No. 8/8 Tennessee (18-4, 7-2) is back in action Thursday against Ole Miss (10-13, 1-8) at Tad Smith Coliseum, also known as the "Tad Pad." A familiar face will be on the sideline in Alex Fuller – she now goes by Alex Simmons – an assistant coach for the Rebels and former Lady Vol, who just recently revealed that she was pregnant.
Tip time in Oxford is 9 p.m. Eastern (TV: CSS). That is the same tip time as the rematch with Vanderbilt as part of "Big Monday" on ESPN2. In both cases, the Lady Vols are facing a team they already played this season – Tennessee defeated Ole Miss, 94-70, on Jan. 9 in Knoxville and lost to Vanderbilt, 74-63, on Jan. 12 in Nashville.
Head coach Holly Warlick was upset with her team's play in both games and particularly so after the loss to the Commodores, an outcome that caused the players to lose their locker room until the Jan. 30 win over Arkansas.
Tennessee has undergone some changes to the starting lineup since then, partly because of injury and also because of production.
Andraya Carter has moved into the lineup at point guard because Ariel Massengale suffered a blow to the head against Florida on Jan. 23 and hasn't been cleared to return. Cierra Burdick returned to the starting lineup at small forward after a slump earlier in the season and has responded with double-digit scoring and board work, culminating with an honor for SEC Player of the Week.
The redshirt freshman guard and junior forward are two reasons why the Lady Vols have claimed second place in the SEC after two early losses. Senior Meighan Simmons also has played a critical role in the recent surge.
Simmons, who played earlier this season as if her senior year could end at any second, has settled down considerably. Subsequently, her efficiency and shooting accuracy have increased. She also is visibly more comfortable, smiling and loose in pregame warmups.
"I think Meighan felt a lot of pressure early," Assistant coach Dean Lockwood said.
Simmons was the SEC Player of the Year last season. The Lady Vols had been picked to finish fifth in the league by its coaches – the media weighed in with a fourth-place prediction – and then they won the regular season.
The script flipped this season. Simmons was Preseason Player of the Year and the Lady Vols were picked to finish first.
"I think Meighan felt a ton of pressure being the lone senior," Lockwood said. "I think being so conscientious and she is such a team-oriented kid. People say, ‘Oh, she shoots a lot.' She does shoot a lot, but she is not a kid who is in any way shape or form selfish. She is a player who one of the ways she feels she can help the team is by scoring points, because she is a scorer."
In Simmons' defense, too, she has played on some teams that could be timid at times, especially offensively. There were games in which Simmons had to loft shots because she would pull the trigger. The Lady Vols have struck a better balance offensively this season with Massengale, Isabelle Harrison and Bashaara Graves helping to shoulder the scoring load. Burdick's resurgence also has been timely.
"The more pressure she felt (earlier), the more she went to what she knows best," Lockwood said. "And then she started forcing and pressing."
When that happened, Warlick would have to pull Simmons from games to settle her down, as multiple missed shots – especially threes – set up fast break opportunities for opponents. At one point in the season, Simmons was shooting 17 percent from long range. She has boosted that to nearly 35 percent and now leads the team at 14.7 points per game.
"I think Meighan has taken a little bit of a sigh and just stepped back, and she is playing the game and allowing it to come to her," Lockwood said. "She is playing the game a little more relaxed, and it is reaping a lot of dividends.
"Her body language is better. She was a tense, worried player a lot early, and we see a difference from that standpoint alone."
Simmons looked anything but relaxed in the first half against Alabama last Sunday as she watched her team fall behind by 15 points. Two quick fouls had planted Simmons on the bench within the first three minutes of the game. She didn't return until the start of the second half, and showed what Lockwood has called competitive maturity.
In the past, Simmons might have played as if she were shot out of a cannon, trying to make up scoring ground in the first five minutes. But she played under control, tallied 11 points and helped lead the comeback win against the Crimson Tide.
"She was very, very composed and controlled," Lockwood said. "She is in a better place right now in terms of realizing that you can't force the issue on things."
Carter isn't forcing any issues. The redshirt freshman has become the quintessential game manager – she takes care of the ball, handles the pressure, gets the team in its offenses, plays inspired defense and makes very few mistakes despite inexperience combined with extended minutes.
