"They called us and asked us if we would be interested in playing," Tennessee State coach Larry Joe Inman said after drawing laughter. "I thought it would be a great learning experience for our kids, and a great opportunity to play at the University of Tennessee.
"We jumped on the opportunity, and now we are here. We are playing several people who are pretty good this year. Hopefully, that will help us to play better and learn to play up."
It was a home game for Lady Tiger Jayda Johnson, who is from Knoxville and played at Webb and Fulton High School.
"When I was growing up, I would always watch the Lady Vols," said Johnson, who tallied five points in 24 minutes. "I would have never thought that I would be out playing against them, but it was a great experience for me.
"My family was able to come and watch me play. The turnout wasn't what we wanted it to be, but it was still a great experience like coach said."
The announced crowd was 9,607, about 2,000 below normal paid attendance, a number likely attributed to school being out and the approaching holidays. Another factor, however, is in play – the home schedule, and it's something Holly Warlick would like to change.
"I will be honest with you; we are having a difficult time with people coming here to play us," Warlick said. "I don't know what to do, we have called and nobody seems interested in coming here to play. I don't know what else to say. I would love to be playing a Baylor and some other teams, but I think they have made a decision to not play us."
Baylor opted not to renew the series with Tennessee and added Ole Miss instead in the SEC. Phone calls placed by the staff last spring and summer to schools at other major conferences didn't result in game contracts. So, teams like Oakland, Troy and Tennessee State, and, after Christmas, Lipscomb filled open slots on the home schedule.
Notre Dame will come to town Jan. 20 in the midst of SEC play and when the new home-and-away contract was signed, the Fighting Irish agreed to come to Knoxville first before Tennessee travels to South Bend.
The crowd that was at the arena – actual attendance was likely closer to 7,500 – enjoyed the up-tempo attack and, for the second game in a row, stood a little longer than usual for different reasons.
Against Troy last Saturday, the Trojans were assessed a technical foul for not submitting their starters in time, so Tennessee was awarded two free throws to open the game. Ariel Massengale made one of two, but the crowd apparently didn't think that was sufficient to sit down, so they waited for the first basket in regulation.
On Tuesday, Tennessee won the tip, but the clock didn't start, so the fans remained standing while that issue was resolved. Cierra Burdick didn't make them wait long, as she got to the rim in 10 seconds.
Within four minutes the lead was at double digits, 11-1, and within seven minutes Warlick had used all nine available players. By halftime the Lady Vols led 54-19.
It was the fast and focused start that Warlick had been seeking and reflected something assistant coach Dean Lockwood calls "competitive maturity" – the ability to sustain a high level of play regardless of the quality of opponent.
Warlick didn't have her usual 10 players because Jasmine Jones sustained a facial injury in practice Monday and was held out as a precaution. Warlick said in the post-game press conference that Jones would be available for Saturday's matchup at Stanford.
Tennessee State guard Rachel Allen, who logged 35 minutes and tallied 12 points, was relieved that Jones, who picks up point guards on defense, was sidelined for this game. She learned of Jones' absence before the game and noted that she was used to perimeter pressure but not from a 6-2 forward.
Redshirt freshman Andraya Carter moved into the lineup, replacing Jones, as did Cierra Burdick, replacing Isabelle Harrison.
Harrison logged five minutes in the first half with two fouls and had one rebound and no shot attempts. She played 13 minutes in the second half and finished with 12 points and 11 boards, her fourth-straight game with a double-double and another display of how efficient she can be on the court.
Carter had a pair of sevens in points and boards and was, once again, a ball hawk on defense and scrappy on offense, regardless of score. After an errant shot by Harrison ended up in Tennessee State's hands, Carter knocked it loose and dove on the floor to recover it. The extended possession ended with an and-one play by Harrison.
Carter is one of the most athletic guards in the country, while Meighan Simmons is one of the fastest. Simmons took just three treys in this game – and connected on one – and instead got to the paint. Carter misfired on her two long attempts and was effective when she drove. Both guards are hard to defend – Simmons is so fast to the rim and Carter is so elusive.
"I think Andraya's mind-set when she goes in the game is she is a defensive stopper," Warlick said. "I think Andraya can do both (defend and score). I think she's really good at taking the shots that are open for her. I thought tonight, I would have to go back and watch, I don't know if she should've been dribbling the ball or shot it, we'll watch it and go back and look.
