"It's a good thing to break that two-game losing streak," Head Coach Pat Summitt said. "We played with high energy and it came from the players. They challenged each other to come into the game with lots of high energy and it's obvious they did that."
"I thought we as a coaching staff were a little worried about a possible letdown from the Baylor game, but I thought we came out and played with great intensity on the defensive end," Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick said.
"We were aggressive with our traps. I thought we made them play fast, and I was very proud of our defensive effort. Offensively, I thought we attacked, we got open looks and knocked down open looks."
Tennessee passed that test as the five starters played with energy and emotion, and Shekinna Stricklen followed up an electric outing against Baylor with more of the same from the opening tip as she was energetic from the get-go.
"Shekinna came ready to play and showed some really good leadership to start the first half," Summitt said. "I think she really got us going."
The senior forward had 10 points and five boards by halftime and was only needed for five minutes in the second half.
"This was a big game for us, because we really needed to win and get back into a winning streak," Stricklen said. "Coming out with energy like that creates energy for the whole team for the whole game. It's something we have to do for every game."
The effective start meant the coaches could go to the bench early and often – no Lady Vol logged more than 26 minutes for the game and the one who did, Cierra Burdick, craved the court time.
"Cierra's just needed some minutes and an opportunity to get out there and play," Warlick said. "I was proud of her. I was proud of Isabelle (Harrison). I was proud of Ariel (Massengale) as well. I thought our freshmen contributed, and I was excited to see Cierra get some minutes."
Burdick, a freshman forward, had played limited minutes in the first four games, but she tallied a double-double against Middle Tennessee with 14 points on 5-6 shooting, 10 rebounds and three blocks.
"It was definitely needed, just for confidence," Burdick said. "Lately, I haven't been playing to my fullest potential. I haven't been showing the coaches what I need to show them in practice.
"I'm just thankful that they gave me the opportunity, and I guess you could say I got a little lucky because preparation meant opportunity. I'm just blessed that I was able to get out there on the court and showcase my skills."
Burdick chatted after Monday's practice with two coaches to clarify what she needed to do to earn court time.
"I've just been wondering why I haven't really been getting that much playing time, and I wanted them to be straightforward with me and tell me what I needed to do to improve and get more playing time," Burdick said.
"They basically told me I need to get better on one-on-one defense and defense period. So I just tried to really lock my player up, help my teammates, and really just play hard on the defensive end and let my offensive end come with it."
Defense matters this season – a mantra the coaches have been preaching since preseason because they know it's one of the biggest reasons the Lady Vols have fallen short of the Final Four for the past three seasons.
Tennessee set the tone early against Middle Tennessee and disrupted the Blue Raiders' offense.
"Their length, their length, and I mean they've got so much length, and they've got so much lateral quickness, and they make you work so hard," Middle Tennessee Coach Rick Insell said.
When Tennessee had the ball, the Blue Raiders had their hands full trying to account for everyone, a task made even harder by Ariel Massengale driving to the basket and either going to the rim or firing a pass to the open player.
"You exert so much energy trying to defend," Insell said. "We're not as deep, and when we have to go into our bench right now we're not ready, and I don't know that we would be ready to defend them, but thank goodness they're not in our conference."
The Lady Vols opened the game by shooting nearly 60 percent and led by 15 points, 22-7, eight minutes into the first half after Taber Spani hit a three on a feed from Massengale, who drove to the left side and when the defense shifted, fired a cross-court pass to a wide-open Spani on the right side.
"I said this before to my coaches; I say this to y'all," Insell said. "When they shoot the basketball, they've got a shot to win the national championship. If they shoot the basketball, if they knock down shots, but of course if you live by that, you also die by it, but they're as athletic, as good as anybody in the country that I've seen, and I've seen most of them either last year on TV, this year so far.
"When they shoot the basketball, it matters not."
The Lady Vols shot 59.3 percent (16-27) in the first half and led, 48-24 at the break. Of the 16 made shots, 11 were assisted, with Massengale dishing three and Glory Johnson, Briana Bass, Meighan Simmons and Burdick tallying two each.
Tennessee cooled off to 32.3 percent in the second half and also squirted 21 turnovers for the game, but the coaches eased up early in the second half and used assorted combinations on the floor to spread around the minutes.
"Well, I certainly don't like turnovers," Summitt said. "I'd always rather have fewer than more any day. Tonight, I don't think it was our decision-making at all."
That was a polite way of saying the coaches went deep in the bench and let players stay on the floor through extended stretches of time.
"Thought we had some really good energy and play from our bench," Summitt said. "Everyone came in and contributed. It was great to get them some really quality minutes. It's always good when you can spread the minutes around."
Tennessee went 10 deep in the first half – every available player on the roster – and used the game to acquire combo info and game footage, a valuable teaching tool in one-on-one film sessions.
