Lady Vols to square off against Wildcats

A hostile venue awaits the Lady Vols on Thursday night against the Wildcats of Kentucky. Go inside with Inside Tennessee for player and coach interviews and a scouting report.

The way Ariel Massengale sees it, the game against a ball-hawking team like Kentucky is part of the appeal of playing college basketball.

"I think coming to Tennessee you want to play against the best," Massengale said. "Kentucky is in the top 10. We're in the top 10. It's going to be a big-time game, and night in and night out we know teams are going to bring their best against us and so we have just got to be ready for them."

No 6/7 Tennessee (12-3, 3-0) takes on No. 9/8 Kentucky (14-2, 3-0) on Thursday at 7 p.m. Eastern (Fox Sports Net) at Memorial Coliseum in Lexington.

Massengale knows several of the Wildcat players and, in particular, freshman guard Bria Goss.

"I know a lot of their players, probably the best Bria Goss," Massengale said. "She's from Indiana, and I'm from Illinois so we played each other in high school. We were at the McDonald's and WBCA (All-American games) together. You know them. You grew up playing against them and so it's kind of like bragging rights in the end."

The familiarity ratchets up the competitive spirit, too.

"It does," Massengale said. "Even at the (All-American) game the last time we saw each other we were like, ‘I'll see you soon come SEC play.' We've been talking back and forth.

"On the court she's playing for Kentucky and I'm playing for Tennessee, but at the end of the day we're always going to be friends."

This road game against a team termed by its coach as "40 minutes of dread," is as much of a mental challenge as a physical one.

"Just having confidence in yourself," Massengale said. "If you look panicked and are trying to get rid of the basketball, they'll know that you're weak, and they'll attack you more."

The coaches certainly prefer playing the Wildcats with a bona fide point guard in Massengale. The Lady Vols survived at Kentucky last season, 73-67, despite 24 turnovers. When Meighan Simmons was asked about her memory of that game, she shook her head and mentioned her miscues.

Simmons had nine turnovers as the Wildcats swarmed the ball and took advantage of a freshman shooting guard playing the point position in a hostile venue. Simmons did acquit herself well in that game as she was 5-7 and 4-4 from the line for 15 points.

"What I do remember the most is having eight turnovers in that game," said Simmons, whose memory, understandably, was off by one. "I think this year I've gotten a lot better with my passing, and I feel like I've become a little bit more patient on the offensive end.

"As far as shooting, I need to get more patient with my shooting. As far as my passing, I need to time my passes, know my personnel, like who to pass it, too, when to pass it at the right time, and I think that's one thing I am really going to focus on individually for myself this next game."

This time, the coaches will put the ball in the hands of Massengale and even rely on the freshman to help keep her teammates calm.

"Just talking to them, knowing that I have their back and if they do get in trouble, I will do the best I can to help them out," Massengale said. "But just being confident with it, being strong, knowing that you can handle the ball.

"You have the ball so you're in control, and they're trying to take it from you. If you're in control and do what you need to do, you should be fine."

Massengale also needs support in her ear. When the freshman struggled in the first road game in her career at Virginia, her teammates, roiled by their own poor play, offered little comfort.

Since that time, Massengale has played in three road games since coming back from a serious finger injury on her left hand. She merely shrugs and looks at the hand when asked how it is with the intended message being she is not thinking about it.

Massengale missed two weeks in December and is still working her way into condition to play nearly the entire length of the game, such as could be required against Kentucky.

"I feel good about it," Massengale said. "I feel like there is always room for improvement when it comes to conditioning, but right now we've just got to work with what we've got."

Simmons also has to stay ready, as does Shekinna Stricklen. They filled in when Massengale got hurt and if the freshman were to get in foul trouble, they would have to take the ball. Junior guard Kamiko Williams also can play point, but she just got cleared last week after ACL rehab and is trying to get in game shape.

Simmons' recent turnovers were of the unforced variety – loose handle or decision-making, and those can be corrected.

"I think it's just a mental thing," Simmons said. "There were turnovers where I just threw it in Arkansas' hands. I just have to be smart with the ball at all times."

Assistant Coach Mickie DeMoss said the coaches are confident about entrusting the ball to Massengale.

"She's got a demeanor about her that's very calm," DeMoss said. "She doesn't get rattled."

DeMoss recalled a possession against Georgia in which Massengale read the double team coming at center court.

"She did a little hesitation move and went right around it," DeMoss said.

"It does give us a little confidence with her but as we know she can get in foul trouble. If we can keep her out of foul trouble, I think she can handle the pressure. And Meighan is going to have to help her."

Simmons is aware that her role can shift at any time from shooting guard to point.

"We have to stay poised, and we have to be very patient on the offensive end," Simmons said. "We have to stay focused at all times, know our game plan, we all have to know when to shoot and when to pass to certain people and we have to make sure that we have to be smart with the ball at all times."

Simmons said her decision-making begins with her shot selection.

"This year I've been rushing," Simmons said. "I haven't been able to get in my rhythm as much as I was last year. I've got to be smart with the ball, be able to take good shots, and just be patient."

Simmons also has confidence in Massengale to run the team in a raucous environment.

