Ariel Massengale asked to lead

The Lady Vols have a roster of 10 with just four guards, but it is quite a quartet in Meighan Simmons, Ariel Massengale, Andraya Carter and Jordan Reynolds. InsideTennessee chatted with two of them and Dean Lockwood. Go inside for the report.

Ariel Massengale has spent two seasons at Tennessee dealing with injuries ranging from a serious hand one to a nagging foot issue. As a junior, she is entering the 2013-14 preseason completely healthy.

"I am 100 percent," Massengale said. "And staying healthy this season is my main goal."

Massengale sustained a serious concussion as a freshman and missed nearly a month of preseason practice. That was followed by a serious hand injury that required surgery and caused her to miss most of December in her first season. As a sophomore, Massengale dealt with a nagging foot injury and often wore a boot when not on the court.

Massengale spent considerable time off the court encased in ice and keeping rehab appointments.

"It takes a toll after a while and you're like, ‘When am I going to be healthy?' " Massengale said. "It's been two years now since I've been completely healthy so to have that starting off this season, just praying that it stays that way."

Tennessee needs Massengale on the court because there are just four guards on the roster – though forwards Cierra Burdick and Jasmine Jones can bring help on the wing – and the junior is the most experienced point guard on the team.

"She is obviously very, very vital to this team – her overall leadership at both ends of the floor, her presence, her ability to connect with other people, her ability to be consistent both as a performer and also in who she is every day," Assistant coach Dean Lockwood said.

"Those are sheer qualities that Ariel can bring to this team and move this team forward with those qualities. That is a big, big thing for us to have her in that role."

Massengale has college and international experience with USA Women's Basketball. The Lady Vols have one senior in Meighan Simmons and two other juniors in Burdick and post Isabelle Harrison, both of whom also spent a portion of last seasons sidelined by injury – a broken hand for Burdick and knee injuries for Harrison.

As the player with the ball in her hands, Massengale has to take the role of team leader.

"She is a very high IQ basketball player, so that can help her be a great leader and help other people," Lockwood said. "But then also her toughness. A point guard is like a quarterback. I always make parallels between point guards, quarterbacks and catchers. Teams derive so much of their collective grit and their toughness from those positions.

"If you've got a quarterback who can take poundings and has resilience and never gives up, then the football team – you could have the meanest, nastiest, raunchiest lineman out there, but those guys plug into that quarterback. They take their cues from that quarterback. Point guards, same thing.

"You can have somebody that towers over that kid. They can grab the rim, and they can knock people into next week in the paint, but when the point guard is vocal and connecting people and showing confidence, that makes each player that much tougher. It is a rallying position, and that's what we're looking for from Ariel – giving us great leadership, connecting people, building people up, helping people be successful and just showing the grit and the toughness that winning points guards have."

That is a lot to ask one player to shoulder during a season. Fortunately, Massengale has assistance in combo guard Andraya Carter. The redshirt freshman played in just seven games last season – she shot 90 percent from the line and tallied nine steals and 13 assists – before being shut down in December, because the shoulder she injured in high school kept popping out during games.

Carter missed most of her senior year at Buford High School in Georgia, because she was rehabbing her left knee after tearing the ACL. She dislocated her shoulder after returning late in the season. Carter, because of the injuries, didn't pop up on high school award lists, but Tennessee knew what it had in the 5'9 athletic guard.

"You talk about an unsung, unheralded player, perhaps outside of our program, but inside of our program I think everybody is very, very well aware of Andraya Carter's value to this team," Lockwood said. "She is one of those energy people that instantly when she is in the game, the intensity level is up a notch."

Massengale and Carter co-exist well on the court. Carter started five games while Massengale dealt with nagging injuries. When they were on the court together, it was rather seamless, as Carter could bring the ball down the court or slip to the wing.

When Carter was sidelined, Tennessee and Massengale missed her presence, especially on defense. She also took pressure off of Massengale at the point position.

"There is a little bit of weight off of Ariel's shoulders because she knows if she's struggling she can be taken out of the game and collect herself," Carter said. "When you feel like you're the only one, you feel like you have to perform well because if you sit out, everything is going to go downhill. I think she has a little more confidence and there is less weight on her shoulders.

"That would benefit anybody having less weight on your shoulders when you're out there on the court. We're going to be there for each other. She is going to have my back. I am going to have her back. Or we will be right next to each other on the court. It doesn't really matter. We can play together. We can back each other up. Whatever has to get done, we'll get done."

Massengale welcomed the return of Carter.

"It's wonderful," Massengale said. "She worked her tail off getting back and then this past summer, with me not being here this summer, she was able to be that point guard, be that leader, be that go-to person for the team, so now she has confidence in herself.

"Being able to co-lead and run this team, I think it's going to be great for us."

Massengale wasn't in Knoxville this summer because of commitments to USA basketball. She won a gold medal – the fourth of her USA career – playing in the World University Games in Russia. Her stints in red, white and blue have been special experiences.

"I love that," Massengale said. "Each team is special in its own way. It is a great opportunity. I wouldn't trade it for the world."

While Massengale has enjoyed considerable success in USA basketball, she knows her college career has come up short with two consecutive defeats in the Elite Eight. The junior has an eye on the calendar.

"It is going by extremely fast," Massengale said. "I feel like I just got here but to know that it's halfway over is amazing to me. The sense of urgency is getting higher and higher each year. When I first started I had four chances to win a national championship. Now, I only have two chances.

"So time is running out, and I don't want to be one of those woulda-coulda-shoulda type of people. I am going to do everything in my power to make sure that we get to where we want to get to in the end."

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