Tennessee (1-0) started the 2014-15 season Friday evening with a 97-52 dominating win over Penn (0-1) that was significant, in part, because of the newcomers in the box score.
Alexa Middleton, who moved into the starting lineup because of player suspensions for curfew or missed class violations, became the 18th Lady Vol rookie to start her debut game and responded with 20 points – 2-2 from long range and a nifty reverse layup – 11 assists, no turnovers, six boards and three steals.
The 11 helpers were the highest for a freshman in her first game in program history, besting nine assists by Jody Adams.
“I told her that if I had known, I would’ve gotten her out because she probably broke one of my records, so I’ll be sure to keep up with that next time,” Coach Holly Warlick said.
Warlick was, of course, joking, but she didn’t really have anyone to bring off the bench because of four players serving suspensions. Jasmine Jones played just seven minutes after colliding with a Penn player in the first half and absorbing a blow to the forehead. She was on the bench for the second half but didn’t return to the game. That left just seven players available and when Isabelle Harrison went down with a right knee injury in the second half, Tennessee was down to six.
Harrison logged just 19 minutes – nine in the second half – and had to be helped to the locker room after getting entangled with a Penn player under the basket. She needed assistance to get off the court, and Warlick said both Jones and Harrison would be evaluated Saturday.
“Jasmine got hit in the head and the girl rolled in on Izzy,” Warlick said after the game. “They’re evaluating her, so we’ll find out tonight and in the morning.”
It was the second time that Tennessee had three freshmen score in double figures in their first game. Sheila Frost (16), Bridgette Gordon (13) and Melissa McCray (10) were the first trio in 1985 against East Carolina.
Middleton’s 20 points in her debut were the most since Meighan Simmons scored 22 to start her career in 2010. Middleton was only the fifth freshman to score 20-plus points in her debut, joining Simmons, Semeka Randall (24) and Peggy Evans and Nikki Caldwell, who tallied 20 each.
The freshmen had to play immediately because of the reduced roster, and Warlick indicated taking minutes from them won’t be easy.
“You choose to do things and you don’t play and you give somebody an opportunity to step up,” Warlick said. “When Jasmine went down or Izzy went out, we had six and never missed a beat. This has been a positive thing for these ladies who hadn’t played a lot.”
Ariel Massengale and Andraya Carter will return for Monday’s game against Oral Roberts. Cierra Burdick will miss that game, and Jannah Tucker will serve her two-game suspension once she is medically cleared to play.
“We get two back on Monday and they have their work cut out for them because these young ladies have set a standard, and I’m extremely impressed with them,” Warlick said.
Consider the challenge issued – and Carter and Massengale will stiffen the perimeter defense, which needs a boost. But Warlick made her point and likely has everyone’s attention now. Warlick also said in preseason that Tennessee wants to play up-tempo and that takes rotations of players. The freshmen were visibly fading towards the end – Middleton went 32 minutes with 26 for Nared and 25 for Dunbar – but they fought through the fatigue and finished strong.
In fact, Middleton’s 11 assist came off her steal and dish to Dunbar with six seconds to go for the final 97-52 score.
“I mean when you are running up and down the court, pushing the ball, and playing good defense, you are going to get winded but we make sure in practice we are running and doing those situations,” Middleton said. “I guess just being out there for the first time, my first collegiate game, the excitement and running up and down the court. But, we made it, we’re alright.”
Dunbar, who seemed uptight in the exhibition, was much more relaxed Friday and shot 6-12 from the field.
“I think she thought the world was going to end because she didn’t make a three in an exhibition game,” Warlick said.
Dunbar’s first three attempt drew nothing but net in the first half, and she curled around the baseline and executed a catch-and-shoot three in the second half that elicited a celebratory dance from Burdick.
“She was definitely more relaxed and you could see that on her face, so I was happy for her,” Middleton said.
Dunbar, who added two blocks, a steal and a rebound, also got to the paint and scored in transition.
“My thing with Kortney is that she’s a scorer; she’s going to get her points, but what is she going to do on the defensive end and that’s what we’ve tried to emphasize with her,” Warlick said. “I thought tonight she was solid on the defensive end, and I think that gave her an opportunity to relax and play a role on the offensive end.”
All three freshmen were better on defense than in the exhibition opener – and, of course, have a long way to go. But the fact that they got incrementally better since last Sunday bodes well for their capacity – and willingness – to learn.
