Jolette Law chats with IT

The Lady Vols return to their home court Thursday for a tilt with Ole Miss. InsideTennessee chatted with assistant coach Jolette Law about guard play, defense and her nicknames for the entire roster. Go inside for the latest on the team.

No. 8/8 Tennessee (12-2, 1-1) takes on Ole Miss (9-6, 0-1) at 7 p.m. Eastern (TV: CSS, ESPN3 webcast) on Thursday at Thompson-Boling Arena.

The Lady Vols will celebrate a milestone when the 3,796th person comes through the door and marks fan number 5 million in home attendance. With 90,292 counted in the first eight games and a nation-leading average of 11,286 per game this season, it won't take long for that fan to be honored with prizes, gear, autographed basketball and tickets.

It is also a good time to see the Lady Vols in Knoxville because they won't be back on "The Summitt" until Jan. 20 when Notre Dame arrives. Tennessee next two games are on road against Vanderbilt and Mississippi State.

Assistant coach Jolette Law chatted with InsideTennessee about the team, guard play, her comfort level in her second year and her list of nicknames, among other topics.

Law was a point guard at Iowa, so she has naturally taken the guards under her coaching wing, though, ironically she calls 6-6 post Mercedes Russell her twin.

After the win over Georgia, point guard Ariel Massengale mentioned that Law told her at halftime to be aggressive. Isabelle Harrison had torched the Lady Bulldogs with 18 points by the break, and Law knew double teams were coming – and driving lanes would open for Massengale.

"I told Ariel it is time for you to start attacking," Law said. "They are going to send two people to Izzy and that leaves you open. When she started attacking, she got layups."

Massengale has always been able to get to the rim, but Law changed her mind-set to one of attack and finish. Massengale has gotten and-one plays and gotten clobbered to get to the line this season. She took a total of 90 free throws as a sophomore. The junior has already attempted 67 from the stripe this season and connected on a team-leading 82.1 percent.

"I told her you can get to the basket, but now you have got to finish," Law said.

Law understands the point position from a player's point of view, so she is an excellent resource for Massengale. The coach-player connection has been made in Law's second year – Law was a head coach at Illinois and was very familiar with the Bolingbrook, Ill., product – and Massengale runs the team like she is in charge.

"The main thing is her confidence," Law said. "She is getting in the gym and working on her outside shot and concentrating on finishing around the basket.

"We all know that she can definitely pass the ball. She has great court vision. Now, it is time for her to step up and be more of a leader, and she has grown tremendously. She has embraced being that vocal leader. You are an extension of the head coach. You are the mother of the team. You need to get the most out of your teammates.

"Everything we talk about is how can you get better, not individually, but this team. Get the most out of Izzy. Get the most out of Cierra Burdick. Get the most out of Jasmine Jones. Get the most out of your freshmen. That goes for off the court as well. We do a lot of talking about what it means to be a point guard, and she's embraced it."

Another factor that has helped Massengale is that Law is in her second season. When Law first arrived in Knoxville, she was learning a new role at a new program and her initial focus was being what Holly Warlick needed in her first season as a head coach.

"My first year I am trying to figure out how I can help Holly," Law said. "Holly said, ‘I want you to just be you.' "

Law increased her off-the-court time with the players and her office has become a regular gathering place. She and Massengale chatted at length the evening before this interview. After the interview, Law was headed to visit with the three freshmen, Mercedes Russell, Jordan Reynolds and Jannah Tucker.

Law also chats frequently with guards Meighan Simmons and Andraya Carter. Simmons is the only senior, so Law told Massengale she had to be a senior leader, too, even though she is still a junior. Harrison and Burdick got the same message.

"That junior class definitely has to step up and be seniors, if you will," Law said. "We didn't want the weight of the world to be on Meighan."

Simmons often had to carry the bulk of the scoring load in her first three years on campus, and it was a difficult burden, because if a guard has an off shooting night – and those are more likely to come in postseason, because of stiffer defenses – the team crumbles. Law has helped Simmons realize she can play within the team and rely on scoring punch to also come from other spots on the court.

