Lady Vols romp in opener

The Lady Vols are few in number this season, but they put on a display of athleticism in the paint and on the perimeter against an overmatched Carson-Newman team. Go inside for analysis and video coverage.

Tennessee completed its one exhibition game of the 2013-14 season in resounding fashion Monday evening with a 115-31 win over Carson-Newman that introduced two newcomers in Mercedes Russell and Jordan Reynolds and reintroduced redshirt freshman Andraya Carter.

All three came off the bench – head coach Holly Warlick opted to start five veterans and they acquitted themselves very well – but the freshman trio certainly made a case for playing time.

Russell tallied 16 points, four boards and four blocks; Jordan had 17 points, six rebounds and three assists; and Carter added nine points, seven boards, three blocks and two assists.

Granted, the opponent was Carson-Newman and the competition ratchets up considerably with two road games coming up at Middle Tennessee this Friday and North Carolina next Monday, but the two true freshmen – who quickly became crowd favorites with their hustle and energy – showed that they can help Tennessee this season.

Warlick sounded in the post-game press conference as if she intended to give them both that opportunity.

Carter, a high-energy guard who played just seven games last season, because of shoulder surgery, beamed when she was asked about Reynolds.

"She's high energy, she's right there next to us, right there involved, she takes control, she takes the lead, and it's just fun," said Carter, who saluted Russell, too, before answering the question about Reynolds.

"It's fun to play with players that love the game, that are passionate, that want to play hard and want to win and Jordan brings that every day in practice and in games."

Reynolds thanked Carter and pretended to wipe a tear from her eye before laughing, earning a playful shove from the redshirt freshman. Reynolds is loose and outgoing, but she showed an approach on defense rarely seen in first-year players. She could be heard on media row shouting out screens and calling for switches.

Both Reynolds and Russell said they were nervous coming into the game, and it showed in the first half as Reynolds missed her first shot – she hesitated before firing – and Russell got a little winded. But both settled down and showed why Warlick and the staff have praised both throughout the preseason.

"I've never actually been this nervous before a game before tonight," Russell said. "I had butterflies in my stomach and everything just because I've never played in front of that many fans before, but once I got going, I think I was playing pretty well."

The announced crowd was 10,507. It fell short of that and was likely closer to 8,000, which was about 2,000 more than the exhibition game against Carson-Newman a year ago. That likely reflected enthusiasm about Warlick's second year after an SEC title and Elite Eight appearance and the desire to see Russell and Reynolds.

"I was very nervous," Reynolds said. "I think I was more nervous than ever. They told me I had to bring the ball up. I have to shoot the ball. I was like okay, but once I got rolling, like she said, I got used to it, so that was cool."

Exhibition games are about getting minutes for everyone on the roster, trying various combinations and getting newcomers acclimated to college basketball. Warlick spread minutes throughout nine players with Cierra Burdick logging the most at 28, followed by Ariel Massengale at 27. Sophomore forward Jasmine Jones didn't play because of a violation of team rules regarding academic policy – that usually means a missed class or mandatory study hall or tutoring session – but is cleared for the regular season opener at Middle Tennessee.

"Just one game tonight, she is good for Friday," Warlick said.

Tennessee scorched the nets to start the game and opened a 20-0 lead in the first nine minutes. Massengale repeatedly found Isabelle Harrison at the rim, and Bashaara Graves did her usual work inside. The two post players combined for 25 points and nine boards by halftime.

Carson-Newman didn't get much relief when Russell and Nia Moore entered the game. They combined for 11 points and eight boards by the break, and the Lady Vols led 51-17.

Jai Jai McLaughlin, a guard for the Lady Eagles from Knoxville and a delightful post-game interview (see the video), noted that boxing out the Lady Vols did no good – they just cleanly tipped the ball to themselves.

Carson-Newman was thoroughly undersized and overmatched, so it is difficult to glean a lot from this exhibition game in terms of how it will transfer to Division I competition, but there were some noteworthy observations.