"A great job, a very, very, very solid job," Lockwood said. "We couldn't be more pleased with how she has filled in. She has been very humble through it all but also starting to play with an air of much more confidence.
"Even the leadership – she is being able to talk on the floor and express herself and convey stuff to the team. We are very pleased with what she's done and how she's doing it."
Burdick has been the game-changer of late for the Lady Vols. She has had to adjust her game in college, as Burdick is somewhat undersized for the post and needed a consistent long ball to play on the perimeter. She endured some anguish and frustration but never strayed from extra work in the gym and has diversified her offense and improved her defense.
"I said, ‘C, this is a testament to staying the course. It is good to see good things come to you because you were patient,' " Lockwood said. "I said, ‘Right now, you remind me of one of those old sailors. They look like they've got quarter-inch lines in their faces, weather-beaten faces.'
"You get those guys out on the sea and there's a big squall, and there's nobody panicked. They batten down the hatches and they're bailing and they're staying the course. We'll get through this. We've gotten through it before, and we'll get through it again.
"She's come through a hard time, and she's come through it on the other side and she realizes, ‘Hey, I'm OK.' I give her a load of credit because not once did she deviate from putting in the extra time. She is our best in terms of that. She puts in the extra time and gets the extra work in, and she continued to do it.
"She kept saying, ‘I am going to trust the process, stay sharp, stay positive and stay determined, things are going to turn.' And that's what has happened. It is so gratifying to see that, certainly for the team and for her."
The steady play of the starters and reliable rotation from the bench has been critical, as the Lady Vols seized second place in the league and have the chance to control where they finish.
"It's very important to keep this going," Lockwood said. "We control our own destiny right now. We're very cautious to go one game at a time. It's an overused cliché, but one game at a time. Don't get ahead of ourselves. Don't look down the road.
"You can get nipped in this league any night now. You can get clipped by anybody at any point in time. I look at the league standings, and I don't see any team that isn't capable of clipping another. There is a healthy respect by our players."
The next two games are late tips, and while those aren't ideal for students, postseason start times can also be all over the place, so it's good preparation as athletes.
For the road game against Ole Miss, the coaches try to keep a routine as if the players were still in class at home with planned activities from breakfast to shoot-around to film to study hall. It keeps the players from sitting in hotel rooms all day just waiting for tipoff.
"We try to structure it so it feels like a normal day," Lockwood said.
The players will be in their regular home routine while awaiting "Big Monday." Tennessee vs. Vandy is always meaningful as the in-state schools are bitter rivals, but the Lady Vols also are seeking some redemption – and don't want to lose their locker room again.
"There is certainly great incentive and motivation because of how we lost," Lockwood said. "I thought Vanderbilt played a terrific game, but I think our players felt very disappointed in themselves because we didn't play our best game."
Lockwood also fielded questions about assorted topics that included:
It is not much of a stretch to say that Tennessee's posts pass as well as, if not better, than the guards.
"I know," Lockwood said. "We're working on that."
Izzy Harrison and Bashaara Graves, along with Mercedes Russell, have made the high-low game effective, and the posts capably find shooters behind the arc for open treys.
The staff wants that situation to remain intact while getting the guards to feed the ball inside better. Portions of practice sessions this week were dedicated to interior passing drills and when the guards were put into "live" action scrimmages, the coaches blew whistles to correct bad passes.
A few of the passes have been so poor – the post player either had no chance to catch it or the defender easily plucked it – that the reaction on the bench has been one of befuddlement as to what the guard saw before letting go of the ball.
So, extended film clips and practice drills have been ordered for the guards.
"It's a combination of looking at tape and really breaking down the practice," Lockwood said. "We put two defenders on a guard and a post player, and we broke it down, reading the defense, how the post player is being played. Then, we added a third player, we changed angles and tried to enter the ball from another direction.
"It's a matter of breaking it down, looking at it on tape more and putting ourselves in practice and game situations, where we run our offensive actions and when it happens, stop it and make a point of emphasis on what we saw and what was there and what wasn't there. It's practice and timing."
Another issue addressed was overpassing inside – at times the posts need to just go to the rim instead of making a pass in tight space, the result of which can lead to a turnover. Jasmine Jones has been efficient in this area – once in the paint, she will find the rim.
