Practice underway for Lady Vols

The Lady Vols have officially started practice, signaling the start of the 2013-14 season. Go inside with InsideTennessee for the latest on the team.

Tennessee's players took the court early Monday morning for the first official practice of the season and will regroup Tuesday for another session at Pratt Pavilion, this one with media availability.

Coach Holly Warlick has 10 players on the roster, including newcomers Mercedes Russell and Jordan Reynolds. A third player, Andraya Carter, is not new to the program, but she will be a first-year player as the redshirt freshman logged time in just seven games last season because of a shoulder injury.

Carter is expected to be a co-leader of the team this season, along with junior point guard Ariel Massengale.

Massengale and the other two juniors, Cierra Burdick and Isabelle Harrison, are upperclassmen, along with senior Meighan Simmons, for a program trying to reach its first Final Four since 2008.

While the quartet have earned considerable success in the SEC with regular season and tourney championships and Elite Eight berths in the NCAA Tournament – three for Simmons and two for the juniors – they are still seeking the game's biggest stage. And, at Tennessee, legacies are cemented by big games.

The upperclassmen are seeking that signature win, as they have fallen to Baylor, Stanford and Notre Dame over the past two regular seasons and Baylor and Louisville in the last two Elite Eight appearances.

"We won the SEC regular season," Assistant coach Dean Lockwood said. "That's no small accomplishment, and we have said we are incredibly proud of our team for that. But now take a look at the games that we didn't win that would have helped us maybe be better seeded for the NCAA Tournament.

"You've got Kentucky during the regular season, you've got Notre Dame and Stanford. Those are two marquee games that have huge NCAA impact on the outcomes. And then being able to go slay your dragons and win a game to get you to a Final Four. While we've had success, we are looking to take that next step.

"That doesn't fall on any one person but that's part of what great leadership can help us do."

Massengale, as the most experienced guard on the roster, is expected to shoulder a significant load.

"I love something that John Stockton said years ago," Lockwood said. "Point guards should be judged by one stat and one stat only: Do their teams win consistently? Do their teams win big games?

"I love that. And that is something for Rel that is huge for our team."

Massengale is aware that orange measurements are made on a national scale.

"I think we're on our way to putting Tennessee back on the map and putting it where it needs to get to," Massengale said. "Win those big games, getting over that Elite Eight hump is going to take us back to where we are supposed to be at this university, get us back to following those standards that previous Lady Vols have set before us."

While the roster is thin at 10, the coaching staff has said it intends to play up-tempo. That means the freshmen and Carter have to be ready.

"Everyone is going to play a part with only 10 people and the type of tempo that the coaches want to play," Massengale said. "We are going to get tired so to be able to run people in and out, it's going to be great for us."

THE FROSH: Mercedes Russell and Jordan Reynolds, by all accounts, are making the adjustment to college basketball, though patience is always the buzzword with freshmen.

"I think she's going to be great once she adjusts to playing (at this level)," Andraya Carter said, referring to the 6-6 Russell. "Bashaara and Izzy are going to push her and show her everything that she needs.

"I think she can definitely help us. She is excited to be here, too. We've all embraced her. I feel extremely short standing next to her."

Bashaara Graves, who earned All-SEC honors in her first year, and Isabelle Harrison, who was a difference maker until knee injuries affected the end of her season, are the team's experienced post players. Russell will be counted on early, but she can ease her way into playing time.

Ariel Massengale summed it up well: "We have talent and then have depth on top of that."

At 6-6, Russell is a full foot taller than the 5-6 Massengale.

"And it is so funny because sometimes during our (weights and conditioning) workouts, she and I will be partners," Massengale said. "Of all people, the tallest person on our team and the shortest person on our team, partners with each other. Sometimes it just happens."

Massengale also has praise for Jordan Reynolds, a 5-11 combo guard who can play all three perimeter spots.

"I think she is going to learn quickly," Massengale said. "They have done a great job coming in asking questions and knowing what is going on. Her athleticism, her ability on the defensive end and her ability to put the ball in the basket, that is definitely going to help us."

Carter has been impressed with Reynolds' athleticism. That is noteworthy because Carter has wowed observers with her speed, agility and jumping ability.

"She is super athletic," Carter said. "She just plays hard and she has fun out here. She's competitive. She pushes all of us. When it comes to energy, when it comes to defense – what we take pride in – she is doing those things. I think she is going to push everybody.

"She is super excited to be here. Her energy that she has spreads. You can tell she wants it. You can tell she wants to work."

A recent Instagram post by Reynolds noted she wasn't happy with her performance in a workout, and she was back in the gym to make amends.

"We want kids like that," Carter said. "That's how we are and that's how Lady Vols should be. We're continuing to get more Lady Vol-like players in the program. That is definitely what we need.

"I think that's what being a Lady Vol is – getting in the gym when you need to, being aware of what you have to work on."

CALM BEFORE THE STORM: Andraya Carter started the second game of her Lady Vol career – the contest at Georgia Tech after a season-opening loss to Chattanooga – and showed early last season that she would be a difference maker for Tennessee.

"She can play both guard spots," Dean Lockwood said. "She is somebody that can get to the basket. Defensively, her on-ball defense, it's as good as anybody we've got here. She can get after it. Those are big things."

The Lady Vols set the tone for the season by defeating Georgia Tech and winning seven straight after the opening loss. Carter logged 36 minutes in Atlanta and had four assists to just one turnover and then erupted in her second start at Miami with 16 points – she was 4-5 from long range – and three assists.

It was a suggestion by her mother, Jessica Lhamon, to Lockwood that settled Carter in her first start – she was playing close to her hometown of Flowery Branch, Ga. – and will continue this season. Carter is a very spiritual person, as is Lockwood. A few quiet moments of prayer with the assistant coach soothes both of them before the frenetic pace of basketball begins.

"I will definitely continue that," Carter said. "It is something that my mom suggested just because she knows me so well. Dean and I both get so fired up and that moment we were praying together was calming, it's a sense of peace.

"It just reminds us that we're here doing what we love, reminds us of our purpose, and I think it just benefits both of us."

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