The Lady Vols, led by first-year head coach Holly Warlick, are undefeated in league play and will play the next two SEC games on the road.
After a Sunday brunch tip time against Florida in the Sunshine State, Tennessee is back to late night television this Thursday against Auburn with a 9 p.m. Eastern start on the Plains.
Warlick had the formidable task of following a legend in Pat Summitt and has done an outstanding job so far. She has recruited well – the incoming class includes the country's top player in Mercedes Russell – shown that she can motivate a young team, made in-game adjustments, and, perhaps most importantly, has the team playing in Summitt's image.
She has done all of this with Summitt a regular attendee at practice – Warlick has said her job was to take care of her mentor – and sitting across the court on the front row at home games.
The players miss Summitt – senior Taber Spani hugs her former head coach before tipoff – but they also have embraced Warlick. Most importantly, they know she is in charge, though Warlick has shown her assistants, Dean Lockwood, Kyra Elzy and Jolette Law the same degree of trust that Summitt did, and she doesn't hesitate to solicit their input,
"Last year was so unprecedented and they were trying to make the best of a tough situation," Spani said. "I think it's nice that there is more stability now. The thing about Holly that is the same as Pat is she is always welcoming the voice of Jolette and Kyra and Dean, so they definitely still have input on bench, even regarding things like substitutions.
"But I think everyone can probably look to the top and there is maybe more clarity in that. I think anytime you have a set head coach it's a little bit different."
Last season, the coaching was done by committee. Warlick was handling the timeouts and was often on her feet directing the players on the court. Substitutions were frequently being made behind her with Dean Lockwood and then assistant Mickie DeMoss consulting with Summitt.
Now, those decisions are made by Warlick, and that is not a minor change. When a player is inserted, it is because Warlick put her in the game.
The players know if they want playing time they will earn it at Warlick's command.
"I think it's good to know that she has that power," junior Meighan Simmons said. "She knows the gift and the talent that she has. I think she is using it very wisely, and it's not just with me. It's with everybody.
"I think she knows what everybody can bring to the table, and I think her subbing is a way of letting people know, ‘I know what this person can bring to the table. I trust them to come in the game at this point in time and make a difference.'
"I think that's been a big help for everybody. It allows everybody to get that right amount of playing time."
Simmons is the only player to have started every game this season, a situation caused by both coach's decision and injury. Simmons also has found a seat on the bench if she strayed too much from the offensive game plan or didn't give sufficient effort on defense.
"I think we are responding to it very well," Simmons said. "The expectation for us to go out there and give 110 percent is so high."
Last season a pulled player could occasionally get planted on the bench. Warlick has been willing to take a sit-learn-return approach. A player pulled from a game because of a mistake hears from Warlick or an assistant, sits for a few minutes and then returns.
"I think that is something she really wants us to know: ‘Just because I sit you down doesn't mean I am not going to put you back in. Because one way or another I am going to need you,' " Simmons said.
"There is a bigger lesson to everything. It's a maturing thing. Maybe I'll remember not to do that again. It's nothing too big, and it's nothing too bad."
It has been beneficial for Simmons. She is leading the team in scoring and understands the parameters of Warlick's expectations on both sides of the ball. The newcomers also know who is in charge.
"It is her approach because she knows what everyone can bring to the table," Simmons said. "She knows the upperclassmen but as far as the freshmen she is like, ‘If I sit them down, are they going to be able to make the adjustment?'
"That is really her technique. Whatever Holly does, it goes."
It has brought clarity to the players.
"It lets us understand that she trusts us as individuals and as players," Simmons said.
It also has eliminated any confusion.
"Now that it's just her you already know what she wants of you, what she expects of you," Simmons said. "It's nothing to where it's confusing when we get out there on the court. It's one person so we know."