All three freshmen were involved in a defensive sequence in the second half in which Nared got a deflection, Dunbar hit the floor to recover the ball and flipped it to Middleton, who scooted down court.
The message to push tempo has been received by Middleton – and sophomore Jordan Reynolds stays in go mode – and it led to a 30-5 run to close the first half after Penn had taken a 20-17 lead on a jumper by Sydney Stipanovich.
“I think we just started pushing the ball and playing better defense than we started out on,” Bashaara Graves said. “I think that helped us. We got a couple of steals back to back and that definitely pushed the tempo. We had better ball pressure, and we were denying a lot more from the get go.”
Graves opened the game with aggressive play on both ends and had 12 points and seven boards by halftime when Tennessee took a 47-25 lead into the locker room. She finished with a double-double of 16 points and 10 boards – eight of which came on the offensive end.
The return of the junior Graves to the beast mode of her freshman year is critical to Tennessee’s success this season.
“It’s a new season,” Graves said. “I know I didn’t have the season I wanted to have last year, but it’s a new season and this was a great start for me. I just want to continue to be consistent just like this.”
Nia Moore followed up a successful exhibition opener with 24 points and 14 rebounds.
“Nia is just a monster,” Graves said. “She’s just been going to work every day. In practice, she’s proven that she wants to be out here and she’s getting the chance and making the most of it and you can tell. I’m just so proud of her, and we just want her to keep it going because we know she can do it.”
Moore was a woman of few words in the post-game press conference, but Warlick filled in the gaps.
“Nia had another solid performance, and you’re seeing the result of somebody that has put in the time, had to come off the bench, play with two or three minutes to go,” Warlick said. “She hung in there, had extra shots with Dean. I can’t say how proud I am of her.
“She does all her work before the ball gets there. When you do the work before the ball gets there, then it’s a simple shot. She goes to work, she doesn’t wait until the ball comes to her. She makes her move really before the ball gets there.”
Six Lady Vols reached double figures, and Tennessee doubled up Penn on the glass, 60-30. The Lady Vols had 27 assists and just eight turnovers to go with 11 steals and nine blocks. Harrison had two emphatic swats, while Moore sent four shots away.
Penn stayed with Tennessee for the first 10 minutes – the game was tied at 20 at the 10:14 mark of the first half – but then the Lady Vols erupted.
“We challenged ourselves with the first 10 or 12 minutes, not because the score was right where it was, but we had control of the pace,” Penn coach Mike McLaughlin said. “Even at that point, it was getting a little too fast for us, I thought. Just when we couldn’t score for a while, I think we lost control of the pace of the game, the tempo, everything on that line. Kind of got a little fast of us.
“We gave them too many run-outs, too many open court baskets. We just couldn’t get back. We started sending two back, but that still, at times, wasn’t enough. That’s an area we have to obviously work on, but give them credit. They get the ball up and down the court as quick as anyone we’ve seen. It was something we haven’t seen yet, and we may not see again, but give them all the credit.”
That is exactly how Warlick wants to play, and the freshmen are on board already with the game plan.
It also helped that Harrison was back inside. She has an assortment of post moves, and she and Moore worked the high-low game very well. The Lady Vols will await word on her injury status and hope for the best, because Harrison, who had 12 points and 10 boards with three assists, stabilizes the paint and opens room for Graves and Moore to operate around the rim.
The Lady Vols are off Saturday and will return to practice Sunday. It’s a short turn-around for Monday’s game against Oral Roberts.
“I’m just extremely proud of our team,” Warlick said. “We had a game plan, and I think they stuck to it.”
Warlick ended her press conference with a passionate defense of the Lady Vols logo, an answer that seemed to address a national columnist’s assertion this week that the logo was demeaning to women because of the use of “Lady.” During a timeout on the second half, fans chanted “Lady Vols.”
“The Lady Vols – and I don’t care what anybody says – the Lady Vol logo is about tradition, and if you haven’t played that and been around that, you don’t understand,” Warlick said. “But, you will understand if you’ve played it and been through it. I went in and told our team we were keeping the Lady Vol logo. They cheered like they won a championship. So, I don’t know what the big fuss is about with the logo because it is us. That is what we are, that is who we are, that is our brand. Like it or not, that is who we are. As long as I’m here, it is not changing.”
INSIDE TENNESSEE VIDEO COVERAGE
Coach Holly Warlick
Alexa Middleton, Bashaara Graves
Penn coach Mike McLaughlin, Kathleen Roche, Sydney Stipanovich