Lady Vols to take on Stanford

The Lady Vols square off against Stanford on Saturday in a matchup of Top 10 teams. InsideTennessee caught up with Kyra Elzy before the game on the West Coast. Go inside for an interview with the assistant coach.

No. 3/3 Tennessee (10-0) takes on No. 6/5 Stanford (9-1) at Maples Pavilion at 4:30 p.m. Eastern (TV: Pac-12 Network).

The Lady Vols have started the season undefeated and recognize the importance of the game, even though it's just December.

"It's fun to play the best of the best," Cierra Burdick said. "It allows us to grow as a basketball team and just match up and see how we compare to other great teams in the country."

Tennessee last won on Stanford's home court in 2005. Since then, the Lady Vols have departed Northern California with losses in 2007, 2009 and 2011.

Burdick, a junior, was already aware of that fact. She played as a freshman at Maples in 2011, a 97-80 wipeout of Tennessee.

"We haven't beat Stanford at their place I think in the last three trips so it would be great to get a ‘W' to break that drought, but also just to show the rest of the country that we mean business," Burdick said.

"People keep saying, ‘Hey, we haven't played the best competition, but we're number one on RPI. … We need this. 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."

The coaches recognize the significance of the matchup, but they have gotten the team to 10-0 by focusing on the next opponent and not overemphasizing or downplaying any game. The record at Maples hasn't been a topic, but it clearly registered with Burdick and redshirt freshman Andraya Carter when it was pointed out by the media.

"Aren't they all important?" Elzy said with a laugh. "We're not really focusing on that as a coaching staff. We'll leave that to the media how long it's been since we've won. We're trying to prepare our team for a great basketball game, focus on what we need to do in order to be successful.

"Kids forget what happened yesterday so that can be good and bad. We're not trying to put an emphasis on we haven't won here since I don't when or we haven't played well. That is not the type of energy we want to talk to our team about.

"Our focus will be playing the best basketball we can play and our staff preparing them for what we need to do in order to achieve the goals we are trying to achieve."

The first task will be to account for Chiney Ogwumike on the court. The 6-4 senior forward scored 23 of the Cardinal's first 25 points last Monday against New Mexico, and finished the night with 32 points.

"She plays hard every possession," Coach Holly Warlick said. "She does not take a possession off. She is hard to box out because she is constantly moving. She fights for everything she gets.

"We have to match her intensity. We have to keep her off the boards. We can't allow her to go off and have a game-high."

Tennessee will have all 10 players available, including 6-2 forward Jasmine Jones, who missed the previous game because of a blow to the face sustained in practice last Monday.

"We will be tested," Elzy said. "It will take all 10 players playing well at that time to get out of there with a win."

Tennessee enters the Stanford game this season with significantly improved play at point guard, specifically the performance of Ariel Massengale. The junior played USA Basketball last summer on a guard-heavy team.

"Ariel is playing confident," Elzy said. "She worked really hard this summer. She played USA Basketball, and she was tested. She had the opportunity to play with great players.

"I think that was an eye-opening experience, and I think it clicked for her like, ‘I have things to work on. I have not arrived.' She practiced that way when she got back from USA Basketball, and she's been on fire ever since.

"I think the confidence and the maturity level have changed for her. I think she was able to step up to the plate of what we wanted her to do and instead of running from it, she is facing it head-on. The results are that she is playing excellent basketball."

Ironically, running is exactly what Massengale is doing now, as she leads Tennessee's up-tempo attack. She has 64 assists through 10 games for a 6.4 per game average and is second in scoring at 12.4 points per game behind Meighan Simmons' 13.6 ppg.

Elzy was a Lady Vol guard from 1996 to 2001 and played for Pat Summitt and Warlick, so she has a keen appreciation for the demands of the perimeter.

"Playing point guard is the hardest position on the floor," Elzy said. "You are responsible for not only yourself but everyone else on the floor with you, and you are also an extension of the head coach. You have to know what a lot of people want. You have to step outside of yourself. You have to be a giver. You have to be a leader. Consistently.

"As a freshman and sophomore, that's very hard. Because you are trying to come into your own. You are trying to develop your game. You are trying to transition into college on top of the other responsibilities it takes to be a great point guard. I feel like she is finally coming into her own and understanding the responsibility that it takes to play point guard."

Massengale was thrust into the position as a freshman – as was Simmons, who is a shooting guard, not a point – because of injuries. That speaks to the need to stagger classes and keep point guards in the pipeline.

Freshman Jordan Reynolds has shown promise at the position, as has Carter, and both can also play off the ball. In the last game against Tennessee State, all three were on the court at the same for some possessions, and it was an effective lineup.

With Massengale's grasp on the position, Carter and Reynolds can be eased into the rotation at point guard. The Lady Vols also are likely to sign a top recruit at the position from the Class of 2015.