"Can you win with seven? Absolutely," Warlick said when asked about the ideal player rotation. "Can you win with nine? Of course. You just have to understand when to use them and what kind of combinations to use. So we're trying to work through some combinations.
"We keep getting in foul trouble. We pulled Vicki (Baugh) out early because she got a really quick foul, and our posts seemed to get a foul and pick up another foul. So we're just trying to work through our rotations and hopefully by the SEC Tournament we'll figure out which combinations play together.
"As long as we do what we did tonight where everybody gets the opportunity and they're effective, then we'll play everybody on the bench."
Tennessee opened the second half with the same starters and expanded the lead to 30 points, 56-26, within the first four minutes.
Massengale got the scoring started with a drive to the basket for an and-one play.
"I thought Ariel was the most aggressive she's been all year," Warlick said. "She attacked the basket. I thought she ran the basketball team, and that's what we need from her. We need a strong presence on the offensive end, and I thought she took control and was extremely aggressive.
"And when she comes in, she makes plays, she makes layups, she makes assists, then we're difficult to defend. And I credit her being a smart, intelligent point guard in leading this basketball team."
Massengale had five assists to zero turnovers and also tied Burdick for team honors with 14 points. It was a relief to hit some buckets.
"It was great," Massengale said. "Just attacking the basket, at times I was settling for the outside jump shot, but attacking the basket and getting easy buckets."
The Lady Vol coaches made sure the scorer's table stayed busy checking in players in the second half and despite shooting 10-31 from the field in the second half, the Lady Vols still won by 39 points and got hearty applause as the final seconds ticked down from the fans who stayed among the 11,861 originally in attendance on a bitter cold evening in Knoxville.
"I knew they'd be ready to play," Insell said. "I mean good gracious. You know championship teams. We've got our sights set on winning championships, too, but we're not at the level that Tennessee's at."
Isabelle Harrison had another highlight block – she is good for at least one a game it seems – and also provided some second half sparks after getting a defensive rebound and then getting tied up with Middle Tennessee's Janay Brinkley. Neither player turned loose of the ball, and when Harrison tried to pull away with it, Brinkley took offense and threw her arm out in Harrison's direction.
Burdick, in perhaps her best box-out of the evening, rushed over and grabbed Harrison before the situation escalated.
"As teammates, and especially as freshmates, we have to stick together," Burdick said. "I just didn't want anything to be penalized against Izzy.
"It was the heat of the moment, and all of our tempers can rise up, and I just really wanted to break that up and make sure that she didn't swing or Janay didn't swing, and to make sure both players were safe."
The officials went to the courtside monitor and assessed technical fouls against Harrison and Brinkley. Vicki Baugh, who had stepped in between the players, also got a technical and after it was explained to Summitt she walked away laughing and shaking her head.
"From my standpoint, I thought Vicki stepped in to kind of settle down Izzy, but I'll have to watch the tape," Warlick said. "It's two kids being aggressive and going for the ball, and that happens."
The skirmish was minor between in-state foes, and Middle Tennessee, which had not played Tennessee since 2009, wants to keep the series going. During the previous series, Insell agreed to three games in Knoxville for one in Murfreesboro.
"We enjoy playing them," Insell said. "A lot of people might begrudge coming to play the University of Tennessee; I don't. We fall into that because our kids need that type of pressure. They need to play in front of those types of crowds, our place and their place.
"Thank goodness Pat will play us and Joan (Cronan) will play us because we really appreciate them coming down. We want our basketball fans to see good basketball games, and hopefully the next time we can give them a better game than we did tonight."
Middle Tennessee was led by Kortni Jones, an Oak Ridge native, who had 16 points. Ebony Rowe added 10 for the Blue Raiders. Middle Tennessee shot 23.8 percent (15-63) overall, 16.0 percent (4-25) from long range and 69.2 percent (9-13) from the line.
Middle Tennessee had 22 turnovers that Tennessee converted into 18 points. The Blue Raiders had five assists, two blocks and nine steals.
The Lady Vols were led by 14 points each from Massengale and Burdick with Stricklen also reaching double digits with 12. Tennessee shot 44.8 percent (26-58) overall, 42.9 percent (6-14) from long range and 82.8 percent (24-29) from the line.
The Lady Vols had 15 assists, 21 turnovers, eight blocks and 15 steals. They dominated the boards, 53-30 and outscored the Blue Raiders bench, 37-4.
The Lady Vols will have a day off Wednesday and then return to practice on Thursday. Next up is Texas at home on Sunday before a coast-to-coast four-game road trip.
"When your whole team contributes, that's a great sign for us," Warlick said. "So overall, I'm very pleased. I'm excited that everybody got some minutes, and we'll have some good footage both offensively and defensively to evaluate the team."
INSIDE TENNESSEE'S TAKE:
Tennessee answered one question about itself in this game that has nagged at the coaches for quite some time. Will the Lady Vols start the game focused against a perceived lesser opponent?
