Lady Vols open regular season

Holly Warlick has made several references to the closeness of this Lady Vol team – and that bodes well given the way the season starts on the road. But what exactly does the head coach mean by that? Izzy Harrison explains for InsideTennessee.

No. 4 Tennessee officially opens the 2013-14 season just as it did a year ago – on the road against a motivated opponent. Middle Tennessee – it is also the season opener for the Blue Raiders – hosts the Lady Vols at the Murphy Center in Murfreesboro on Friday evening. Tipoff is set for 8 p.m. Eastern.

And just like last season, the second game is on the road against an ACC opponent. A year ago it was Georgia Tech, which was opening a new arena. This year it's a motivated North Carolina team, which missed the NCAA tourney last spring and signed a stellar freshman class. Tipoff for that game is set for 9 p.m. Eastern on Monday with a national television audience tuning in on ESPN2.

"We've all talked about it," junior center Isabelle Harrison said. "They are all going to come at us hard. This is going to be a test for us."

Holly Warlick doesn't want a repeat of the 2012 season opener – the Lady Vols lost to Chattanooga – and both the head coach and her team are more experienced. Warlick is in her second year at the helm, and she can start a lineup of nearly all upperclassmen.

It is expected the same five who opened play in the exhibition win over Carson-Newman will take the floor Friday in Murfreesboro: junior point guard Ariel Massengale, senior shooting guard Meighan Simmons, junior forward Cierra Burdick, sophomore forward Bashaara Graves and junior center Isabelle Harrison.

But the bench had better be ready early. With the new officiating emphasis about hand-checking and contact on the perimeter and in the paint, foul trouble is a concern for the staff. Burdick and Massengale had two fouls in the first half against Carson-Newman, and Simmons tallied three.

Fortunately for Warlick and her staff, Tennessee definitely has a bench – and one extra player for the season opener. Jasmine Jones, an athletic sophomore forward missed the exhibition game because of a minor violation of team academic policies. She is available for the Middle Tennessee game.

Two true freshmen also come off the bench in Mercedes Russell and Jordan Reynolds, one redshirt freshman in Andraya Carter and sophomore post Nia Moore. All four played well in the exhibition game with Russell and Reynolds combining for 33 points. Carter's athleticism was on display with seven boards and three blocks for the 5-9 guard.

Warlick has mentioned several times in preseason that this team is closer than ones in the past, so InsideTennessee went to a player who could answer why.

Last year's team had also mentioned its closeness – and Warlick had noted how well they got along – but she has emphasized it with this year's group.

The players are active on social media, especially Twitter and Instagram, and their closeness is apparent there. Earlier this week, Harrison and Burdick posted a video of them singing Vanessa Carlton's "A Thousand Miles," using a plastic microphone and Lady Vols baton as props.

"We came in from the fire drill and I don't know why I was singing that song and I kept on singing it," Harrison said. "I was thinking of the movie, ‘White Chicks,' and that's why I was singing the song. It just came about. Random stuff."

The basketball players all live in the same on-campus apartment building, so a fire drill means a team activity. Upperclassmen used to be able to move off campus – and that meant the players were somewhat scattered around Knoxville – but Warlick's new housing rule puts them in the same building, sharing suites with teammates or separated by a floor or two.

"I think she is talking about as a whole," Harrison said. "I will admit my freshman year and sophomore year I felt like I was pretty close to people on my team, but it was always in groups. And that's not anyone to blame for – you just gravitate to who you are more comfortable with."

Harrison explained that all of the teams were close on the court – prior to Harrison's arrival, some of the Lady Vol teams were incredibly close off the court but it didn't necessarily transfer to the court – but this year's group seems to have both.

Last year, any full team activities were set up by the staff. This year, the players plan full team events, something that is likely easier to do because they live in such close proximity.

"It's easier to get rides to practice or use somebody's car to go to the grocery store," Graves noted. "We're more together because we're living together, so we are always talking to each other."

Harrison added, "The coaches won't plan it. We'll just all go do something together."