"Every player develops different at different times," Elzy said. "It's not always necessarily just on the court. It's a transition away from home, school, community service and all that comes with being a Division I basketball player. Some people roll right in and they're fine and some people it takes time.

"We are very proud of Ariel and the young woman she has become on and off the court. I can't say enough, I was just talking to coach (Jolette) Law, how proud of how she has really taken this team on her back and wants the responsibility of ‘if things are not going right, it is my job to pick everyone up, it is my job to lead, it is my job to lead by example and be vocal.'

"And last year I am not sure she wanted that responsibility all the time. She has done an excellent job. Her demeanor has changed. I think leading by example was her comfort zone a year ago. We really pushed her out of her comfort zone to say, ‘You also have to be vocal.' We want to challenge her.

"We kid her and say, ‘If we all fell out, the whole coaching staff fell out, and we needed you to win this game, would you be able to handle it as far as directing traffic, managing the game, knowing what plays to run and what person to go to?' I think Holly is very confident with her on the floor right now because being on the same page with your point guard puts any head coach at ease."

Carter has two starts on the season and averages 20.3 minutes per game. Her ability to be disruptive on defense will keep her on the court, and those minutes are likely to increase.

"Andraya is playing extremely well for us right now," Elzy said. "She truly is a difference maker for us. The energy that she brings to the floor, the hustle plays. She does the intangible things that makes our team go.

"She will continue to get more confident because, in essence, Andraya is a freshman on the court as well. I think she is still trying to see where she fits in offensively with this team. We can always count on her playing hard, making big plays, hustle plays when we need it, and she will continue to get better and better."

Warlick emphasized defense throughout preseason. The Lady Vols' exits in the last three Elite Eight matchups were largely because of the inability to get key stops. Carter is a significant upgrade on the defensive end of the court.

But Carter also is capable of scoring – she can put the ball on the floor and is shooting 50 percent from long range – as is the team as a whole. Elzy said the offense will catch up this season.

"We tried to lay the foundation for our defense and making it a priority knowing we were going to need great defensive stops and energy to play the way we want to play in the style that we want to play," Elzy said. "Offensively, we are very skilled at a lot of positions. Right now our challenge is a lot of people are playing sagging man-to-man or a zone against us to take away from our inside game with Izzy (Harrison) and Bashaara (Graves) and Nia (Moore) and Mercedes (Russell).

"Right now we are finding a balance of what we are looking for consistently, what's a good shot, what's a quick shot, what's a bad shot. Across the board we are a very talented offensive team. I think our offense will catch up to where it needs to be."

Elzy was asked what the team is doing well and what the players could do better.

"What I like about this team as hard as we have worked defensively, we have gotten better on that end of the floor, but we can score in bunches and there is a variety of people that can do it," she said.

"They play together as a team. They share the basketball. They don't care who gets the credit. That has been very good for us early on."

As far as improvement, Elzy wants to see better decision-making on offense, a situation addressed in practice and film study.

"Time and possession," Elzy said. "We have a tendency to take quick shots. You have to love it because they are confident that their shot is going in, but we do take some quick shots at times. Time and possession will become very important. We have worked on not just getting good shots but taking a great shot."

The Lady Vols are averaging 52.1 rebounds per game with Bashaara Graves leading the way at 8.2 boards per game, followed by Isabelle Harrison at 8.1.

The posts are doing their part, but Elzy wants improvement on the glass.

"Our guards' rebounding," Elzy said. "That is an area we will continue to work on. And, across the board, every game, our goal is to get better defensively."

The trip west is a homecoming of sorts for Reynolds and Mercedes Russell, who are both from Oregon. Reynolds was able to slip home to Portland on fall break, but Russell will be making her first trip back to Springfield, Ore., after the game. Her mother, Tammy Hill, will make the trip to Stanford, and see her daughter play in person for the first time.

"It has definitely been on my mind. I am really looking forward to it, especially to see my mom," Russell said. "She'll be there and then I'll go home with her from there."

Since Tennessee is on the West Coast for this game, Reynolds and Russell will head directly to Oregon, while the rest of the players return to Knoxville and then scatter for the break.

"It will be awesome," Reynolds said. "We get an extra day. My brother just had a kid so I get to see my first niece, and I get to see my brothers and sister."

It is the last game before Christmas break for both Tennessee and Stanford. Assistant coach Dean Lockwood refers to a team's lack of focus at this time of year as "hearing Jingle Bells," an assessment that brought laughter from Elzy.

"That is part of it," Elzy said. "We are not the only team in the country that is ready to go home. We will talk to our kids about staying focused, staying in the moment. We need to take care of business and then you can enjoy Christmas break and then we are back to business.

"When it's time for you to relax, you do that. And then when it's time to get back to business, we're back on it.

"The grind continues."

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