the ball three times and misfired on three shots, and Virginia scored 11 points with seven coming from the free throw line.

"We weren't composed," Warlick said. "We didn't get easy shots, the clock ran down, and we could have taken better shots. The sign of a good team is to be composed and get the shots that you want.

"But I think a lot of it had to do with Virginia and what they were doing defensively. Give them the credit, they worked hard, they contested every shot. We just didn't handle it at times. They were ready to play and we weren't."

That has to be particularly vexing for the coaches because the scouting report identified the zone looks that Virginia would show, and the Lady Vols worked on offensive execution against the zone in practice with an emphasis on attacking the soft spots - something Massengale did very well in the second half.

"I have a lot of respect for their defense," Assistant Coach Mickie DeMoss said. "They were holding their opponents to 42 points or less and we looked at that stat and thought, wow.

"We watched them on tape and they play a true matchup zone. They did not give us a lot of breathing room. They had our 3-point shooters covered and when we tried to get the ball inside they got a lot of tips on our passes. I have to give Virginia a lot of credit on their defense."

The coaches also have preached about the need to secure the basketball and not telegraph passes and have added drills to practice beginning in preseason to address it.

"Taking care of the ball has been our demise this year," Warlick said. "We've worked on that quite a bit in practice, and we've got to carry over what we do in practice to a game situation. We weren't in sync. Their zones gave us some fits. We needed to penetrate more.

"I thought that if we got into overtime we would be good and settle down, but we missed layups, we missed free throws. You can't beat a good team on the road if you don't do those things and if you don't take care of the ball. It's just not going to happen."

Virginia had its own share of offensive issues as the Cavaliers shot 25.0 percent from behind the arc and made just one more field goal - 25 to Tennessee's 24 - over the course of the 45-minute game.

But Virginia took a page out of Pat Summitt's script and battled on the boards - the Cavaliers had the lead 24-20 at halftime on the glass - and played stout defense to overcome the offensive shortcomings.

"I think the biggest thing about our zone is to stay aggressive in it," Virginia Coach Joanne Boyle said. "We just didn't want to give them easy looks at the threes. I thought we covered ground pretty well. We had to make substitutions because they were putting people on the baseline, and kind of screening the back end of the zone. We just covered for each other and stayed aggressive.

"We tried to make them play as far out as possible. It didn't always work, but we really tried to just push them back and make them play 20 feet away from the basket. Again, it was the girls' intensity. I saw them communicating out there with each other. We changed zones up. We came out of timeouts and changed things. We came out of halftime and changed things. We just tried to keep them guessing a little bit."

Shine and Moorer have now been a part of two wins over Tennessee - in Knoxville in 2008 and in Charlottesville in 2011.

"I'm just excited about the win," Moorer said. "Chelsea and I won at their arena with the same mindset that we played with today and we believed. The key word today was ‘believe.' "

That belief likely was contained to Virginia's locker room. The Cavaliers have a new coach in Boyle - her first season after helming Richmond and then Cal - and were unranked, though that could change come Monday.

"Everybody in that locker room believed we could win that game," Boyle said. "That's no disrespect to Tennessee. They're an unbelievable program. But the way you build a program is to put belief and trust in each other, and that's what this team has done.

"We talked about exactly what you just said: Probably nobody in this building other than the people in this locker room believe we can win this game. It didn't matter because the people in this locker room are the ones that are playing the game. They went out, and they fought for 45 minutes, and they got it done. I couldn't be more proud of them."

The crowd of 6,450 seemed to settle in early to enjoy the game and the presence of Tennessee and then got louder and louder when the home fans - although Lady Vol fans were present in high numbers, too - realized Virginia could pull off the upset.

"I thought their team had a lot of energy, they had a lot of confidence," Warlick said. "I think through Joanne and her coaching style, they had a great game plan and they did what she asked them to do. I don't think they got rattled, they stayed within their game and their game plan.

"It was a great win, those kids deserve a lot of credit. They played hard and when they needed buckets they hit baskets, when they needed stops, they did that as well."