Law also knows a senior will have a sense of urgency because it is her last season, so the pressure needle needed to be lowered for that reason, too.

"I lived it as well," Law said. "You step into that senior year and you're thinking about, ‘Oh, my God. I want everything to be perfect. I want everything to be right.' That has a lot to do with Meighan. She wants everything to go well for her senior year.

"I tell her focus on both ends of the court and let the game come to her. In the past, she had to do everything, and she was in tune with being the scorer. Now, this year we have so many other weapons, and now you can score, plus there are other aspects of your game that you can get better at. I think she's embraced it. She is trying to do other things on the defensive end.

"We are trying to encourage her and support her and (let her know) you don't have to be the only offense, because we have other people around you. We also want her to be more of a vocal leader, as well. Meighan is sort of quiet. She has embraced that and is thinking outside of her box and seeing the game slow, playing on both ends.

"Just every day trying to help her, let her know you don't have to prove anything to anybody. Just continue to do key things, continue to win and everything else will take care of itself."

The scoring stats underscore that approach – Harrison leads the team at 13.8 points per game, followed very closely by Simmons at 13.7 ppg and Massengale at 13.3 ppg.

Carter is a redshirt freshman that arrived with a higher maturity level than most freshmen, but her game experience is limited. She has now played in two career SEC games, so the buzzword for Carter is patience.

"The biggest thing with Andraya is believing in herself," Law said. "She is a great player, a great addition – I wish we had her last year – but now do what you do.

"She wants to do everything well. Bring the energy, bring that fire, that fight. She worked on her shot all summer, getting that confidence. Draya wants everything to be perfect. She is learning. On-the-job training.

"I tell her you've got an advantage because you sat on the bench and you watched it. You had the opportunity to see the game. Now, we are trying to get her to relax and play with that level of confidence."

Reynolds is a true freshman with offensive confidence. She will shoot the ball already, so the goal is to mesh her point guard skills with a mental approach to the overall game.

"She is instant offense," Law said. "She is a great passer. She can handle the ball. But being a point guard, she has to learn not just her spot but everybody's else spot. Being able to get everybody calm, set everything up and be able to run the team.

"We are working on that. We aren't worried about her taking shots, because she is a very confident kid. But we're asking her to deliver the ball, too, get the ball inside, get the ball to your shooters and tell people where to go. And that's hard as a freshman. I lived it myself."

Carter and Reynolds also will get on the glass, a favorable trait for freshmen. Carter leads all guards with 44 rebounds, and Reynolds isn't far behind at 31, despite playing 21.2 and 14.5 minutes per game, respectively.

"They will go in there and mix it up," Law said. "They will box out. That is a great asset, and they naturally go do it. Most point guards typically want to go back, but Andraya and Jordan will go in there and mix it up with the post players."

When the guards don't box out, the posts have to deal with two opponents – their player and the one the guard let get to the rim.

"Exactly," Law said.

Defense, specifically ball pressure, starts with the guards and that remains a work in progress, as Carter and Reynolds learn the systems – forward Jones has been a considerable boost to the guards – and Massengale and Simmons elevate that part of their game.

"It can get much, much better, and it comes down to everybody being on the same page," Law said. "We are trying to work on team defense, and team defense requires a lot of communication, everybody knowing what we're doing.

"We can always get better on defense. We are focused on transition defense, our one-on-one defense and ultimately our team defense. If we can guard one on one and communicate, team defense will come."

Pat Summitt was always willing to delegate major responsibilities to her assistants, and Warlick, who was a beneficiary of that policy, has done the same. Law, who has head coach experience, and assistant coach Kyra Elzy, have significant input into substitutions.

It is one of the trickier aspects of coaching – especially in an up-tempo sport with long stretches of the ball in play – since matchups have to be considered, along with in-game adjustments and sometimes just a feel for the action.

"It is very challenging," Law said. "You are not just putting people in but knowing what the best combination is, what five individuals are working well as a unit. We are looking at who is working offensively and also who is working defensively. It does get tricky."

