The difference was the presence of Ariel Massengale. The junior point guard picked up two early fouls – the second was a block but was called a charge – and played less than six minutes in the first half.
Massengale accounted for Tennessee's first five points with a feed to Bashaara Graves to open the scoring and then drained a three-pointer. It was the start Tennessee wanted but then fouls and turnovers got the Lady Vols out of sync.
The Lady Mocs connected from long range – they had six treys before halftime – and took a 16-11 lead midway through the first half. The score was knotted at 32 at the break, and coach Holly Warlick was none too happy.
She issued a warning that Massengale shared at the post-game press conference when asked about Warlick's halftime instructions.
"I think the main thing she told us (was), ‘Y'all don't come out of this game with a win, I'm going to make your life a living … ' you can finish it," Massengale said with a smile. "That's what she said.
"I know we've got another game on Sunday, but there are two days in between. We know what she is capable of doing to us at practice when the doors are closed, and so we just didn't want that to happen." Properly inspired, the Lady Vols opened the second half with a 10-second backcourt violation against Chattanooga and compiled a 10-point lead, 46-36, in under four minutes.
Massengale sparked the offensive flurry with a three-pointer and two drives to the basket that resulted in being fouled. Her marksmanship from the arc – she was 4-5 from long range – opened driving lanes and on one foray to the paint, she kicked the ball to Jordan Reynolds, who was alone in the corner and drained the three.
Meighan Simmons used her speed on defense to create offense and her steal of an in-bounds pass and assist to Graves from the floor to put the Lady Vols up 48-36 energized the crowd of 10,508 and the team. Massengale hit another three off one foot for a 51-36 lead and the Lady Vols coasted to the win.
Lady Moc Faith Dupree, a Knoxville native and former Lady Vol who transferred to Chattanooga, had warned her team at halftime of a Tennessee surge to start the second half.
"I knew they were going to come out and press us really hard in the second half," Dupree said. "They've done that in the past. They've always done that. That's the kind of team they are.
"We went over that in the locker room at halftime and we just didn't execute when we came out."
The languid start was a concern for Warlick, but the second half provided some momentum, especially for two players who have been quiet to start the season.
The Lady Vols All-SEC honorees, Simmons and Graves, have sputtered at times, perhaps the result of being targets for opponents and the new foul rules. Graves said at the post-game press conference that she is not as aggressive this season, and that component of her game carried her to national freshman of the year honors a year ago.
Graves, who had two points, no boards and two fouls at halftime, reengaged after the break and finished with 11 points and seven rebounds.
"I definitely haven't been as aggressive as I've been in the past, and the first half I started off not being aggressive like I have in other games, and the second half I just wanted to come out with great energy and be aggressive on defense and offense, and that's what I did," Graves said.
Fortunately for Tennessee, while there are just 10 players on the roster, the depth is top quality.
Redshirt freshman Andraya Carter has provided productive minutes at both the point and shooting guard spots, as has Reynolds. Fellow true freshman Mercedes Russell scored a career-high 15 points and affects the other team's offense just by hovering in the paint. Jasmine Jones had six boards and a nifty up-fake and drive to the rim, and Nia Moore showed a deft touch around the basket.
Starter Isabelle Harrison had a pair of sixes in points and rebounds, and starter Cierra Burdick snared eight boards.
Warlick used all 10 players Thursday with everyone logging double-digit minutes. Nine players got in the scoring column and four reached double digits in points – the aforementioned Russell and Graves and also Simmons with 10 and Massengale with 16.
Massengale's production has been the highlight of the start to the regular season. After struggling from the field at Middle Tennessee – a source of frustration after an emphasis in the off-season to improve her shot – Massengale has scorched the nets from the arc. In three games, she has connected on nine treys. She tallied 11 total last season.
"I would say the main thing is confidence," Massengale said. "It's something that I put a lot of work into this summer, and you know I just wanted to be more of an offensive threat.
"A lot of teams in the past have played me for the drive, and so coach has always been talking to me about being an offensive threat. Just having that confidence, it will take you a long way."
The Lady Vols dropped the season opener to Chattanooga a year ago – that game also was tied at halftime at 28 each – but the outcome of this game never seemed in doubt, even when Tennessee fell behind early.
Even the fans seemed subdued in the first half – perhaps the recent cold snap had lulled them into hibernation mode – but they were enthused by the start to the second half.
The freshmen weren't a part of the loss a year ago, but the returning players made sure they knew the importance of the rematch.
"When we were watching film, they showed the end of the game, a clip of it, and we knew that wasn't going to happen again, and we needed to come out and just play hard," Russell said.
Tennessee ended up putting nice numbers in the box score – 50-33 on the boards, though Warlick didn't like Chattanooga's 14 offensive boards; 16 assists, with five coming from Massengale and three each from Simmons and Jones; and 48.5 percent shooting, including 52.9 percent accuracy in the second half.
Warlick and staff will need a better start to Sunday's game when Georgia Tech comes to Thompson-Boling Arena.
"I must give a heck of a halftime speech," Warlick said. "It is frustrating because I watch how hard we play at practice and how we play against our practice guys.
"It's hard to watch when we don't give effort and I thought in the first half we didn't give effort. I thought we got our point across at the half and we came out and were a totally different team in the second half."
Game highlights from utsportstv
Ariel Massengale, Mercedes Russell, Bashaara Graves
Coach Holly Warlick
Chattanooga's Faith Dupree, Taylor Hall
Coach Jim Foster