Summitt noted, "I think we felt good about our preparation and what we needed to do. For whatever reason, we didn't come out and take care of the business.

"You know I'm very disappointed, but it's a lesson we can learn. We can go back and watch film and try to get this team focused for the next game. You have to deal with it and move on."

An encouraging sign for Tennessee was the play of freshman post Isabelle Harrison, who played 19 minutes, was 2-4 from the field, hit 2-3 free throws, swatted two shots - including a highlight reel-worthy volleyball spike of an attempted layup - and grabbed seven boards.

"I think she did a great job and she's just going to get better and better," Summitt said. "I'm glad we have her."

Virginia had five players in double figures led by Shine's 18 points. Crosby added 13 points, Ataira Franklin had 12, and Lexie Gerson and Moorer had 10 each. Moorer had 10 boards while Shine tallied nine.

Virginia shot 40.3 percent overall (25-62), 25.0 percent (3-12) from long range and 72.7 percent (16-22) from the line. The Cavaliers had 12 assists, 15 turnovers and 13 steals.

Tennessee had three players in double figures led by Spani's 22 points. Stricklen added 16 points and Johnson had 15. The Lady Vols shot 40.7 percent overall (24-59), 20.8 percent (5-24) from behind the arc and 52.4 percent (11-21) from the line.

The Lady Vols prevailed on the boards 45-38 thanks to the second half effort on the glass and edged Virginia in second-chance points, 19-14. Tennessee had 13 assists, 24 turnovers, seven blocks and eight steals.

Boyle wore a purple ribbon on her lapel in recognition of Alzheimer's awareness, and the players had purple shoelaces for the same reason to show support for Summitt. The fans of both teams welcomed Summitt when she walked on the court and two fans on the front row near Tennessee's bench displayed a "Thank You Pat" sign throughout the game.

Warlick fielded a question - expected on the road - about how the players have adjusted to Summitt's diagnosis of dementia.

"They understand Pat Summitt is still their coach," Warlick said. "There are a couple of things that Pat does not stray from and that is rebounding and playing defense, and (Sunday) we weren't great rebounders, and we didn't have stops on a consistent basis as we need to.

"They go out and play for Pat Summitt, but they (also) go out and represent what's across their chest, and that's Tennessee. And they knew when they came here it's a tough challenge. They know what kind of tradition they are representing.

"I love these kids. They are great young ladies. They have just got to be a little bit more consistent on the basketball court."

The Lady Vols left via charter flight as soon as the game ended. They have a week between games and will stay off the practice court Monday, as planned. The players will watch film with the coaches and lift weights in a strength session.

"I think we go back to work," Warlick said. "We evaluate this film. As Shekinna said, we have to start the game the way we know we can play, and we can't wait until our backs are against the wall.

"We'll take a day off and we'll go back to work. That is all we can do. We've got to get these young ladies prepared for a tough schedule, prepared for Baylor. We've got to get it turned around."

INSIDE TENNESSEE'S TAKE

Tennessee wasn't looking ahead, but the players did seem to overlook Virginia. The Cavaliers were unranked, and the Lady Vols were averaging 90 points a game and coming off two games in which they scorched the nets. They seemed to take the court Sunday with a false sense of security that shots would fall and forgot that an opposing team's ranking or reputation doesn't matter when it sees orange.

It is a peculiar trait with this Tennessee team in that it has repeated itself. The good thing for the Lady Vols is that it happened early in the season. There is plenty of time for the coaches to correct the on-court shortcomings. But they have yet to figure out a way to fully convince the players that a lesser opponent can beat them if their effort isn't fully there.

The Lady Vols got beat by a team that followed Pat Summitt's philosophy - control the boards, which Virginia did in the first half to set the tone, and play inspired defense. The team's shooting percentages were very similar - 40.3 percent for Virginia to 40.7 percent for Tennessee, and the Lady Vols hit five treys to three for the Cavaliers.

Had the Lady Vols hit a couple of more shots - several players were well off the mark - and connected on a couple of more free throws, they would have left Charlottesville with a lesson and a win. As it turned out, they just got the lesson.