Harrison noted that cliques and groups have ended with this team since the players all mingle. She asked for Moore to be her roommate, because Harrison didn't feel like she knew Moore as well as other teammates.

"Last year, Nia didn't talk a spit to anybody," Harrison said. "That is just her personality. I love being around Nia, and I was going to make her talk to me. She is so funny. I would never have guessed in a million years I would want Nia to be my roommate, because I am the very opposite of Nia."

Moore was loose at Media Day, performing a little rap and smiling during interviews.

"That is what I am saying," Harrison said. "She has really grown out of her box, and I love that she has really gotten more comfortable with us."

That team closeness will be needed this season, especially with the opening two games in hostile environments. While Middle Tennessee is in the Lady Vols' home state, the last time Tennessee played there, the crowd was very pro-Blue Raiders. That trip is followed by one to Chapel Hill with a tip time that means the players wait all day and into the evening for the game.

"I think everybody is going to be real focused on their bodies," said Harrison, who noted the time change affected the players in the exhibition opener because it felt later to them. "We were tired coming into practice the next day, but we didn't let it affect us.

"For a 9 o'clock tipoff, I think we really need to use that time to recover and get our minds right."

Harrison has accepted the role of veteran player and her thoughts now are not just getting herself ready to play but also to impart advice to the youngsters, especially Russell.

Russell acknowledged how nervous she was before the exhibition game, and Harrison let her know that it was OK.

When Harrison was a freshman, Media Day fell the day before the exhibition game with Carson-Newman. When Harrison saw the assembled representatives from print, Internet, TV and radio, it hit her that Lady Vols basketball was big time. Unfortunately for the freshman, practice followed the media event.

"That practice for me was terrible," Harrison said. "It wasn't that I wasn't trying. I was just so nervous. I didn't know it was this big of a deal to people. I was doing terrible. Pat (Summitt) was yelling at me. (Mickie) DeMoss was yelling at me. And I was like, ‘I have got to get it together.'

"I told Mercedes, ‘Just take your time. You're going to be all right. I promise you that you are going to be OK.' I told her how nervous I was, too. She did great. I was so proud of her."

Harrison also now knows how different the regular season is from exhibition games. Middle Tennessee, which took the Lady Vols to overtime a year ago in Knoxville, is gunning for orange at home. She will convey that to Russell, though, a player always has to experience it firsthand to fully understand.

"Honestly, I think she is ready for it," Harrison said. "I am starting to see consistency out of her in practice. I saw her continuously doing the things (in the exhibition game) that Dean (Lockwood) taught her – the post highway and rebounding and chinning it."

Those are good signs because it's not easy for freshmen to maintain focus, especially in a blowout. The Lady Vols' led by 60 points less than midway through the second half and won 115-31, an 84-point margin.

"I saw her being consistent in what Dean wanted her to do," Harrison said. "It will get more physical. She knows that, too. But as far as her mind, I think she will be fine."

Harrison welcomes the size and help. Russell is a legitimate 6-6 – and looks to possibly be a tad taller – and Moore has gotten stronger. Graves is shorter than the three centers at 6-2 – Harrison and Moore are 6-3 – but she makes up for it with physicality.

The post game is clearly a strength for Tennessee, and Warlick has made it clear that the ball is going inside. Given how inconsistent the long ball has been for the Lady Vols of late – they can light it up at times, but the three ball hasn't fallen in three Elite Eight matchups – establishing the inside game early is critical for long-term success. That also will open up space for the shooters.

The high-low game has the potential to be outstanding once timing and communication are set, and Massengale, who had 11 assists in the exhibition, has always been willing to feed the post.

"I am excited because those are the best passes to make," Massengale said. "When you have post players that you can throw it up to and know that they are going to go get it whether it is a good pass or a bad pass, I know they are going to do their best to make me look good."

Carter, the primary backup at point guard, also will get the ball inside. She played in seven games a year ago before shoulder surgery ended her season and showed an ability to penetrate and dish – either to an open post player or a shooter all alone in the corner.

"Holly emphasizes strongly this year that we need to get it into the post," Harrison said with a smile. "Obviously."

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