When the starting lineups were loaded onto the overhead scoreboard, two new names appeared in Jasmine Jones and Mercedes Russell. It was the first start of her career for the freshman Russell and the first of the season for the sophomore Jones.
It was a bold move by Holly Warlick, considering the frontline of Texas – the 6-7 Imani McGee-Stafford missed a dunk by bouncing it off the back iron in pre-game warmups – but the head coach said the past week of practice mandated the change.
"Bashaara (Graves) didn't have a good week of practice and so she didn't deserve a start," Warlick said. "So we went with Mercedes. I preach practice and the importance of it. We don't have a lot of rules.
"When I preach it and it doesn't get done in practice, I can't reward starting because that's a big thing for kids. Hopefully, it will change for her upcoming week of practice."
Jones was inserted for the opposite reason.
"Jones had a great week of practice," Warlick said. "She was absolutely awesome this week in practice, so I told her she was starting, and she had a big grin on her face.
"We can go down the line and start anyone so I don't want to focus on Bashaara. She's a great kid and she works hard, but she just had a bad week and that happens. Jasmine had a great week so I went with her and Mercedes."
It was a tall order for the freshman against the Longhorns frontline, and her stat line was rather slim – no shot attempts and four boards in 13 minutes. Russell did hit both free throws with a fundamental process – she used her legs and held her follow-through.
"It's amazing what practice will do," Warlick said. "I think Mercedes is a very good free throw shooter. I just think she got up to the line and mentally hit her free throws, but as a team we weren't very good.
"Layups and free throws were a little bit of our demise today. We missed a lot of layups and a lot of free throws. It's difficult to win the way you want to win if you miss layups and free throws."
Tennessee, as a team, shot 66.7 percent (18-27) from the stripe and the missed layups were one reason Texas stayed within striking distance until the final three minutes.
The Longhorns also are long and pack the paint on both ends – Texas outscored Tennessee inside, 42-32 and limited the Lady Vols to 10 second-chance points.
The lineup change didn't thwart Tennessee and that was because of Isabelle Harrison. The junior post had 18 points, which tied her career high set last season against South Carolina, eight boards, a block and a steal, but, more importantly, she stayed on the court. Harrison played 29 minutes and committed one foul after starting the season saddled with early whistles.
The reversal came for two reasons – a film session with Warlick and a chat with fellow junior Ariel Massengale.
The film session showed clips of every Harrison foul, and coach and player saw too many coming off the ball.
"I'm OK with her inside and blocking a shot and getting a foul called," Warlick said. "I like that aggressiveness, but she's getting fouls that totally didn't need to happen. I said, ‘Izzy, these are some things that you can correct.'
"She says, ‘All I do is think about not fouling,' and I said, ‘You can't; you're going to foul if you think about it.' "
A peer session also helped Harrison.
"First and foremost I told her that I needed her on the court," Massengale said. "She has to be out there with me. Just playing smart, you can be aggressive and still be smart at the same time.
"I told her that you will get your first foul early but you have to play smart because if you get two they will sit you for the rest of the first half until the second half. I think she did a tremendous job, she was aggressive, she got after it but still played very smart."
Harrison did even better than that – her first foul didn't come until the second half, and she logged 13 minutes in the first with eight points and four boards before adding 10 more points and four more boards in the second in 29 total minutes of play.
"One foul – probably her record," Massengale said. "You can see from the stat line what she is capable of doing when she is in the game."
Texas had the opposite problem. Nneka Enemkpali had foul trouble that came in the second half, and she actually fouled out with six fouls after being called for a fifth foul and following that with a technical for lobbing a ball that bounced off Cierra Burdick's head.
"It was the wrong move on my part," Enemkpali said. "It was not, in any way, a reflection of who I am as a person or my program. It was just the wrong call, I was in the heat of the moment and I have to learn to make better choices."
Enemkpali was a handful for Tennessee in her 25 minutes on the court with 12 points and 11 boards. Tennessee native Chassidy Fussell didn't pester the Lady Vols in this matchup, as she was 4-16 overall and 1-10 from the arc. The pesky defense came courtesy of Jones and Andraya Carter.
The fortification inside for Tennessee came from the undersized Burdick, who battled inside and had 10 points and eight rebounds. The output was needed from the junior because Bashaara Graves was pounded inside and went 2-9 for seven points. Graves did grab six boards, including four on the offensive end.
Tennessee held a 28-27 lead at halftime – after getting out to leads of 11-2 and 22-12 – but Texas nipped the Lady Vols on the glass, 22-20 at the break. The Lady Vols corrected that stat in the second half, 25-15, and prevailed overall on the boards, 45-37.
"I thought we were tremendous on the boards for a long period of time and I will agree with what Nneka said about her difficulty in playing with fouls, and what our issue is is that we don't have enough depth at that position," Texas coach Karen Aston said.
"I think being able to swing Burdick to the four for Tennessee, that depth at that position, when you see that you have two of their normal players that didn't really have great nights, but Izzy has a good night, and Cierra comes in and is able to go to the four position."