That might be a good thing because while ugly wins can be easily forgotten, losses tend to stick in players' minds.

Some observations:

Ariel Massengale took a step forward in the second half. Yes, she had seven turnovers. But she also adjusted to the zone defense and attacked it in the second half. Her drives into the paint opened up shots for her teammates. It was the freshman's first road trip, and Tennessee was made to be uncomfortable throughout the game. She didn't flourish, but she didn't wilt either. Massengale will get better.

Meighan Simmons took a step backwards. The sophomore had come off the bench in the first two games but started Sunday because Vicki Baugh was out with a tight hamstring. Simmons took quick shots to start the game - one a minute in the first five minutes - when the Lady Vols needed to be patient and make the zone shift. All but one early shot was forced and seemed to take her teammates by surprise.

Simmons is passionate and aggressive and Tennessee rarely tightened the reins last season because the Lady Vols needed her spark and swagger. The coaches also recognized she was playing out of position at the point spot, so they overlooked mistakes. But if the Lady Vols intend to be a contender for a national title, Simmons - and everyone on the team - has to play within the system, which for Tennessee means penetration inside either by passing or drives, players in motion and ball movement to get an open shot. The shot Simmons made came when she was left alone in the corner, and Johnson fired a pass to her.

The long stint on the bench didn't help Tennessee in this game - Simmons was needed in the second half because she can hit shots - but it may have helped over the long haul, because the bench sends a powerful message to a player to make adjustments. Simmons is a competitor and wants to win. The next step for the sophomore is not to try to do too much, especially to open the game. The coaches don't want to snuff the fire, but the flames can't soar out of control either.

The pace of the game was perfect for Virginia and dangerous for Tennessee. The Lady Vols want a high-octane approach and played passively when forced into the half-court. Tennessee's defense had been generating turnovers or forcing the opponent deep into the shot clock. Several players were getting beat one-on-one so they had to drop into zone looks, perhaps more than they had wanted to against the Cavaliers. Vicki Baugh was missed tremendously because she covers so much ground in a zone.

Freshman Isabelle Harrison performed well in her 19 minutes and helped Glory Johnson inside because it forced Virginia to account for two athletic posts. Harrison struggled in the overtime - she should not have been 20 feet from the basket on her last possession in the game and when she dribbled and turned to pass, she was called for a charge.

But Harrison also showed some grit - and hit two free throws in regulation on a one-and-one when the Lady Vols were down four with four minutes to play and then tied the game with a turn-around shot. Those were valuable game minutes for Harrison going forward.

The third freshman, Cierra Burdick, is playing behind Taber Spani, the one player for Tennessee performing at a consistent level. Burdick needs game minutes to get in sync - and especially since she is learning the three spot on both ends - but those are hard to come by behind Spani right now. She needs to stay patient, learn as much as she can as fast as she can and get prepared, because her talent will surface.

Senior forward Alicia Manning had three rebounds in 10 minutes and brought some vocal fire to the floor. She will need more court time going forward, but trying to find minutes behind Spani at the three or Shekinna Stricklen at the four is difficult right now. Stricklen had eight points and seven boards by halftime. Spani scored 12 points by the break. Manning tends to start slow and come on strong as the season progresses. She likely will carve out a niche again.

It was a game Tennessee should have won - and seemed in position to do so after surviving regulation and getting to overtime - and while it was hugely disappointing to the program, a loss in November is not fatal.

Virginia wasn't ranked, but the Cavaliers' seniors missed the NCAA Tournament last season and have bought in to the defensive system installed by Joanne Boyle. The Cavaliers will have to shoot better to contend in the ACC - Ariana Moorer and China Crosby combined to go 6-24 from the field - and a hot-shooting team will crack open the zone looks, but Virginia had enough playmakers and plenty of defense to pull off the upset.

Tennessee credited Virginia for its effort, especially on defense, but the Lady Vols also know that this loss belongs to them.

VIDEO COVERAGE

Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick, Shekinna Stricklen, Glory Johnson


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