Tennessee’s three seniors were parked on the bench Sunday – missed class for Ariel Massengale; missed curfew for Cierra Burdick; and illness for Isabelle Harrison – so Holly Warlick started sophomore Jordan Reynolds at point guard, freshman Alexa Middleton and junior Jasmine Jones on the wing and Bashaara Graves and Nia Moore inside.
Moore responded with a career-high 29 points – she started the game 5-5 from the field – and made a solid case for being able to contribute effective backup at center to Harrison this season.
“I have said all along that Nia Moore is going to have to step up and play,” Warlick said. “All she needs is experience on the court.”
Moore got 35 minutes of it against Carson-Newman and shot 12-16 from the field with four blocks and no turnovers.
Reynolds didn’t start a game last season, nor did Moore. Jones started seven, and Middleton was making her debut as a Lady Vol. Within seven minutes, all three freshmen were on the floor with Jaime Nared and Kortney Dunbar joining Middleton. It was the kind of exhibition lineup expected in the game’s final 10 minutes, not the first 10.
Carson-Newman coach Mike Mincey opened his remarks by noting the gaps in the Lady Vols lineup, specifically the absence of two guards who would pressure the ball in Andraya Carter and Massengale.
Carter was sidelined for the game because of a missed curfew last spring. Jannah Tucker, who is not yet medically cleared because of her knee, will miss two games when released because of missed classes.
“All four of these young ladies are in great academic standing,” Warlick said at the end of her post-game press conference, a reaction to headlines earlier in the week about “academic suspension” that had left the impression the issue was academic standing, not team rules.
“Three of them made the SEC Honor Roll. They are great role models, but they are kids and they made a mistake and we have addressed it and we are going to move on. But there is standard here at Tennessee and we are going to live by it whether it is big or small. The punishment may seem harsh and you may think, ‘Is that all they did?’ But I just wanted to make sure that this program strives for excellence.
“That is my job. These are my decisions. They are positive young women and I have no doubt that they will represent themselves and the University of Tennessee with great pride and great passion. Just wanted to clear that up. Thank you.”
The Lady Vols started slowly, while Carson-Newman found its range behind the arc, something the Lady Eagles didn’t do against North Carolina in its first exhibition game.
“We had some of the same looks (from three-point range at UNC) that we actually made (Sunday),” Mincey said. “Typically, when we come down here, we don’t make the baskets that we made tonight.”
Freshmen can sometimes be referred to as Easter eggs – as in lost on defense – and that definitely was the case at times Sunday for Tennessee. Carson-Newman opened an 8-3 lead, but Tennessee tied it on a jumper from Jasmine Jones – she executed a nice up-fake and stepped in – and never trailed again.
However, the Lady Vols led by just seven points, 41-34, at halftime.
“We wanted to get the tempo up the first half but we were a little hesitant,” Warlick said. “We didn’t get out and pressure the ball. So we are playing in between. I didn’t think our help (defense) was very good. We really talked about forcing the tempo, forcing the action and getting after the ball. The first half, what we have done in practice against our practice guys, I didn’t see the first half. I don’t know if it is jitters or nervous. I think once we settled down in the second half, we got after the basketball, and we trusted our help.”
The Lady Vols also were out-rebounded, 20-18, in the first 20 minutes.
“That was a big, crucial, point that we made at half, along with not getting up and defending the basketball,” Warlick said. “We weren’t going to the boards, our guards were not going to the offensive boards. It is part of our game and it always has been.”
The Lady Vols pushed tempo in the second half and ratcheted up the defensive intensity. They pushed the lead to double digits, 44-34, on a Graves’ and-one play off an offensive board – she started the sequence with a defensive board – and it reached 20 points, 61-41, in less than eight minutes. Moore made it a 31-point lead, 84-53, with two free throws with three minutes left.
An announced crowd of 9,924 – actual attendance appeared close to 7,000, which is very good for an exhibition game – had seemed a tad subdued in the first half, but the fans were patient. They seemed to sense that the newcomers had a learning curve to climb, and role players had become starters. They also knew the majority of the starting lineup was on the bench.
Carson-Newman acquitted itself well with nine made treys – Tatum Burstrom was 4-7 from long range for 14 points – and had a small but very vocal fan base.