Tennessee coach Holly Warlick is expected to start: Ariel Massengale, 5-6 sophomore guard, No. 5, hails from Bolingbrook, Ill. (8.4 points per game, 2.7 rebounds per game, 4.1 assists per game); Meighan Simmons, 5-9 junior guard, No. 10, hails from Cibolo, Texas (15.9 ppg, 3.4 rpg); Taber Spani, 6-1 senior forward, No. 13, hails from Lee's Summit, Mo. (8.2 ppg, 3.7 rpg); Bashaara Graves, 6-2 freshman forward, No. 12, hails from Clarksville, Tenn. (14.4 ppg, 8.6 rpg); and Isabelle Harrison, 6-3 sophomore forward, No. 20, hails from Nashville, Tenn. (10.6 ppg, 8.4 rpg, 2.6 blocks per game).
Spani has elevated her play in the absence of Cierra Burdick, who broke her right hand and is out for the month. Spani has moved into the starting lineup and is averaging 13.3 points in the three SEC games.
Florida coach Amanda Butler is expected to start: Jaterra Bonds, 5-7 junior guard, No. 10 (11.6 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 3.8 apg), hails from Gainesville, Fla., averaging 19.0 points in SEC games; Carlie Needles, 5-6 redshirt freshman, No. 4 (8.2 ppg, 1.7 rpg), hails from Highlands Ranch, Colo., has connected on 33 treys this season; Lily Svete, 6-2 redshirt junior forward, No. 31 (5.2 ppg, 1.9 rpg), hails from Granger, Ind., shooting 39.3 percent from arc, has connected on 24 treys this season; Kayla Lewis, 6-0 sophomore guard/forward, No. 22 (8.4 ppg, 6.0 rpg), tallied 12 points, nine boards in win over Mississippi State; and Jennifer George, 6-0 senior forward, No. 32 (13.7 ppg, 8.9 rpg), hails from Fresno, Calif., didn't start last game because of shoulder dislocation injury suffered Jan. 6 against LSU, has been consistent player for Florida this season, logged 17 minutes off bench in the last game.
"Her level of consistency is what is just tremendous," Butler said. "(Even when teams scheme against her), she still seems to find a way to come up with a double-double. I think we knew that she could be pretty special."
Bonds is the linchpin for the Gators, and her ultra-competitive nature is even evident in tabletop ping pong games at the coach's house. She had to get stitches in her elbow after a foul sent her to floor in the game this week against Mississippi State.
"She's really been huge," Butler said. "She's been our dominant voice. I've been very proud of her play. She is always searching for ways to improve. She plays for the name on the front of her jersey."
A key player off the bench for the Gators is Sydney Moss, a 5-11 freshman guard from Union Ky., who is averaging 10.6 points and 6.1 rebounds per game. She is daughter of NFL wide receiver Randy Moss.
THE SEC BACKS PAT: The SEC is once again showing support for Pat Summitt and Alzheimer's research and awareness.
The initiative kicks off this week, so Tennessee will see support for their head coach emeritus and her foundation this Sunday at Florida and again on Thursday at Auburn.
Tennessee's "We Back Pat" game is Jan. 20 against Alabama in Knoxville.
Cierra Burdick was on hand in Gainesville to help her team in non-contact shell drills during Florida preparations, and she is now sporting a purple cast in support of Summitt.
ON TAP: All 14 SEC teams are in action today. The other matchups are: Alabama at Ole Miss; Arkansas at Vanderbilt; Auburn at Texas A&M; South Carolina at Georgia; Kentucky at Missouri; and Mississippi State at LSU.
Tennessee leads the series with Florida, 44-3. The Lady Vols are 17-2 in Gainesville. The Gators last beat the Lady Vols on their home court in 2009. Tennessee has since won seven consecutive games in the series. … Bashaarra Graves can greet a former high school teammate before the game. Chandler Cooper, a 5-11 guard, played with Graves at Clarksville High School in Tennessee on a team in which all five starters earned Division I scholarships. Cooper got her start in basketball when she was 4 years old after her father, who played at David Lipscomb, altered her birth date to get her in a five-and-older league. Her parents chose between Chandler and Blake for their daughter's first name, and Al Cooper repeated "Blake Cooper for three," and "Chandler Cooper for three" to make the decision on which sounded best. Cooper has missed the last 14 games because of a strained arch in her left foot, an injury suffered in practice Nov. 15. She has connected on two treys for the Gators this season.
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