"She's coachable. If we think she needed to change a little bit, we'll watch it and determine that."
Carter took seven shots. On one corner three, the pass came too low, and her feet didn't get set properly, and she launched long. She can, however, hit the long ball – Carter is 8-16 for the season – and Tennessee needs to connect from outside to open the paint.
Massengale hit two trey attempts in the second half, a good sign for Tennessee before heading to Stanford, where the paint won't be as open as it was against undersized Tennessee State.
Graves was a perfect 6-6 from the field and 5-6 from the line for 17 points to lead all scorers. She also snared eight boards in 17 minutes of work. Russell was 6-9 for 12 points and seven boards in 25 minutes. She also swatted six of Tennessee's 11 blocks with Nia Moore rejecting three shots.
"She's using her height," Warlick said of Russell. "I'm telling her to block shots, even if she gets her first foul, she has to be a presence inside."
While the blocks were impressive – Russell doesn't leave her feet when she doesn't need to, thus she doesn't get unnecessary fouls called – even more encouraging for Tennessee were the two perimeter shots she swished. One came from the elbow and the other on the baseline, and both were assisted by Carter passes.
Tennessee shot 57.8 percent (37-64) overall, despite 23.1 percent (3-13) from the arc, and 27 of those baskets came from assists. Simmons led the way with seven assists, while Jordan Reynolds had a career-high six, Massengale tallied five and Carter added three.
Reynolds also added six points, with a first-half fast-break basket that showed good hands and the ability to hit tough shots. Reynolds caught a high pass ahead of her before it headed out of bounds and, while at game speed, managed to scoop it into the basket, now slightly behind her.
It saved the Lady Vols a turnover, and there were enough of those at 21 for the game, after nine in the first half. Warlick wasn't as upset about these miscues as she was the 28 against Troy.
That is probably because so many of the throw-aways against Troy were exactly that – casual passes without a sense of purpose, and Tuesday's were more miscues involving effort. They also were clustered – Simmons had seven assists, and was responsible for one of the best ones of the game, but she also had six turnovers.
"I'm just moving too fast, pushing the ball hard in transition," Simmons said. "I am looking for the post players; our post players really do run hard. Our coaches have really been pushing the issue for our post players to get out and run and get ahead of the ball.
"For me I just have to slow down and make the easy pass, if not throw it to the wing so they can throw it to the post, just try to settle down a little bit for sure."
The ball got away from Moore four times, and Reynolds had zero turnovers in the first half but three in the second, so that trio accounted for 14 of the 21 miscues.
"A lot of them came in a fast break, and I'm OK with that," Warlick said. "We'll watch it with them and try to understand the passes that are catchable and those type of things.
"We got a little anxious, but those are things that I think we can clean them up pretty good once we understand where we're throwing to."
Carter, Simmons and Graves combined for a first-half helper that brought the crowd to a roar. Carter fired the ball ahead to Graves, who was running the floor and sent a pass to Simmons, who fired the ball right back to Graves for an and-one layup and a 17-1 lead that set the tone for the rest of the first half.
"I thought we played hard," Warlick said. "Our effort was great. We still have to cut down on a couple of turnovers, but the turnovers were being aggressive, which I'm OK with. Shot the ball really well. Rebounded again very well, so I think overall, glad for the win. Everybody got great minutes and overall it was a great win."
That was Warlick's opening statement, and it was the first time in 10 games she sounded overall pleased.
The Lady Vols depart Wednesday for California with that perfect slate and will play at Maples Pavilion, a venue that Tennessee hasn't secured a win since 2005.
Burdick, who played at Stanford in 2011, was already aware of the history.
"We need this," Burdick said. "This is what we want. We want to play the best of the best and I think this is a step that can help us get to the great team rank that we want to be at."
Carter will make her debut at Maples this Saturday. And while it's December with a lot of basketball to be played, the redshirt freshman was aware that the matchup matters.
"This game, it's such a big deal," Carter said. "I think we'll learn hopefully a ton of just positive stuff about this team seeing how we match up against Stanford. We feel really good as a team going in there 10-0.
"I think we're prepared, we're excited, and we'll just see how we match up against another really good team."
Game highlights from utsportstv
Coach Holly Warlick
Meighan Simmons, Andraya Carter, Cierra Burdick
Tennessee State coach Larry Joe Inman, Jayda Johnson, Rachel Allen