Lady Vols to take on Georgia

The Lady Vols will play their third consecutive road game Sunday when they square off against the Lady Bulldogs of Georgia in Athens. Go inside for the pre-game story and coach and player interviews.

After practice this week, freshman Cierra Burdick had an interview to conduct but fellow freshman Ariel Massengale was still finishing up her media session.

Burdick grabbed a basketball and headed to the other end of the arena to get up some shots while she waited.

That epitomizes the first-year forward from Matthews, N.C., and her willingness to work and offensive efficiency have led to additional playing time.

No. 7/9 Tennessee (15-5, 6-1) takes on No. 17/15 Georgia (16-5, 5-3) on Sunday at 5 p.m. Eastern (TV: ESPN2) at Stegeman Coliseum.

Coach Pat Summitt has lamented at times that she has had to constantly remind players that they had to get extra shots up on their own to maintain offensive consistency. Burdick won't be on the reminder list.

Despite a full course load in the classroom and mandatory study hall for freshmen, Burdick is a regular in the gym outside of practice.

"I am a gym rat, so it's no problem for me," Burdick said. "I get my studying hours in and I get my food in and I get my school in.

"I am definitely in here. If I have to come in here at 10 o'clock at night then I am in here at 10 o'clock at night just getting shots up."

It is a sport that Burdick started playing when she was 5 years old. She also tried soccer, street hockey and baseball.

"I had to stick with one sport and basketball was the one I fell in love with," Burdick said.

It is that dedication to basketball that has caused Burdick's playing time to be steadily increasing as the Lady Vols get deeper into the regular season.

Her offensive game is fairly polished - she is shooting a respectable 42.9 percent - and Burdick is accurate from the elbows, short corners and wings.

Defense has been the biggest challenge, as Burdick has had to learn to pick up perimeter players.

"She has given us some offensive explosion," Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick said. "We've got to make sure Cierra is more consistent on the defensive end. That is just learning as a freshman how to get down and play defense.

"Cierra has put in some extra time into her defense. I have been pleased with where she's going. She's got to get better, but she understands that."

For Burdick that means extra sessions with Heather Mason, the strength and conditioning coach, that focus on footwork drills. Mason is also working on Burdick's gait as she tends to run upright on the balls of her feet, instead of a heel-to-toe strike.

Burdick had a slight scare in practice this week when she turned her ankle after a collision, but she limped to the sideline, got some quick treatment and returned to the court.

"I have really weak ankles," Burdick said. "I have always turned them. I have managed to turn them with a brace and tape on."

Defense has been a major part of recent practice sessions, especially in the month of January.

"Our weaknesses at the beginning of the season were on the defensive end so we've really been focusing on that," Burdick said. "As far as practices go it's probably about 70 percent defense and 30 percent offense. We've just been trying to get better on the defensive end.

"I am guarding quicker guards now, so I have just been trying to get better on the defensive end, staying low and forcing them (in one direction)."

The Lady Vols will play the last game of January against the Lady Bulldogs in what is a rematch of a Jan. 5 game at Thompson-Boling Arena. Tennessee led Georgia at halftime, 36-27, and ran away in the second half with an 80-51 win.

"When I think about playing Tennessee for the second time this year, I think about redemption," Georgia Coach Andy Landers said. I think about the game up there, which easily qualifies as our poorest performance of the year.

"Our players know that. They understand what didn't happen that needed to happen. I think on Sunday afternoon, you'll see a very energized, enthused and excited basketball team trying to make amends for the game in Knoxville."

The last time the Lady Vols were at Stegeman Coliseum was Jan. 21, 2010, and they left Athens with a 53-50 loss, the only blemish on their SEC slate that season.

It has been just three weeks since the two teams last played, but Burdick said she would need a refresher on the game and scouting report.

"So much stuff has happened between Georgia games," Burdick said. "My mind-set is just getting better. We need to focus on us and get us better right now."

One thing that happened was that Burdick, a high-energy player, moved into the starting lineup in the last game, an 86-56 win over Alabama.

With fifth-year player Vicki Baugh still dealing at times with accumulated issues from three knee surgeries, the emergence of Burdick has been well timed. The freshman had defined her role as a substitute.

"Just to bring energy," Burdick said. "Our starters are great but I feel like our bench is great. I want there to not be a dropoff.

"I feel like anybody could start on our team and I want that to be shown when I come out on the floor."

Burdick was correct. The coaching staff has shaken up the starting lineup, and Burdick needs to be ready to perform in either role - starter or reserve.

"I need to do the dirty work and come in and make an impact," Burdick said.