"She should be fine," Simmons said. "I think she is really going to help us push the ball up the floor."

DeMoss, who was the head coach at Kentucky from 2003 to 2007, sees the same frenetic defense as last season.

"Same philosophy," DeMoss said. "Just run and jump and trap and try to poke it from the back, just kind of kamikaze. They want you to get out of whack and turn it over."

"We know they are an up-tempo team," Massengale said. "They want to put pressure on the ball, get steals and get after it, kind of similar to what we like to do on the defensive end.

"We just have to go in there with the mind-set we've got to be strong and take care of the ball."

Simmons has one game of experience at Memorial Coliseum and said the formula is the same.

"We've just got to go out there and play hard," Simmons said. "We've got to play with a lot of heart, we've got to play with a lot of passion, and just be able to go out there and be ready to be scrappy."

PROBABLE STARTERS

Tennessee Coach Pat Summitt is expected to start: Ariel Massengale, 5'6 freshman guard, No. 5 (8.6 points per game, 2.6 rebounds per game, 4.9 assists per game); Meighan Simmons, 5'9 sophomore guard, No. 10 (10.9 ppg, 2.5 rpg); Shekinna Stricklen, 6'2 senior guard/forward, No. 40 (15.5 ppg, 6.7 rpg); Alicia Manning, 6'1 senior guard/forward, No. 15 (4.7 ppg, 5.0 rpg); and Glory Johnson, 6'3 senior forward, No. 25 (14.3 ppg, 9.8 rpg).

Junior guard/forward Taber Spani remains day to day to rest her left knee.

Kentucky Coach Matthew Mitchell is expected to start: Amber Smith 5'6 redshirt senior guard, No. 24 (5.9 ppg, 1.9 rpg), hails from Winter Haven, Fla., nine assists away from 400 for her career, back on the court after recovering from two ACL tears; A'dia Mathies, 5'9 junior guard, No. 1 (16.0 ppg, 5.5 rpg), hails from Louisville, Ky., tallied 20 points in Kentucky's win over Mississippi State, has reached double figures in 13 of 15 games, 2011 SEC All-Defensive Team member, 34 points away from 1,200 for her career, brother Johnny played basketball at Creighton; Bria Goss, 5'10 freshman guard, No. 13 (12.2 ppg, 5.0 rpg), hails from Indianapolis, Ind., has gone 6-7 from the arc in the past two games, reached double figures in last eight games, has twice been honored as SEC freshman of the week; Kastine Evans, 5'8 sophomore guard, No. 32 (8.0 ppg, 3.9 rpg), hails from Salem, Conn., first Kentucky player from the state of Connecticut, tallied career-high 23 points against Morehead State, won state titles in high school in basketball, volleyball and track and field, father Ray Evans played football for the New York Jets; and Samarie Walker, 6'1 sophomore forward, No. 23 (6.2 ppg, 5.7 rpg), hails from West Carrollton, Ohio, transfer from Connecticut became eligible at midseason, has played in six games for Kentucky with three starts, father Samuel Walker played basketball for New Mexico.

Other possible starters are Keyla Snowden, a 5'7 senior guard from Lexington, Ky., who averages 9.9 points - Snowden tallied 22 points in Sunday's 88-40 win over Mississippi State and is 74 away from 1,200 career points - and Brittany Henderson, a 6'2 junior forward from Pasadena, Calif., who had five points and four boards against Mississippi State.

Henderson started in the paint against Mississippi State, while Walker got the assignment against Arkansas.

Highly touted sophomore point guard Jennifer O'Neill, a McDonald's All-American, hasn't played this season because of a stress fracture in her right foot.

"We're looking forward to a tough game against Tennessee and it should be a great atmosphere," Mitchell said. "Tennessee has a very, very good team. I've been very impressed as I've tried to get prepared for the game watching them on video. They have a lot of great players and a lot of weapons on offense and tough defense.

"It's another rock 'em sock 'em night in the SEC and we will see if we can come out and play hard and earn a victory."

SCOUTING REPORT Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood handled the scouting report for the Tennessee-Kentucky game. Here is his assessment.

Offensively, Kentucky plays in similar fashion to last season.

"Their style is the same," Lockwood said. "They play off of ball screens well. They run. They are getting transition points. They feed so much off of their defense."

The turnover stats leap off the page when scanning the Wildcat numbers to date.

"We told our team this – 31 turnovers overall, 23.7 in the SEC," Lockwood said. "That's staggering. That's an enormous amount. Those turnovers turn into points. That feeds their monster. If you can take care of the ball, you're going to limit some of their scoring.

"They will push the ball. This is the fastest tempo team that we've played. If they get open shots and open lanes, they're taking it. They will not set up (in the half-court) if they have that."

Defensively, Kentucky will bring the heat full court and throughout the game.

"Man to man, full court, trapping, pressing," Lockwood said. "They're showing little bits of 2-2-1, (but) in five games I've not seen them play one possession of zone yet."

That doesn't mean the Lady Vols won't see some zone defense sprinkled in during the game.

"They played a little 2-3 on us last year," Lockwood said.

But he expects "man, trapping, very physical, trying to turn us over."