The starters were all returning players in Massengale, Meighan Simmons, Burdick, Graves and Harrison, and they played like a unit that was familiar with each other. Massengale fed Harrison for the first bucket, Burdick got a steal, and Simmons drained a three before a full minute had ticked off the clock.

When Carson-Newman's Lashawnda Peacher hit a free throw at the 11:05 mark of the first half, the Tennessee fans graciously cheered because the Lady Eagles were finally on the scoreboard.

Team speed is noticeably improved. The Lady Vols wanted to run last season, but couldn't always do so because of injuries and personnel. Every player on the roster, including the posts, can run.

Team defense is better in terms of buying into the system, and that is because of the return of Carter and the athleticism of Reynolds.

Twice, Carter stole the in-bound pass after a made Tennessee basket. She had three blocks, including one of a jump shooter on the wing. Carter makes Massengale and Simmons better defenders, because they will get in the slipstream of her energy, and they know they won't have to play extended minutes so they can expend more energy on that side of the ball when they are on the court.

Two plays in particular stand out with Reynolds in the second half. In the first one, she helped on a trap, stripped the Lady Eagle of the ball and took off down court. The righty hit a left-handed layup in stride.

In the second, with less than two minutes to play and the Lady Vols ahead 113-31, Reynolds tried to steal a pass by twisting in the air. She managed to deflect the ball out of bounds and looked upset at the missed theft. She clearly wasn't playing to the scoreboard but was instead still mentally engaged in a blowout.

Carter flashed an offensive game by stepping into a three and draining the shot and adjusting midair to corral an errant pass inside and hitting the twisting layup.

Simmons showed an improved defensive game with three steals – though she had four fouls with the tighter rules on the perimeter; an officiating point of emphasis that is being enforced – and she showed patience on offense. She shouldn't feel the pressure to have to carry the scoring load this season, especially with the size of Tennessee's post game.

Graves is still a beast. Despite the fact it was an exhibition game, Graves battled for all of her 24 minutes. She had 21 points, 11 boards and five steals and was 9-11 from the stripe.

"That is her. She goes to work," Warlick said. "She gets rebounds when we need them. She gets and-ones when we need them. She gets stops.

"She is just a gritty kid and she is what being a Lady Vol is all about. She just goes about her business and gets it done. Then you look down and she is leading us. She just goes to work. She goes about her daily job."

Warlick knows the road gets a lot tougher when the games count, especially with back-to-back road contests to open the regular season.

"It is going to be difficult for us," Warlick said. "We have talked a lot about it, and we have been practicing to playing both Middle Tennessee and North Carolina.

"It is what it is. I approved the schedule, so I can't blame anybody but myself. But it is okay. We need a test early and we are going to get it on the road and we will see what we are made of."

Warlick sounds a lot like Pat Summitt sometimes. The head coach emeritus was courtside for Monday's game and closely watched the action. Warlick is now in her second year, and the players have had time to adjust to Summitt in her new role. Perhaps that is why Warlick sees a team that is close-knit – and focused on basketball.

"They have a different attitude; they have a different work ethic," Warlick said. "They have a togetherness about them that I haven't seen in a very long time here at Tennessee.

"So I think those things play a big part in our success and what we should expect on Friday night."

The freshmen will now have to get used to the nerves of a road game. Every experience will be new for them, but they have a core group of veterans and a preternaturally mature Carter to guide them.

"We just have to get focused," Carter said. "We have to play hard. We're going to be in hostile environments, but I think that's good, because no part of this season is going to be easy, starting that right off the bat.

"We're going to get used to it."

VIDEO COVERAGE

Game highlights from utsportstv

IT video: Jordan Reynolds, Andraya Carter, Mercedes Russell

IT video: Tennessee Coach Holly Warlick

IT video: Carson-Newman Coach Mike Mincey, Tatum Burstrom, Katie Stubblefield, Jai Jai McLaughlin


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