Lady Vols scoot into semifinals

DULUTH, Ga. - The Lady Vols opened the SEC tourney with a win over Florida and will next face Texas A&M. Go inside with InsideTennessee for complete coverage.

Ariel Massengale wore basketball shoes Friday, but she might as well have laced up track spikes with the way she pushed tempo in the Lady Vols' SEC opener.

The result was an 82-73 win for Tennessee (24-6) over Florida (18-14) that left the Lady Vols happy with the outcome but cognizant of the fact that the defense has to get better to get to Sunday and win the tourney.

The Gators went down early in the first half - 17-4 in a little more than five minutes of play - but they used the long ball to get back in the game and Tennessee's halftime lead was 47-36.

The Gators stayed within snapping distance throughout the second half, and they pushed the Lady Vols to the final minute - Tennessee sealed it at the free throw line - which left head coach Holly Warlick happy with the win but noting that the defense needed to stiffen.

Warlick was pleased with the tempo - Massengale was motoring down court throughout her 35 minutes of playing time - and the offensive effort as Tennessee shot 48.2 percent (27-56) from the field and 82.1 percent (23-28) from the line.

The Lady Vols got the ball in the paint via transition and dribble drive - Kamiko Williams was particularly effective and floated in a jumper in the lane in the first half that few in women's basketball can pull off - with 42 points coming close to the basket.

Fellow senior Taber Spani matched Williams in finesse in the second half after faking a three from the corner, dribbling to the free throw line and then lofting a step-back teardrop jumper that swished through the net.

"I think on the offensive end, we're just talented," Cierra Burdick said. "We've got a bunch of people that can score the basketball."

Burdick tallied 14 points and was one of six Lady Vols to reach double digits. Meighan Simmons led Tennessee with 20 points on 6-12 shooting overall and 4-5 from long range, while Spani notched 13 points, Williams contributed 12 and Bashaara Graves and Massengale had 10 each.

"That's one of our strong points as a team," Burdick said. "So if we just continue to share the basketball the way we are, I think we'll be successful down the line."

Burdick mentioned the defense in her same thought, as did Warlick.

"We've got to continue to pick it up on defense, because offense is not our problem; it's the defensive end."

Warlick noted, "We've got to go back to the drawing board. We've got to get down and defend some people. We're not going to always out-score people."

It has been a media source of amusement all season that the team focuses on defense in practice, not offense, and then continues to pile up points - the Lady Vols entered the tournament fourth in the nation in scoring - while Warlick addresses defensive inadequacies in the post-game press conference.

But Warlick is correct about not relying on out-scoring people, especially in the postseason. The Gators connected at 41.1 percent and got to the line just seven times but Florida was within six points, 75-69, with 50 seconds left to play.

Florida also took 73 shots to 56 for Tennessee and had 15 offensive boards to 13 for the Lady Vols. Burdick had eight boards for the Lady Vols with six coming on the offensive end. She kept possessions alive late in the game that allowed Tennessee to both use more clock and increase the lead.

Tennessee's preferred pace is fast, but Warlick's rotation is seven players and on Friday it was mostly six, as Jasmine Jones logged just eight minutes.

Jones connected on her lone shot of the day, hit the front end of a one-and-one for three points and grabbed a board, but the freshman forward is capable of much more than that and the Lady Vols will need it this weekend, especially with the strong post play of the Aggies up next for Tennessee.

Simmons ended up getting the most rest for Tennessee because of foul trouble, as she logged just 23 minutes, but the SEC co-player of the year made use of every second with 20 points and three boards.

Florida coach Amanda Butler wasn't particularly happy with her team's defense either, especially in the first half when the Lady Vols put up 47 points.

"We did a below average in the first half," Butler said. "In our locker room we thought that was the story of the game. Played a tough and gutsy second half. Against a good team you can't pick and choose."

The Gators nearly matched the Lady Vols in the second half, 37-35, and Warlick saluted her sideline counterpart.

Butler is from Middle Tennessee and grew up a Lady Vol fan. Her teams play hard, and she embodies many of the same principles as Pat Summitt did.

"Florida is a great basketball team," Warlick said. "They're physical. They're athletic. Amanda does a great job. …

"It was a hard-fought game, and I knew it would be. They're a tough opponent to play. We knew that from the get-go."

UP NEXT: The Lady Vols will face a Texas A&M team they just beat last week to clinch the SEC regular season.

The Aggies advanced to Saturday after a 61-52 win over South Carolina on Friday and are now 22-9 on the season.

Coach Gary Blair was effusive in his praise of South Carolina coach Dawn Staley.

"South Carolina got us ready to play Tennessee," Blair said.

Blair also had Cierra Burdick on his mind - she "just killed us last time," he said, referring to her offensive glass work - and he noted Kamiko Williams as an "energy player," and Meighan Simmons and Taber Spani "spotting up out there."

"We have our work cut out for us," Blair said.

Tip time is 4 p.m. Eastern and ESPNU has the broadcast at The Arena at Gwinnett Center.

REST AND REHAB: The Lady Vols had a Friday evening planned of ice baths and rest.

The coaching staff will get busy on the game plan for Texas A&M.

"After this we're going to go and take ice baths, everybody has to get in an ice bath," Holly Warlick said. "Not the coaches, thank goodness."

The staff also swiped the players' cell phones. That is both to keep them from being on the phone or getting late night calls and texts.

"Rest is going to be huge for us because of our lack of depth," Warlick said.

Tennessee's Isabelle Harrison would have been vital for that depth, but she is likely out all weekend.

Harrison injured the MCL in her right knee against Texas A&M last week during an awkward fall after she stepped on an opponent's foot and heard a pop - the recently surgically repaired left one is OK - and then she tweaked it again Thursday in practice.

Harrison didn't rule out playing this weekend, but she expected it could be a week before she returned. That would allow her to be back for the NCAA tourney.

"Having this happen right after my meniscus, I was like, ‘Can I catch a break?' " Harrison said. "But I know at the right time I'll come back. I've been doing a lot of rehab."

Harrison is ambulatory and not on crutches and referred to freshman Andraya Carter, who is out after shoulder surgery last December, as "my rehab buddy."

Carter, who is having to watch but not play in her home state of Georgia, has an appointment scheduled with her surgeon and hopes to be released to shoot right-handed.

VIDEO LINKS

Game highlights from utsportstv

Holly Warlick, Meighan Simmons, Cierra Burdick

INSIDE TENNESSEE VIDEOS:

Trophy presentation

Meighan Simmons

Cierra Burdick

Ariel Massengale

Taber Spani

Kamiko Williams

Bashaara Graves

Andraya Carter

Nia Moore, Jasmine Phillips

Kyra Elzy


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