Nia Moore had a breakout game for the Lady Vols on Sunday against Alcorn State with 10 points, seven boards, two blocks, a steal and no turnovers in 18 minutes of play.
"I appreciate my coach giving me the minutes out there," said Moore, who has earned praise from the staff for her humble attitude and willingness to work in practice.
"When I got out there I knew I had to do my best."
The performance came with her prep coach, Anthony Smith, watching from the stands with his team from Bolingbrook High School. The Illinois high school had played in the Tennessee Turkey Jam in Murfreesboro over the holiday weekend and made the trip to Knoxville to see the Lady Vols, which features two Bolingbrook products in Moore and sophomore Ariel Massengale.
"We got to show them around the locker room and talk to them," Moore said.
Smith talked to Moore after the game and told her "the usual," she said with a smile. "Good job and keep working hard."
The team stayed in town after Sunday's game and attended Monday's practice.
"She knew they were in the crowd," Bashaara Graves said. "She wanted to show them that she has their back, that she is out here and she is representing Bolingbrook."
"I think it was awesome," coach Holly Warlick said. "I was proud of Nia. She performed in front of everybody, but I am sure it was really, really special to have her high school team watching her."
Moore had intended to play for the in-state Illini but when coach Jolette Law was released by Illinois and hired by Warlick, Moore requested and received a release from her LOI and signed last June with Tennessee before even making a visit.
"I think I made an awesome decision," Moore said.
Moore, who is from the Windy City, has been amused by teammates who think it is cold in East Tennessee, Isabelle Harrison being one. When the temperatures drop, Harrison dresses as if she were headed on an Arctic expedition.
"Scarfs, ear muffs, all of it," Moore said. "I say, ‘This is good weather compared to Chicago. It's freezing there.' It's not that cold. I tell them they had better be appreciative of this weather."
Moore enrolled in August so she missed the summer conditioning sessions. She knows weight training and endurance are critical going forward.
"Getting stronger, because I know I am a bit behind," Moore said.
Her work ethic in practice has earned Moore the respect of the staff.
"She just needs experience and confidence," Warlick said. "She works hard every day in practice getting better and better. She is a tough kid, asks questions, doesn't get down on herself.
"I love her energy. What she is still learning in technique she makes up for it in athletic ability."
Moore's teammates celebrate her successes, too, whether it's a block or a basket.
"Anytime I do something good on the court, I see them jump up and say, ‘Go Nia!' " Moore said. "I appreciate their support."
Graves is a freshman post who has already moved into the starting lineup. She admires Moore's spirit in practice and on the sidelines.
"We see Nia in practice and how hard she works and when she gets a chance to get on the court, we just want her to show what she has like she shows us every hour in every practice," Graves said.
"We just love it. We are all together. She supports me."
Junior Meighan Simmons added, "I can completely understand how she feels like, ‘I want to get out there and I want to benefit the team.' I don't like making comparisons, but at the same time when you think about Izzy, where Izzy is now, she was not like that last year. She remembered what her role was and then she came back and now her role is 10 times bigger because there is a higher expectation.
"With Nia, we're going to need her one way or another. I think she is taking it all in, trying to figure out what it is the coaches are expecting of her, what she expects of herself, what the team expects of her. Nia is a very good learner."
Moore has played in the three of Tennessee's five games this season, and she has made the most of her minutes by shooting 54.5 percent and taking care of the ball with just one turnover in 36 minutes of play.
"I just take it day by day," Moore said. "I know there will be times I don't get off the bench, but I am still going to be on the bench supporting my team and still continue working hard in practice.
"I am appreciative of them giving me a scholarship in the first place and to wear Tennessee across my chest. I am just honored."
Moore has a repeatable stroke at the free throw line and has been consistent in practice and is 2-2 in the game.
"When I am at the free throw line I just try to focus in," Moore said. "It's just me at the line by myself. I am just thinking about putting that ball in the net. I don't get up there and bounce the ball. The ref gives it to me and I just try to stroke it."
Although Moore wasn't recruited by Pat Summitt – Warlick had taken over the top spot when Moore signed her scholarship papers – she appreciates having the head coach emeritus connected to the program. Summitt will join the huddle at the end of practice.