"Absolutely," Lockwood said. "We shoot ourselves in the foot when we do stuff like that because that's just killing your opportunities.
Bashaara Graves has had some breakout games and quiet ones this season, though when she enters "beast mode," she is basically unstoppable.
Graves was a relative unknown in the SEC last season, but she moved into the starting lineup in her second game as a freshman and remained there. This season, Graves was hobbled by calf and lower back issues that slowed her at times. But she also is a focal point now of an opponent's scouting report, and that can be a tough adjustment for a sophomore.
"She is now a known commodity," Lockwood said. "People have had a year to study her, to watch her, to key in on her."
Lockwood did add that Graves, along with Izzy Harrison and Mercedes Russell, were still shooting well – Graves at 57.3 percent, Harrison, 56.8, and Russell, 58.3.
"Defenses are doubling, they're collapsing, they're sagging, they're packing it in, and I think with Bashaara's case they really made it a point of not letting her operate freely. Bashaara has had to get used to being the center of attention."
True freshmen Jordan Reynolds and Mercedes Russell, are accumulating valuable minutes in the regular season in tight games, a situation that can pay off in postseason.
"Mercedes from the get-go was and in Jordan's case, she is playing more now with the numbers because Rel is out, but she was practicing so well," Lockwood said.
"Jordan has been solid. She is probably one of our best passers. She has been very consistent in practice, and we said, from the Christmas break on, we've got to find more minutes for her."
Russell has started five games this season, and both freshmen have played in all 22 contests. Russell has soft hands around the basket and has battled more on the boards.
"Mercedes is starting to play confident with a little more authority in her game," Lockwood said. "And she's been very productive. … I think some people expected her to take the league by storm, but she wasn't at that place from a physical standpoint.
"But she has a high basketball IQ and she is betting better. You see her getting better."
The Lady Vols have returned to their veteran starting lineup, even though it includes a sophomore and redshirt freshman.
Junior Cierra Burdick has joined senior Meighan Simmons and junior Izzy Harrison. Ariel Massengale would be slotted at point guard, but Andraya Carter has replaced the sidelined junior. Massengale is likely to return to the lineup when cleared and back up to speed, but Carter will still log plenty of minutes.
Have the coaches finally decided on a starting lineup to close out the last month of the regular season?
"I think we very well could," Lockwood said. "It's hard to look ahead and that's probably a better question for Holly, but I know Holly has conveyed to us as a staff that that is something she would like to get to.
"We have really put a lot of different starting groups out there. I think we would like to develop consistency and chemistry with a group. But we know we've got nine players that are probably going to play a lot every game with Rel coming back in that pack."
One thing that can't be overlooked is how well Carter has handled the point position. While Massengale is the incumbent, the coaches are comfortable with both.
"This is a good functioning group right here," Lockwood said.
Carter is young and adjusting to the position each possession, but she has two intangibles – a brain between her ears that understands the game, and a heart inside her chest that beats to play basketball.
"The one thing with Andraya is she brings incredible energy and she has the passion to compete," Lockwood said.
She also will adjust well to starting or coming off the bench.
"She is genuinely a humble kid," Lockwood said. "She found herself thrust in this position and what you're getting from her is just how much she appreciates the opportunity to do it and how much she cares about the team doing well."
The standpoint of coaches
While Holly Warlick hasn't been pleased at all at times with her team's play, she, her staff and players have made adjustments along the way.
So, with a month before postseason, how do the coaches assess the situation in terms of improvement from November to now?
"I'll tell you this. Coaches are never happy," Lockwood said. "At any given point in time we're going to find a reason about why we're not happy about something. But we've made headway. We've made improvement. We've made progress.
"One thing we're most pleased about and happy at this point – and we can certainly get better – is that there has been personal growth. There has been growth by players in terms of maturity.
"There has been growth with players in terms of a little bit better competitiveness and a little bit more discipline. There is still growth to be had, but we've made improvements.
"Cierra is a prime example. Draya Carter. Izzy is another one who has really grown. And Meighan. There has been personal growth in addition to X and O growth of our team.
"But you can't be satisfied and hopefully our players are not."