The answer Tuesday was a resounding yes and perhaps Tennessee has finally turned that corner. If so, it would cause the coaching staff considerably less angst going forward.
The Lady Vols might have had some legitimate reasons for a slow start Tuesday. The starters logged a lot of minutes against Baylor in a demanding game and the team had just one day to get ready for Tuesday's game.
But the starters had the lead in double digits, led by senior Shekinna Stricklen and freshman Ariel Massengale on offense and a team effort on defense, a little over six minutes into the game.
Massengale got in the scorer's column by driving to the basket after struggling from the field in the past two games and, of greater importance, she played defense without fouling.
She also has 30 assists through five games. Last year, the team leader had 104 helpers in 37 games. Second place was claimed with 75 assists. Massengale is on pace to shatter those numbers this season.
The play of Cierra Burdick was a welcome boost as the athletic forward could be a force off the bench for the Lady Vols.
Her first basket came on a putback in the first half. Burdick made the pass from the top of the floor to Taber Spani, who missed the three-point attempt, and Burdick was the first to the rim for the stick-back. She is a natural rebounder – she grabbed 10 in 26 minutes of play Tuesday.
That Burdick's minutes came at the small forward spot was also a good sign. Burdick is learning that position – she came in with more experience playing at the power forward spot – but the Lady Vols need her to be able to contribute both inside and out this season so she will need to get comfortable on the perimeter.
Spani may have missed that trey ball, but she is hitting most of them – she was 2-3 in this game and through five games is shooting 48.4 percent from long range.
In her first two years Spani struggled on the defensive side of the ball – she was dealing with injuries at that time, too – but she has removed that reason for the coaches to keep her off the court. She has been guarding small forwards in man schemes and the 6'1 junior is particularly effective in the zone schemes because of her length and solid build.
Spani brings a football player's mentality to the basketball court. She showed it on offense in an earlier game with a long pass ahead to Meighan Simmons – she joked she wanted to clear the safety – and then on defense Tuesday. Like a linebacker dropping into coverage, Spani anticipated a pass to the middle of the floor, intercepted it, drove down court and passed ahead to Massengale for a layup.
Tennessee went 10 deep in the game with everyone logging double-digit minutes except Vicki Baugh, who was in foul trouble, and then wasn't needed, allowing Burdick, Alicia Manning and Isabelle Harrison, to get extended court time.
Harrison provided the excitement in the second half when she got tangled with a Middle Tennessee player, causing tempers to flare. Burdick whisked away Harrison while Baugh got between the two players. Three technical fouls were assessed with Baugh and Harrison drawing whistles for Tennessee, but a display of attitude – one knock on the team has been its passivity – and teammate protection is not a bad thing.
A sign that Pat Summitt and her staff didn't take offense is that both players stayed on the floor. If the coaches think a Tennessee player was out of line, that player gets a cooling-off period on the bench.
Sophomore Meighan Simmons remains in the mother of all shooting slumps after going 0-7 from the field. Over three games Simmons has shot a confidence-sapping 2-26 from the floor.
Simmons took good shots Tuesday. They just didn't fall. She also is adjusting to having to play at both ends of the floor. Tennessee asked her to run the point last season, a position she wasn't expecting to play to college. The coaches didn't require that she expend much physical or mental energy on the defensive end because they realized they were asking a lot on the offensive end.
But this season, Massengale is at point, and Simmons, along with everyone else, got the message after last season ended that playing time would be earned by production on both ends of the court. Simmons has become a better defender and that will pay dividends down the road for Tennessee and for her basketball career.
Simmons also has been a good teammate. When Briana Bass got to the rim and scored around a defender with an underhanded layup, Simmons exploded off the bench in celebration. She will work through her slump, and it's something all shooters encounter.
When Shekinna Stricklen was asked in the post-game press conference how a shooter should respond to a slump, she sighed and realized immediately the question wasn't about her.
"If you're a shooter, you keep shooting," Stricklen said. "I've been in a slump and finally came out of it. Talking to Ariel after the Baylor game and saying, ‘keep shooting,' and talking to Meighan about being positive and getting her confidence back.
"If you're a shooter, you just have to keep shooting, and the other stuff will fall in then. Just get in the gym and get more shots in."
It's simple advice but it works. And Simmons can use this stretch as a learning experience. She also went to the rim more Tuesday – she was 5-7 from the line – and added two assists and two steals to her stat line.
Tennessee will need Simmons to accomplish its goals this season. The Lady Vols also need what they got Tuesday – made shots from Massengale, consistent and energetic play from the starters and significant contributions from the bench.
Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick
Lady Vols Ariel Massengale, Cierra Burdick, Shekinna Stricklen
Middle Tennessee Coach Rick Insell
Danny Parker photo gallery