"It is always something positive," Moore said of any remarks made by Summitt. "It is a pleasure to have coach Summitt around."
The degree of difficulty of the schedule takes a steep jump starting tonight with a NCAA tournament tested Middle Tennessee team coming to town followed by North Carolina at home this Sunday and then a road trip to the Lone Star State to play Texas and Baylor. Tennessee returns home to face Stanford before the Christmas break.
"We're getting to crunch time," Moore said. "We take it one game at a time."
That is a sports cliché but it's apropos for a young team that could get overwhelmed if it tried to digest the entire schedule at once.
"Exactly," Moore said. "We're not scared. We're going to get out there and play Tennessee basketball."
Tennessee's youth was on full display in the season opening loss at Chattanooga but then so was its resilience as the Lady Vols have won four straight, including two on the road against Top 25 ACC schools.
"I think we needed that one game," Moore said. "It was in our head thinking everyone would bow down to us just because we had Tennessee across our chest.
"We needed that game to pull us together and help us work on defense."
Tennessee coach Holly Warlick is expected to start: Andraya Carter, 5-9 freshman guard, No. 14, hails from Flowery Branch, Ga. (7.0 points per game, 2.2 rebounds per game, 2.0 assists per game); Meighan Simmons, 5-9 junior guard, No. 10, hails from Cibolo, Texas (14.6 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 2.2 steals per game); Cierra Burdick, 6-2 sophomore forward, No. 11, hails from Charlotte, N.C. (7.8 ppg, 6.6 rpg); Bashaara Graves, 6-2 freshman forward, No. 12, hails from Clarksville, Tenn. (16.0 ppg, 7.0 rpg); and Isabelle Harrison, 6-3 sophomore forward, No. 20, hails from Nashville, Tenn. (9.8 ppg, 8.2 rpg).
Middle Tennessee coach Rick Insell is expected to start: Shanice Cason 5-6 sophomore guard, No. 5 (6.8 ppg, 4.6 rpg), hails from Murfreesboro, Tenn., has started 33 consecutive games, connected on eight treys against Western Kentucky last season; Kortni Jones, 5-9 senior guard, No. 24 (17.4 ppg, 3.0 rpg, 5.2 apg), hails from Oak Ridge, Tenn., preseason First Team All-Sun Belt, needs 63 points to reach 1,000 for her career, set program record with 115 made treys last season, playing in 100th career game tonight; Laken Leonard, 5-10 junior guard, No. 52 (4.8 ppg, 3.4 rpg), hails from Whitleyville, Tenn., has started 22 consecutive games, has gone the distance of 40 minutes five times in her career, set career highs in points, 13, and assists, five, against Western Kentucky last season; Icelyn Elie, 6-1 senior forward, No. 13 (15.0 ppg, 7.2 rpg), hails from Lebanon, Tenn., preseason First Team All-Sun Belt, needs 101 points to reach 1,000 for her career; and Ebony Rowe, 6-1 junior forward, No. 21 (19.8 ppg, 10.2 rpg), hails from Lexington, Ky., preseason First Team All-Sun Belt, has reached double figures in scoring in 66 career games and double figures in boards in 34 career games.
KeKe Stewart, a 6-1 junior center, comes off the bench and averages 4.5 points and 2.3 rebounds per game. She is from nearby Oak Ridge.
GOOD HANDS: After Sunday's win over Alcorn State, coach Holly Warlick was asked about Nia Moore's production and she mentioned the post player's hands.
"Nia has the best hands of a post player that we have seen in a long time," Warlick said. "You can throw anything to her and she catches it."
Former Tennessee posts Candace Parker and Kelley Cain also were known for the ability to catch any ball in their vicinity. Parker learned to juggle to improve her eye-hand coordination. Cain was a goalie in middle school and attributed that experience to improving her hands.
Moore said she had no such experiences.
"I cannot juggle at all," Moore said. "And she was probably a good goalie."
Moore's handiwork apparently stems from attitude.
"Whenever they throw me the ball, even if it's a bad pass, I just know I have to catch it," Moore said. "Just reach out. I use my length."