Just because the ball handler beats the pressure, it doesn't mean the coast is clear.

"If you get ahead, they'll back-tap you (to poke the ball loose)."

Keys for Tennessee: Ball security.

Lockwood said even a poor shot is preferable to a turnover.

"We're getting close to 44, 45 percent of our offensive rebounds," he said. "So, I'll take a bad shot where we still have a chance of rebounding that ball versus just giving you a possession, saying, ‘Here, you take the ball back. We're not even going to get a shot up.'

"Against a team like Kentucky that's suicide. It's suicidal to do that basketball-wise."

SEC PLAY: All 12 SEC teams are in action tonight. The other matchups are: Arkansas at Ole Miss; South Carolina at LSU; Florida at Georgia; Mississippi State at Alabama; and Auburn at Vanderbilt.

SEC COACHES: The league's coaches held a teleconference Wednesday with the SEC's "We Back Pat" campaign a topic of conversation.

"It has been amazing," Pat Summitt said during her portion of the teleconference. "It has really touched me in a very positive way. It speaks volumes to what everyone is telling me all the time - that we are going to back you.

"I think it is something that has really gone throughout this league. I can tell you again that it touches my heart and means a lot to me and to my son, Tyler, and our staff."

Every SEC school will do something next week to bring awareness to the Pat Summitt Foundation and Alzheimer's research from wearing the "We Back Pat" shooting shirts, to donating ticket sales to the foundation as Ole Miss will do to getting out in the community to raise awareness as Kentucky Coach Matthew Mitchell and his wife will do.

Some schools have already been involved in the initiative from Arkansas' players wearing purple shoelaces and ribbons when they played Tennessee to South Carolina Coach Dawn Staley and her team walking for Alzheimer's awareness last fall. The Gamecocks intend to present a check to Summitt for $20,000 when South Carolina plays in Knoxville on Feb. 2.

In her opening remarks on the teleconference, Summitt noted the five ranked teams in the SEC - South Carolina entered the top 25 this week - and the outstanding play of Glory Johnson.

"Tennessee, Kentucky, Georgia, South Carolina and Vandy – we have five ranked teams so in this conference it has been very competitive," Summitt said.

Over the past five games Johnson has averaged 15.4 points and 12.8 rebounds a game and has earned back-to-back player of the week honors from the SEC.

"I think it starts with Glory and everyone just watches her," Summitt said when asked about Johnson's effort level of late. "I think she has brought out the best in the rest of our team because of how hard she plays very game. She is so invested in trying to help us win. She has made a statement."

ODDS AND ENDS

Tennessee leads the series with Kentucky, 48-7. The Lady Vols are 19-5 in Lexington. Kentucky has had recent success over Tennessee at home with a 66-63 win on Jan. 26, 2006, when current Lady Vols Assistant Coach Mickie DeMoss was the head coach, and a 66-56 win on Feb. 19, 2009, with current Coach Matthew Mitchell at the helm. Mitchell was a graduate assistant at Tennessee in the 1999-2000 season. The Wildcats have won 14 consecutive games at home, most recently an 88-40 victory over Mississippi State. Kentucky set a school record for margin of victory in SEC play at 48 points, besting the 31-point win over Auburn on Feb. 3, 2011. The Wildcats also set a school record by hitting 14 three-pointers. Kentucky is 3-0 in the SEC for the first time since the 1992-93 season. A 4-0 start would be a school record in league play. The last meeting between the two schools was in the SEC tourney title game when Angie Bjorklund and Shekinna Stricklen combined to go 12-14 from the arc, and Tennessee buried Kentucky, 90-65, with 16 made three balls, a tourney record. … Tennessee is 13-0 in games played on January 12. The last win on this date came against Georgia, 94-85, in 2006. The first win on Jan. 12 was against Austin Peay, 66-42, in 1974, Margaret Hutson's final year as head coach. She was succeeded by Pat Summitt for the 1974-75 season. Kentucky offered Summitt a little more money to take over the Wildcats in 1975 but declined to pay moving expenses to Lexington, and Summitt stayed put at Tennessee. … Five graduate students will be on the court Thursday. Tennessee has three - Vicki Baugh, who needs just one kinesiology class this semester to finish her master's degree; Glory Johnson, who graduated in three years last May and is pursuing a master's in communication; and Alicia Manning, who graduated in December and starts master's coursework in kinesiology this semester. Kentucky has two graduate students who have already earned bachelor's degrees - Amber Smith and Keyla Snowden. Smith studied integrated communication systems and is now working on a family studies degree. Snowden has a degree in communications and now takes courses in media arts and studies. She is an executive producer of the Matthew Mitchell Show and wants to be a talk show host. Smith intends to pursue a coaching career. … Matthew Mitchell is not the only one on the Kentucky bench with Tennessee ties. Two of his assistants, Shalon Pillow (1998-2002) and Kyra Elzy (1997-2001, are former Lady Vol players.

VIDEO COVERAGE

Inside Tennessee was at SEC Media Day last October and asked player representatives from the other 11 SEC schools some offbeat questions.

Here are the responses of Kentucky's A'dia Mathies.


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