Warlick prefers to schedule just one exhibition game, and the matchup with Carson-Newman has been beneficial.
“For some of them, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Mincey said. “When we come in and play well like we did, it certainly makes it more enjoyable. This environment compared to anywhere else that we play is just incredible. For these kids to drive down 25 minutes really helps us. We always start the year strong at Carson-Newman because of the Tennessee exhibition, and we hope to keep playing them.”
Mincey was proud of his team, while also acknowledging the depleted roster for the Lady Vols.
“As a whole, we met some of our goals: we wanted to try to hold them under 100, we wanted to try to score more than 50, we wanted to hold them to less than 20 offensive rebounds,” he said.
The Lady Vols fixed the overall board stat in the second half – they finished the game with a 46-35 advantage, including18 offensive boards while shooting 47.1 percent overall. Graves led the way with 10 rebounds – five on each end – to go with 16 points.
So what can be gleaned from an exhibition game? The answer every season is not much. The answer with seven players available is even less. The advantage of this game for Tennessee is its use as a teaching tool, especially for the freshmen, in film study.
But some observations can be made about the seven players who logged minutes.
Nia Moore did exactly what she needed to do – catch the ball and go to the rim. She showed nimbleness around the basket and the ability to run the floor. Her five rebounds were a little low for 35 minutes of play, but she was active around the basket and pursued the ball. The Lady Vols got 52 points in the paint, with Moore accounting for more than half of those.
Jordan Reynolds will push tempo. She doesn’t need to be told to get the ball up the floor. She had 11 rebounds – outstanding for a point guard – and six assists. Reynolds shot 1-5, so that needs to improve, but it will. She can get to the rim and shoot threes.
Bashaara Graves played a quiet 13 minutes in the first half – two points and two boards – but she returned to beast mode in the second and finished with 16 points, 10 boards and three steals. Graves will need that second-half performance to arrive sooner when the games count starting Friday.
Jasmine Jones showed some nifty passing ability with five assists, and she was 4-10 from the field. Even better, she played 15 minutes in the second half without a turnover after two miscues in 15 minutes in the first half. Carson-Newman left her open deep, and Jones got too tempted a few times to launch.
Alexa Middleton is a gamer, and the comparisons to former Lady Vol point guard Kellie Jolly are legit.
“Alexa is not the quickest, she is not the fastest, she just gets the job done,” Warlick said. “She hits a shot when she needs to, she makes a pass, I thought her passing into the post was outstanding. Just what Kellie did. She got the ball to people at the time they needed to get the ball.”
Players are taught not to play the scoreboard, and when she got a steal in the closing seconds, she went right to the rim for a layup. Middleton finished with 15 points, four assists and five steals. She grabbed just one board – the two guard has to hit the glass, too – and at times, she got lost on defense, but that can be fixed. The defensive lapses will be addressed on film.
Middleton will have company for that defensive film session in freshmen Jaime Nared and Kortney Dunbar, the only bench players available for Tennessee.
Nared is a gamer. She is smooth offensively – she hit a finger roll in the lane and drained two long balls – and grabbed five rebounds. She also had three assists and showed the ability to hit the long ball at 2-4 from the arc.
Dunbar was 3-3 from the line and looks to be automatic from the stripe. She seemed uptight from jitters and her shot showed it at 2-11 from the field. But Dunbar can shoot the ball, and hopefully the nerves have been released in the exhibition game. She grabbed six boards and added seven points.
Carter and Massengale will miss Friday’s game against Penn. Burdick will miss Penn and Oral Roberts on Nov. 17. Tucker remains sidelined because of her knee. Harrison is expected back Friday, so Warlick will have eight available players.
“The game did what it was supposed to do, it was an exhibition game and it made us look at things that we did not so well and we did well,” Warlick said.
GAME HIGHLIGHTS FROM UTSPORTSTV
INSIDE TENNESSEE VIDEO COVERAGE
Coach Holly Warlick
Alexa Middleton, Nia Moore, Bashaara Graves
Carson-Newman Coach Mike Mincey, Kailyn Brooks, Jasmine Poole, Tatum Burstrom