GOOD PASS: Meighan Simmons had the assist of the game Sunday when she hauled in a long pass from Andraya Carter – who had swiped an Alcorn State in-bounds offering – and flipped it behind her without looking to a trailing Kamiko Williams for the basket.
"I heard her," Simmons said. "Her voice is so squeaky. Miko was like, ‘Meig, Meig, I'm behind you!' I heard her footsteps. I know her footsteps and I know her voice.
"I was like, ‘Miko's coming,' and before I took off I tried to realize who was behind me because I saw another defender in front of me. I knew Miko was behind me and I threw it right to her."
GOOD DEFENSE: Tennessee is a better basketball team when Meighan Simmons' energy level on defense matches her enthusiasm for offense.
Coach Holly Warlick reiterated that point Tuesday during media interviews.
"I think when Meighan is solid on her offensive game, her defensive game takes a step up," Warlick said. "I am trying to get Meighan to focus on her defense as well as her offense.
"When she puts her mind to it she can be one of our better defenders. I think she understands the importance of defense and the emphasis we are putting on the defensive end. I think Meighan has at times let her offense control her defense, and we are trying to change that mentality. We are about there."
Warlick credited the influence of assistant coach Kyra Elzy, who was a tenacious defender when she played for Tennessee. Elzy has had a few conversations with Simmons.
"She just reminds me all the time that defense comes first before offense," Simmons said. "To not let your offense dictate your defense, because it should be the opposite way around.
"She knows that I am quick enough to get in the passing lane to get steals and that gives me easy buckets to just get the ball and run down the court and get in on a fast break."
Elzy wanted Simmons to expand her resume as a basketball player.
"I told her one of her goals was to be All-SEC, and I was like, ‘Be all around. Be a scorer. Be a defensive stopper, because you have all the gifts and tools to do so,' " Elzy said.
"She should be one of our best defenders off her pure athleticism alone and quickness. When she wants to … she'll have spurts in practice where you're like, ‘OK, that's what we're looking for.' Now it's just getting her doing it consistently.
"She naturally has a lot of energy and emotion, and that's what it takes to place defense. It's more heart, emotion."
The junior's on-ball defense is noticeably improved, as is the pressure applied by sophomore Ariel Massengale. The tone was set in preseason by freshman guard Andraya Carter, a scenario that made Elzy smile.
"It was amazing," Elzy said. "Andraya has a heart the size of the state of Tennessee. And I think that is contagious, plus she has a bubbly personality. You see one person doing it, you're like, ‘I don't want to get outworked.' "
Elzy also smiled when asked if competition for playing time had improved the overall defensive mind-set of the team, too.
"We love competition," Elzy said. "We did a defensive drill (in preseason) and it took the orange team 55 minutes to get out of the drill. We just did it (Monday) in practice and they were like, ‘Let's get it!'
"Now, they're becoming more excited about it. Because I think it has to be a mentality. It has to be a culture."
That is the Tennessee way, and Holly Warlick and staff are restoring it, a process made smoother if the team can stay healthy, which didn't happen the past four seasons.
"We've emphasized it a lot in practice," Elzy said. "We just keep telling them, ‘No team wins big without defending and rebounding. No team.'
"And we have the talent to do it. Now, do we have the heart to do it?"
GAME NOTES ODDS AND ENDS
Tennessee leads the series with Middle Tennessee, 19-0. The Lady Vols record at home against the Blue Raiders is 11-0. … Tennessee spent most of the month on the road, as did Middle Tennessee. The Blue Raiders last played in Murfreesboro on Nov. 11 and have since traversed from Iowa City, Iowa, to Cookeville, Tenn., to Lafayette, La., to Knoxville, Tenn. The 5,000-mile road trip concludes this Saturday with a game against South Dakota State in Brookings, S.D. … A familiar face will be on the visitor's sideline in Alex Fuller. Fuller, who won two national titles at Tennessee in 2007 and 2008, played for Rick Insell when he was her high school coach in Shelbyville, Tenn., and is now in her third season on the staff at Middle Tennessee. Fuller is engaged to be married and will be featured on an upcoming episode of "Say Yes to the Dress." Former UT video coordinator Dustin Edwards (2010-11) is now Middle Tennessee's director of operations.
INSIDE TENNESSEE VIDEO COVERAGE