Lady Vols ready for game action

The Lady Vols were back on the court this weekend to prepare for Sunday's game against Lipscomb with an additional player at practice now that Jannah Tucker has joined the team. Go inside with InsideTennessee for the latest on the Lady Vols.

No. 5 Tennessee (10-1) takes on Lipscomb (3-7) to close out the 2013 portion of the schedule before switching focus to SEC play, which starts on the second day of 2014.

Tip time Sunday is set for 2:05 p.m. Eastern, and a free webcast by Tennessee is available by clicking here.

With nearly a week off the court for the holiday break, LSU headed to Knoxville for the conference opener Jan. 2 and Candace Parker courtside for that game for her jersey retirement ceremony, the Lady Vols coaching staff had to make sure the team's focus was on this next game.

The players reported back to Knoxville on Friday for a rigorous practice session after a few days of family time, home-cooked meals and Christmas presents.

"We had a tough practice, which is expected after having five days off," Ariel Massengale said. "We came back ready to go."

A year ago, Holly Warlick was livid after the break because of her team's desultory effort against Stanford at home. This season, the Lady Vols were on the road against Stanford and while they lost, 76-70, it wasn't due to lack of fight. A year ago, Warlick told Massengale that she couldn't rely on her – a brutal but honest assessment – but this season the junior point guard is a go-to player and team leader.

"We watched film," Massengale said of the Stanford game. "We did some good things. There are a lot of little things that we have to fix, but they are easily corrected. We have to be consistent. We had a lot of great possessions and some possessions they kind of just outworked us."

As far as those "little things," Massengale specifically mentioned boxing out – the lack of which contributed greatly to the loss at Stanford – and being upright on defense when fatigued and thus surrendering backdoor plays.

The Lady Vols also need some more shots to fall from the outside, especially from long range. Tennessee, as a team, is connecting from the arc at just 33.7 percent, a number that needs to move upward going forward.

"This team is filled with great shooters, and we just have to get back in the gym and work on it, stay confident and keep shooting it," Massengale said.

The guards were draining threes in practice Saturday, so much so that when the drill was scheduled to end, assistant coach Jolette Law kept it going at her end of the court because, as she said, "we're on fire down here."

One of the players hitting shots was Jannah Tucker, a signee in the Class of 2013 with freshmen Mercedes Russell and Jordan Reynolds. She didn't arrive last summer and notified Tennessee that she would not enroll because of unspecified personal reasons. Those reasons turned out to be allegations of domestic abuse by a former boyfriend – criminal proceedings are pending – and in the fall she approached Tennessee about coming aboard.

Tucker made a visit last October with her parents and was embraced by the current players and coaching staff. She was eligible to join the team after the fall semester ended so Tucker arrived after the Christmas break.

"For her, it's like every day is Christmas," Warlick said.

Massengale, Andraya Carter and Meighan Simmons provided some one-on-one instruction for Tucker as the freshman gets up to speed on practice drills, defensive schemes and offensive sets.

Tucker, a top 10 recruit, tore her left ACL in the summer of 2012 while playing USA Basketball. She missed her senior year of high school in Randallstown, Md., for surgery and rehab, so she has been off the court for 16 months. That absence led Tennessee to decide a redshirt year was likely the best plan for Tucker.

"I'm just happy she's here, and we'll just see how things go," Warlick said. "I don't think she's physically ready. I think her knee needs a little bit more work (to make the adjustment to college practices). She hasn't played, so just getting her to practice and game prep."

Massengale was asked about what Tucker had undergone off the court and provided both a media savvy and erudite answer.

"It's very uplifting," Massengale said. "It shows that when we get on the court and we get in a situation, we can count on her and we know that she's going to fight through. She's not going to give up on us. She's going to give everything that she has."

Tucker was vocal at practice, encouraging her teammates and frequently smiling. She clearly seemed happy to be on the court, and her teammates, via social media posts, seem just as happy to have her in orange.

"She is just a great kid with a great personality, and we have been waiting for her to get here," Massengale said to the media gathered for Saturday's practice.

Tucker won't be available for media interviews to allow her time to adjust to college and practices, but the media was able to take photographs and shoot video of the newcomer. Whenever Tucker is ready to play, it is pretty clear, even with just one media viewing, that she will contribute. She is every inch her listed height of 6 feet, has a solid build and lateral mobility and can stick shots.

Being able to practice will benefit both Tucker and the team.

"I'm excited for Jannah," Warlick said. "She's had a long road. I am just thrilled and, I know our team is, to have her here. … I just want her to get back and get used to college and the flow and just enjoy getting back into basketball."

Warlick viewed the Stanford game tape at least three times and noted the turnovers and surrendered offensive boards. She also discussed player rotation – assistants Kyra Elzy and Law handle a lot of substitutions – and the balance of trying to find offensive consistency without losing defensive ability.

"I just think we can get so much better," said Warlick, who shouldered the responsibility for the team sputtering at times on offense because of how much defense has been emphasized. "I think they have been in tune to what we want.

"We have to be more consistent on the offensive end, and I will take a lot of blame for that because we spent a lot of time on our defense. We'll step that up, have a little bit more flow with our offense."

That will include getting the ball into the paint.

"We are an inside team. We are going to get the ball inside," Warlick said.

Perimeter shooting also will be an emphasis with both more reps inside and out of practice. School is out for two more weeks, so the players don't have academic obligations now.

The Lady Vols are ready to return to game action against Lipscomb, an in-state school from Nashville and the penultimate non-conference game with Notre Dame still on the schedule. The always-rugged SEC schedule is looming.

"Honestly, we haven't even started talking about LSU," Massengale said. "We are aware that the SEC is starting up very soon for us, but first and foremost we play Lipscomb and that's what we have to prepare for."

"We haven't addressed LSU; we haven't addressed Candace's jersey," Warlick said. "We watched 30 minutes of Lipscomb on tape. I think this team is really good about staying in the present and making sure we take care of business."

FROM THE GAME NOTES: Tennessee's game notes note three connections between the Lady Vols and the Lady Bisons.

Lipscomb is coached by Greg Brown, a graduate assistant and then assistant coach at Tennessee from 2002-04. Redshirt freshman Chandler Cooper was a high school teammate of Bashaara Graves in Clarksville, Tenn., and transferred to Lipscomb from Florida. Freshman Maya Dillard was a high school teammate of Andraya Carter in Buford, Ga.

The full game notes are available by clicking here.


Jannah Tucker video from practice

Ariel Massengale via utsportstv

Holly Warlick via utsportstv

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