The SEC schedule continues over the next three games – and it would behoove Tennessee not to overlook Ole Miss, which gave Baylor all it could handle in Waco, Texas – and the Lady Vols, who were favored to win the league, will try stay in the win column.

Warlick told the media this week that after the loss to LSU last week, the team met for a full-scale post-mortem on everyone's performance, including that of the head coach. Massengale said the team approached the Georgia game with more maturity, especially in terms of the scouting report and film study.

It may seem odd that the players needed a pointed reminder to do so, but Law noted that the team is relatively young. That statement could be met with skepticism, but it holds up under scrutiny.

Russell and Reynolds have played in all 14 games and are true freshmen. So has Carter, a redshirt freshman. Jones is a sophomore and making the conversion to a small forward. Bashaara Graves, who is limited and day to day now because of lower leg and back issues, has considerable experience but is still an underclassman.

Simmons, the lone senior, has a lot of game experience. So does Massengale, the junior leader. But Harrison and Burdick missed several weeks last season because of injury and then were limited upon return. Harrison ended last season hobbled and is now becoming a go-to player as the SEC gets underway.

Taber Spani and Kamiko Williams graduated and took with them a lot of minutes – both were starters – and big-game experience.

The team also likely felt considerable pressure to start the season. The Final Four is in Nashville, and there is no way to downplay the expectation that Tennessee will reach the game's big stage in its home state. Also, a year ago, the Lady Vols were picked fifth by the coaches in the SEC. This season, they are the favorite.

"Last year no one really expected a whole lot from our team," Law said. "We were the hunter. Now, we're the hunted. And there are expectations. Right now, we understand the magnitude when we lost to LSU. We bounced back.

"In the SEC we have to take every game like it's the No. 1 team coming in. We have to tunnel our focus. I think the kids have embraced it. We are being their captains, if you will, to let them know everybody is coming for Tennessee. We are the queens of the hill. Everybody is going to bring their ‘A' game.

"We've got to be prepared."

FIVE MILLION AND COUNTING … Tennessee will welcome its five millionth fan on Thursday, a number that is rather mind-boggling in women's basketball.

"It is," Jolette said. "Five million? That is a great program. Most people can't utter the words five million fans. It is unheard of. I am so grateful to be a part of a program that the fans really come out and support women's basketball. That is remarkable. Five. Million. Fans."

MEMORIAL GYM: The Lady Vols will play at Vanderbilt on Sunday and its oddly configured gym with the elevated court and benches on the baselines.

Law played there while at Iowa and has coached in the venue as an assistant for Tennessee and Rutgers.

"It's different," Law said. "It's hard to see at the far end what is really going on. That's when your team needs to be totally together, totally focused and knowing what the game plan is, because we can't instruct when they are far away from us."

LAW'S ROSTER: Jolette Law has nicknames for each player and the three coaches on the roster. She was kind enough to share them with InsideTennessee.

An interview direction can change sometimes, and when Law, who is 5-5, said that she and 6-6 Mercedes Russell call each other "Twin" – the original line of thought was about one-on-one time spent with players – the question had to be asked. Why?

"We bonded with music," Law said. "We both like old school. I call her Twin and Old Soul."

That led to the revelation that Law has provided monikers for the entire team and they are as follows:

Cierra Burdick: Pilot, steers the team

Andraya Carter: The Carter, lends gravity to the youngster

Bashaara Graves: Marley, because she listens to Bob Marley

Isabelle Harrison: IzzyB, self-explanatory

Jasmine Jones: Jas, self-explanatory and Law's nickname was Jas

Ariel Massengale: Mini Me, they are both short point guards

Nia Moore: Nia Nia, Law has known her for years, recruited her to Illinois, always called her that

Jordan Reynolds: Flat Line Zero, TT, wears No. 0 and Total Player

Mercedes Russell: Twin

Meighan Simmons: Poca, short for Pocahontas, who she resembles with her hair down and flat

Kyra Elzy: L. Weezy, plays on name of Elzy

Dean Lockwood: Deanie and Fiddy, for fun

Holly Warlick: Holly Keys, for reasons Law won't reveal

Elzy refers to Law as Boogie.

"We all get along very well," Law said.

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