Burdick is one of three freshmen on a team with five seniors. She is paired with Alicia Manning in the weight room and she keeps an eye on Shekinna Stricklen, the Lady Vols All-American guard, since she plays that same position. Stricklen and senior Glory Johnson made the mid-season list for the Wooden Award.

"As far as the weight room, A-Town is my partner," Burdick said. "She is leading me and helping me get stronger as far as the weight room goes.

"Strick is a great player. I am just trying to learn from her. I am trying to take in everything I can on the court from her."

The Lady Vols know they will play a team Sunday that wants to make amends for the first game against Tennessee.

"We have a target on our back," Burdick said. "I feel like it's a challenge, and I love challenges. And I love the fact that teams want to come at us.

"It's only making us better. We took some tough losses, but we can learn from them."

One such defeat came last Monday at Notre Dame in which Tennessee's 44 points were the lowest scored in modern program history, besting, as it were, a record set against Belmont in 1976.

Massengale said after that loss that the Lady Vols needed to focus on themselves and improve as a team.

"I think at this point in the season it comes down to what we do," Massengale said. "We have to go out there and we have to play Tennessee basketball. I feel like if we take care of what Tennessee needs to do … we have to get that mindset, get that killer instinct.

Freshman Ariel Massengale is averaging 7.5 points per game.
(Danny Parker/InsideTennessee.com)
"Get back on the right track and start feeling good about ourselves and Tennessee basketball again."

The beauty of a basketball is that there is still considerable time to write their own storyline on this season.

"Exactly. Definitely. And I love that," Burdick said. "We have so many games ahead of us. We can (struggle) all throughout regular season. I don't want that, but we can.

"As long as we learn from everything and prepare for March, we'll be great."

PROBABLE STARTERS

Tennessee Coach Pat Summitt is expected to start: Ariel Massengale, 5'6 freshman guard, No. 5 (7.5 points per game, 2.5 rebounds per game, 5.5 assists per game); Briana Bass, 5'2 senior guard, No. 1 (3.1 ppg, 0.8 rpg); Cierra Burdick, 6'2 freshman forward, No. 11 (3.8 ppg, 3.4 rpg); Shekinna Stricklen, 6'2 senior guard/forward, No. 40 (14.9 ppg, 6.3 rpg); and Glory Johnson, 6'3 senior forward, No. 25 (14.0 ppg, 9.5 rpg).

Probable remains the key word when it comes to the starting lineup, as the coaches have been willing lately to really shake it up.

Taber Spani, a 6'1 junior guard/forward, could be available for some duty Sunday. Spani missed eight of the past nine games - she played just nine minutes against Notre Dame - because of a bone bruise in her left knee.

Georgia Coach Andy Landers is expected to start: Khaalidah Miller, 5'9 sophomore guard, No. 1 (12.6 ppg, 4.5 rpg); Erika Ford, 5'9 freshman guard, No. 31 (6.6 ppg, 3.8 rpg); Anne Marie Armstrong, 6'3 junior forward, No. 3 (11.8 ppg, 6.0 rpg); Meredith Mitchell, 6'1 senior guard, No. 11 (8.4 ppg, 5.5 rpg); and Jasmine Hassell, 6'2 junior forward, No. 12 (13.0 ppg, 5.9 rpg).

Ford is expected to start in place of Jasmine James, a 5'9 junior guard, who has missed the last three games with a right knee sprain (MCL). She originally sustained the injury on Dec. 20 and re-aggravated it Jan. 15.

IZZY UPDATE: Freshman Isabelle Harrison logged 19 minutes in Thursday's game against Alabama and had two highlight blocks in the second half.

Harrison has shown spurts of solid play on both ends of the court - she had 10 points and six boards in her last game - and is also dealing with defensive lapses, usually from being out of position, and freshman nerves on the offensive end.

"Izzy is like me as a freshman, except for a little bit more composed," said Glory Johnson, who endured her own woes in her first year. "She finishes when she's not nervous. When she's nervous, it's like happy feet."

Harrison rushed her misses against Alabama - the ball flies from her hand like it's on fire when she gets anxious - and Johnson indicated that the freshman plays with better composure when she gets angry.

"When she's mad, that's when you've got to see her," Johnson said. "She still hasn't gotten out of the nervous thing. I don't know why.

"I didn't really have the nervous thing as a freshman, but I think that I can talk to her before the game and see what happens."

Johnson dealt with uneven play when she arrived at Tennessee, and has developed into one of the Lady Vols most dependable players on both ends.

Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood said Harrison can learn from Johnson.

"I hope so," Lockwood said. "She's got to be more poised and more composed. I don't know that Izzy is quite as explosive as Glory was as a freshman, but there are definite parallels to the two of them."

Johnson said she would help Harrison this season and beyond.

