A year ago, Chattanooga shocked Tennessee with the win – and the Lady Mocs roll into Knoxville next week – and this season Middle Tennessee wanted its turn, especially after taking the Lady Vols to overtime a year ago in Knoxville.
But Tennessee (1-0) erased a 12-point halftime deficit – fueled by an Andraya Carter three-pointer 15 seconds into the second half – overtook Middle Tennessee (0-1) before a raucous crowd of 11,227 and overcame tremendous foul trouble for the 67-57 win.
Coach Holly Warlick started Carter in the second half and the redshirt freshman guard tilted the game in Tennessee's favor.
"Andraya was the difference," Warlick said. "She had huge threes and played great on defense."
Warlick went with a three-guard lineup in the second half in Carter, Ariel Massengale and Meighan Simmons, as much for Carter's defense as by necessity. The post had been gutted by foul trouble that started when Isabelle Harrison and Bashaara Graves both had two fouls just five minutes into the game at the Murphy Center.
That meant Cierra Burdick had to log considerable time inside, and she led the way on the glass with 11 boards. When Graves and Harrison were on the floor, they were effective – Graves was 2-2 from the field with four boards, and Harrison had 13 points and seven boards in just 17 minutes of play.
Freshman post Mercedes Russell did her part with 11 points and seven boards, and it was her baseline jumper that gave the Lady Vols a 36-34 lead with 13:58 to play to cap off the 14-0 run to start the second half.
Middle Tennessee doubled in the paint and played a sagging defense to open the game, which meant the Lady Vols had to hit some jump shots to open up the inside. Instead, they shot 27.3 percent and turned the ball over 10 times before halftime. The Blue Raiders converted the miscues into 15 points.
The whistles took the Lady Vols out of sync in the first half, but Tennessee also created its own issues by not boxing out, missing layups, getting beat on defense and getting out-hustled to loose balls. That led to Warlick telling the players at halftime that they didn't want to return to the locker room with a loss.
The message apparently got through based on the way Tennessee opened the second half. One thing was clear after the game – Carter has to be on the court.
She disrupted the Blue Raiders' offense to the extent that the Middle Tennessee announcers noted it during the broadcast. Carter forced point guard Shanice Cason to go left – she wanted to set up on the right side – and her ball pressure made it easier for teammates to get in passing lanes.
"Andraya Carter played great on-ball pressure," Massengale said. "When she gets ball pressure, it really helps. Her intensity and energy, it's unbelievable. You wouldn't want to play with a better person than Andraya."
Massengale and Carter had excellent playing synergy a year ago, but Carter had season-ending shoulder surgery in December. Carter's defense already was stellar, but she added offense Friday with 10 points. She was 2-3 from the arc and 4-4 from the line.
Both Massengale and Simmons struggled from then field – they combined to shoot 4-20; each made a pair – but Massengale had five assists and hit two layups to open the second-half surge, and Simmons added four boards to her nine points and was 4-5 from the line.
The Lady Vols ended the game with 33 fouls, while Middle Tennessee had 25. Massengale wisely noted after the game that "every team is going through the same thing."
Graves and Harrison are vital to the Lady Vols' post game, and both were neutralized for most of the game because of the whistles.
"Whatever the officiating is going to be, you've got to adjust," Warlick said.
That is one way of saying that the new rules and spate of whistles is likely to stay.
"It's difficult, especially when you are used to playing one way for such a long time," Massengale said. "We have to learn from it. It's just going to take time."
Massengale had three fouls in 37 minutes of play – and two of those were charges. She joked on the post-game radio show that Warlick would say that was because she wasn't playing much defense. But, regardless, Tennessee needs Massengale and her teammates on the court, not watching on the bench because of whistles, especially with a roster of 10.
Graves fouled out and four Tennessee players, Jasmine Jones, Harrison, Burdick and Carter ended the game with four fouls. However, the Lady Vols turned around the game with defense – Jones also moved to the perimeter to pick up the ball – so they will have to find a way to adjust to the officiating.
Tennessee was down two on the boards, 24-22, at the break but nipped Middle Tennessee on the glass, 46-44, for the game. Tennessee had just four turnovers in the second half, added eight assists to the four tallied at the break, increased the steals from two to eight for the game and tacked on seven blocks to the one swat recorded in the first half.
Warlick sounded relieved on her radio show and ready to get back to Knoxville.
"I went into the locker room and said, ‘What was our record at this time last year? 0-1. We are 1-0,' " Warlick said. "We will take it."
And, perhaps, the Lady Vols should open at home next season. Just to be safe.