Burdick's work came in 28 minutes, as Warlick continues to spread around minutes. Only Massengale hit the 30s in minutes logged at 36, and the point guard delivered again with 15 points, seven assists, three boards and two steals.
Warlick wants an up-tempo attack, and Massengale has been the motor for it. The separation for Tennessee came when the transition game got in gear. The defense got better in the second half, and so did the running game, as the Lady Vols like to push off missed baskets, deflections and steals.
"That's all we talked about for two days," Aston said. "It's hard to prepare for a team that puts that much heat on you from a transition standpoint. … We were ahead on the boards at the half and had not given up but maybe two points in transition, and that completely turned around in the second half.
"Credit to them, they did what they do best."
Meighan Simmons was one of the reasons for the surge, as the senior bounced back from a quiet first half to finish with 13 points and four assists.
The Lady Vols got a tad jumpy with the jump shots in the first half – it wasn't Simmons; she took just three shots before the break – and that allowed Texas to close the gap.
"When we stalled during the first half, we weren't taking good shots, and we weren't rebounding because we didn't know where the shots were coming from," Warlick said. "I thought Meighan took some good looks."
Simmons did need to ratchet up her defense, and the senior responded.
"I was getting inside my own head today," she said. "I was getting frustrated because I was getting scored on and that's one thing I've been trying to take pride in, is playing hard defense and the Tennessee defense. … Everyone else was getting to me and telling me that they needed me, so I had to step up in the second half."
Simmons and Harrison combined for two of the day's best assists when they found each other – Simmons zipped the ball to Harrison in transition and on the next play, Harrison threw a football-worthy pass ahead of Simmons that she easily chased down and finished the layup for a 65-50 lead that brought a roar from the crowd of 11,659, the largest of the season for Tennessee.
"I already saw her and I was just waiting for Ariel to get me the ball so I could throw it to (Harrison)," Simmons said. "I feel like (Harrison) and I have always had that chemistry in the open court and it's not just with me and her, but if Ariel sees her from a distance, or Andraya or Jordan, everybody has just built that chemistry with our post players and it's a great thing for all of us."
Tennessee's post players can sprint the floor, a critical part of the Lady Vols transition attack. Carter and Jordan Reynolds also enter the game ready to run.
Reynolds continues to make use of her time with two points, two steals, an assist and a board. Her basket came in the open floor and despite being grabbed and held, the freshman protected the ball and completed the layup without benefit of a foul call.
Carter continues to be a glue-type player, providing what the team needs in timely moments from her second half three-pointer to being inserted right before halftime for defense. She stuck to Krystle Reynolds, who had shot 50 percent in the first half with nine points, for the final 17 seconds, forced a contested shot, grabbed the defensive board and preserved Tennessee's 28-27 lead.
The Lady Vols never trailed in the game, shot 42.9 percent (27-63) overall, took just nine threes – and made three of them – tallied 11 steals and dished 16 assists. They had a manageable 18 turnovers, a number Warlick could live with in this game. The Longhorns had 20 miscues and just two steals.
Texas is definitely improved from last season, an indication that Aston has the program headed in the right direction. Henderson, an athletic guard from Dallas, had 11 points, six assists and some swagger.
"I think we came into the game thinking that nobody was expecting us to win it so we had that chip on our shoulder," Henderson said.
Texas has now played two top 10 teams in Tennessee and Stanford, and Aston said the Lady Vols deserve their ranking.
"They're legit," Aston said. "There's no question about it. I watched a lot of film, and they are a legitimate top five team and we've seen several teams so far so that we know what they look like."
Tennessee will now enter exam week – Warlick indicated an academic workload may have affected Graves' intensity in practice – and retake the court next Saturday against Troy. Exams will be over by then, and Graves is likely to have a beastly week of practice.
"I said, ‘Bashaara, I can't start you,' Warlick said. "And she said she understood. It's not a disciplinary thing. She had a tough week of school and exams and she just didn't come like Bashaara plays. My expectations of Bashaara are extremely high."
It speaks well for Warlick's standards that she was willing to pull Graves from the opening tip against a team as stacked inside as Texas. It sends the right message to the team, and Graves is the type of player who will respond.
While Tennessee's schedule hasn't been as rigorous as years past in terms of ranked teams to start the season, Stanford is looming on the road after home games against Troy and Tennessee State.
"I think in all the games we have played up until this point there have been times where our backs have been up against the wall," Massengale said. "Our coaches have also done a great job of putting us into tough situations in practice, so that if a time comes like that in a game we are prepared for it.
"I think every time we get on the court we are trying to be as best as we can be. We are not trying to compare ourselves to other teams, but we know how good we can be and what we are capable of. We are just working towards doing that for 40 minutes."
Game highlights by utsportstv
Tennessee Coach Holly Warlick
Ariel Massengale, Meighan Simmons, Isabelle Harrison
Texas coach Karen Aston, Nneka Enemkpali, Krystle Henderson