"I will," Johnson said. "And if she needs me I will come back anytime. She is going to be a great player."

HOME STATE VISITORS: Lady Vol 2012 signee Andraya Carter and 2013 verbal commit Kaela Davis are expected to be at Sunday's Tennessee-Georgia game.

Both play for Buford High School in Buford, Ga., which is less than an hour away from Athens. A Buford teammate, Kristina Nelson, also is expected to be in attendance. Nelson, a 2013 post, is being recruited by Tennessee and Georgia, among other schools.

Buford Coach Gene Durden spoke to Inside Tennessee about Carter, who will head to Knoxville in June, and Davis, who will arrive a year later.

Carter should be able to help the Lady Vols as a freshman in ways that are obvious to all and in ones that coaches immediately notice.

"I can tell you this about Andraya: She is a kid who has all of the intangibles," Durden said. "Everybody knows how good she is skill-wise, but the other thing that Andraya brings is hard work, great character and all the things you want kids to bring into a program. She's going to be able to do that.

"She's had an impact on us for four years and a lot of times it's things that you don't see on the stat sheet."

Carter has a take-charge personality on the court and displays a high basketball IQ. With the departure of five seniors after this season, that will be critical for Tennessee.

Carter also won't cause the coaches any worries off the court - she will be in the classroom and in study hall and will get to the gym on her own time for extra work.

"You just described her," Durden said. "She is taking all honor classes and AP courses. You are not going to have any academic problems.

"She has been one of our hardest workers here, a gym rat that comes in and works on her own without somebody trying to tell her that. Tennessee is going to get all that."

Carter's resolve was tested this past eight months by an ACL injury that required surgery and extensive rehab.

"She handled it the same way she handles everything," Durden said. "She worked so hard in the off-season to try to come back and do things the right way. She probably would not be playing right now if she had not done everything she needed to do.

"Matter of fact, we had to slow her down some, because she was going so hard with it. I think it has made her stronger. I think it has made her appreciate the game of basketball more."

When Pat Summitt announced last summer that she had been diagnosed with dementia, Carter was a commit to Tennessee but had not yet signed her LOI. She didn't flinch on her decision and instead immediately wanted to announce her intentions to stay with Tennessee so that coaches would not try to contact her.

"That is the type of kid Andraya is," Durden said. "She definitely wants to play and be there for Coach Summitt, but I think the bigger thing is the program."

That was also the mind-set of Davis, who can't sign an LOI until next November and whose verbal commitment is not binding. Davis also announced her intention to remain with Tennessee, fully knowing that Summitt's future is uncertain.

"I think they are looking at the total program," Durden said. "They are looking at the tradition. They are looking at everything. I think that (loyalty) is very admirable is today's young athlete."

Davis may be a year behind her teammate, but her game has been described as college ready.

"Kaela is an unbelievable natural scorer," Durden said. "She can score so many different ways. She can shoot the ball. She can drive the ball.

"She has great instincts. There are a lot of things about Kaela that are un-coachable. She is just a natural with it."

Davis also has some grit about her game. Last September in Italy, Davis played for USA Basketball on the three-on-three team. Less than two minutes into the semifinal game, the USA team went down one player because of a knee injury with a fourth player already out because of an earlier ankle injury.

That left Davis and teammate Linnae Harper to play the game two on three, and they nearly pulled off the upset of Italy, falling 21-19. Davis accounted for 14 points and drained several deep shots from beyond NBA three-ball range.

"That says that she has the ability to take over a game, and she can," Durden said. "Kaela is instant offense. I remember a long time ago you had Vinnie Johnson, who played for the Detroit Pistons, and they called him ‘The Microwave,' because he could always heat up.

"That is Kaela Davis. The other night in a game she hit five threes in the first half, just bam, bam, bam. Kaela can do a lot of things offensively."

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

ODDS AND ENDS

Tennessee leads the series with Georgia, 43-15. The Lady Vols' record on the road against the Lady Bulldogs is 11-8, and Georgia won the last matchup in Athens in 2010. … Tennessee is 13-1 in games played on January 29. The last win on this date came against Ole Miss, 60-59, in 2009. The first win on January 29 was against Carson-Newman, 53-49, in 1969. The lone loss on this date was to Georgia, 84-74, in 1986. … If some 5,500 fans arrive Sunday - capacity for Stegeman Coliseum is 10,523 - the Lady Vols would go over the mark for 200,000 spectators this season at home and on the road. More than half of those have shown up in Knoxville as Tennessee has welcomed 138,117 fans in 10 home games. Georgia has two promotions for Sunday's game - the first 500 children get replica Lady Bulldog jerseys and the first 500 university students get "Beat Tennessee" T-shirts, pizza and drinks.


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