Lady Vols thrilled to be in islands

The Lady Vols are in the sunny Bahamas – social media photos indicate they are having a splendid time, especially not being in snowy Knoxville – but the focus returns Thanksgiving Day to basketball.

No. 3/4 Tennessee (5-0) takes on Virginia (3-2) in a series that has become very competitive of late. Tip time is set for 2 p.m. Eastern on Thursday with the Lady Vols Radio Network broadcasting the game.

The Cavaliers won the last matchup with Tennessee, a 69-64 loss in overtime for the Lady Vols in Charlottesville, Va., on Nov. 20, 2011. The teams have met four times since 2008 and the series is even at 2-2 over those games, though Tennessee leads overall 13-3.

The winner plays at 8 p.m. Eastern on Friday against the winner of Kansas State vs. SMU. The losers of Thursday's games play Friday at 5:45 p.m. The Junkanoo Jam is being played in the gymnasium at St. George's High School in Freeport.

It is the first island basketball trip for the juniors – senior Meighan Simmons played in the Paradise Jam in the Virgin Islands in 2010 – and the players were clearly excited about this leg of the 2013-14 schedule.

"This is our first, I guess in a sense, ‘fun trip,' We're excited," junior Cierra Burdick said. "We realize if we lose that we're not going to have much fun. So we've got to focus on the task at hand."

The Lady Vols landed on the island with a perfect slate, and they want to depart with that record intact.

"It's a business trip first and then we're out there to have a little fun afterwards and enjoy each other's company," Burdick said. "We know we've got to go out there and take care of our opponents."

Freshman Jordan Reynolds also was happy to be out of Tennessee and on a small island in the Atlantic Ocean.

"It's going to be awesome. I've never been overseas anywhere," Reynolds said. "We will definitely have our concentration, especially because of our points, Andraya and Ariel. They will really pull us together.

"And our coaches are really strict on making sure that we're focused and making sure we're in bed on time and making our curfew."

Reynolds was referring to Andraya Carter, a redshirt freshman, and Ariel Massengale, a junior. The two guards also are leading the team from behind the arc. Carter is 7-10 (70.0 percent), and Massengale is 12-24 (50 percent), for a combined 19-34 (55.9 percent).

Massengale just landed on the Naismith Trophy Early Season Watch List of the top 50, along with Simmons and sophomore Bashaara Graves.

After an uneven first two years on the court, Massengale has healed – concussions, hand and foot issues – and solidified her status as the team's starting point guard. Carter and Reynolds are the backups, and both can also slide to the wing spot.

Graves, after a slow start, has returned to the form that saw her earn SEC and national freshman of the year awards. The defensive rule changes seemed to rattle her when the season started, but Graves has logged 54 minutes in the last two games – with 38 points and 29 rebounds – without being whistled for a foul.

Tennessee would be thankful for Simmons to return to SEC Player of the Year form on the island excursion. The senior's shot has been off to open the season, and she has connected on just 19.2 percent (5-26) of her treys. Fortunately, it hasn't hurt the Lady Vols because of the marksmanship of Carter and Massengale. Reynolds also has shown the ability to hit the long ball and is 3-7 (42.9 percent).

Simmons is 11-12 from the line – as is Graves, which is outstanding for a post player – so the senior can jump-start her offense with her defense and driving to draw fouls.

It's not all basketball this week, as the team had beach time Wednesday and will enjoy typical tourist activities on Saturday.

"It's freezing right now, and I don't like it," Burdick said before the team departed Tennessee. "We're excited to get in some hot weather. We've got a snorkeling excursion planned. I'm excited to see how my teammates react to that."

When asked who would need the most supervision, Burdick immediately mentioned the true freshmen – Reynolds and Mercedes Russell.

"Definitely the freshmen, Jordan and Mercedes," Burdick said. "You've got to keep an eye on them. Also, I am a little worried about Ariel – her and water and a then a bunch of fish swimming around, I don't know how she's going to handle that.

"Bash and Izzy (Harrison), they're going to be a little worried about their hair. Draya and I, we're free flowing. We don't care. We're going to be in that ocean."

Reynolds has no intention of seeing the ocean underwater.

"I can't swim. I might be on the beach somewhere with my feet in the sand. I'll leave snorkeling to the team," said Reynolds, adding that Russell will "probably love it."

Russell, who is 6-6, could likely walk a considerable distance into the water before being completely submerged, earning her the team title of "depth checker."

Reynolds also didn't hesitate when asked who would need to be watched closely.

"Cierra and Andraya. They are water people," Reynolds said. "Whenever we go out, anywhere near a beach or water, they are always swimming. Without the life vest. They are always playing around in the water.

"We definitely will have to watch them and make sure they're not too far out."

The players are away from their families for the holidays, and while that can be tough, especially for the newcomers, they don't seem to mind since the holiday tourney is in paradise.

"This is our second family," Burdick said. "Obviously we won't be with the people that birthed us and raised us, but it's nice. We spend every day with each other.

"It's good to enjoy the opportunity to go to the Bahamas together."


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