Coach Misti Cussen welcomed the experience – Oral Roberts has been a regular in the NCAA Tournament and was in Knoxville in 2013 in a sub-regional – and said her freshman point guard, Jordan Doyle, would become a better player for the experience.
Doyle, who had 10 turnovers, likely will see Tennessee’s press in her sleep on the trip back to Tulsa, Okla. The ball squirted loose from the Golden Eagles a total of 30 times and the Lady Vols converted those miscues into 41 points.
Holly Warlick had two freshmen in the starting lineup – Alexa Middleton retained her spot while Jaime Nared replaced Jasmine Jones, who had a mild concussion – and brought Ariel Massengale and Andraya Carter off the bench.
Massengale, who was playing in her first game since suffering a serious concussion against Florida on Jan. 23, 2014, led all scorers with 21 points on 8-12 shooting.
“It was amazing, I was excited all day long,” Massengale said. “I couldn’t sleep last night, I felt nervous before the game and I never get that way, it felt like my first time playing. I’m just glad to be back out there with my teammates doing something that I love. This is my senior year, and I just want to leave a legacy on this program.”
Massengale’s return was delayed by one game because of a missed class – and Cussen likely wished the senior point guard had missed two.
Cussen delivered an engaging and expansive press conference – and graciously noted she was watching Tennessee online against Penn and expressed concern for Isabelle Harrison, who injured her knee Friday night.
Harrison, who crumbled to the court after getting entangled with a Penn player, has been diagnosed with a mild knee sprain. Both Harrison and Jones, who were on the sideline and looked well, are expected back soon.
Warlick was fairly pleased after the game, especially with the way her players pushed tempo.
“I was pleased with our tempo, we worked a lot on that, our tempo, getting better defensively,” Warlick said.
The Lady Vols had 21 steals – seven from Jordan Reynolds and six from Andraya Carter – and the pair of guards combined for 11 of Tennessee’s 22 assists.
“We switched a little bit more than probably you’ve been used to seeing because we just thought it would be effective, and I thought it was,” Warlick said. “It was great to see Ariel Massengale and Andraya Carter back. They’re just adding depth and strength to our lineup.”
The experience of Massengale and Carter was evident on defense, as the two instinctively switched and communicated on that end of the court. Nared also held her own defensively on the perimeter.
“We wanted to be aggressive,” Nared said. “Our game plan was to be aggressive and force turnovers, and I think we did a great job of pushing the pressure up and making it uncomfortable to bring the ball up the floor. I think everyone did well moving around and being active on our defense, which caused so many turnovers.”
Warlick switched Tennessee into a zone with under 10 minutes to play in the second half with mixed results. The Lady Vols will need a change-of-pace defense, but they were more aggressive in man to man.
“Happy for the win, still can work a lot on a couple things,” Warlick said. “We tried to work on our zone, and it was average.”
Reynolds again made a case for extended playing time as the sophomore guard doesn’t hesitate to get the ball up the court. She has bought in to Warlick’s offensive philosophy of speeding up the game.
“I think Jordan Reynolds again played aggressive, didn’t have a turnover,” Warlick said. “She is pushing the ball up the floor, and she is putting pressure on the defense and that is what I love.
“And I think we’re in great shape. I think Coach (Lee) Taylor has done a great job and our practices have been really up and down and competitive, and I think it’s showing right now.”
Massengale endorsed that explanation.
“Every single day in practice, we’re running,” Massengale said. “If we’re not winning drills or making times, we’re on the line. We don’t look at it as punishment anymore, we look it as getting better and getting in shape because we want to play an up-tempo running game.”
Nia Moore also continued her run of outstanding performances. Moore is an agile post, so the up-tempo style has suited her well.
“Nia needed to get on the floor and get reps,” Warlick said. “Did I dream that she would produce what she’s doing? No, I mean she’s just so consistent. She went against somebody bigger than her (in the 6-7 Vicky McIntyre), and she still had 20 points, which I love to see.
“We kept telling Nia your time is coming, and when we redshirted Mercedes (Russell), we said your time is here and I think she has taken full advantage of it. I’m really happy for her.”
Moore tallied 20 points, nine boards, four blocks and two steals. She remains a woman of few words with the media, but Massengale promised to get her to loosen up with the press.
“I thought it was good to go up against another post with size to be able to work on my game,” Moore said. “I thought it was a good matchup. I just tried to play aggressive.”
During one sequence in the second half, Moore got blocked, stayed with the play, got the ball back and scored for a 69-25 lead with 8:36 to play. Moore of last season would have conceded the play. Moore of this season pursued the ball.
The Lady Vols, as a whole, stayed in pursuit of the ball, opening up a 10-0 lead in less than four minutes and taking a 46-17 lead into the locker room at halftime. Cussen tried timeouts and substitutions, but nothing slowed down Tennessee.
“We’re just turning to ball over too much,” Cussen said. “We had the same storyline happen 72 hours ago when we were in Waco. We have just got to take care of the ball better. Obviously, that was a huge issue for us this evening.”
McIntyre led Oral Roberts with 10 points and 13 rebounds. She echoed her coach’s statement that she welcomed the challenge and experience of playing at Tennessee during the regular season.
“I think it’s necessary when you have so many freshmen to see, ‘Hey, this is what we’re working towards. We want to come back and play another big-time team in the tournament.’ It’s motivation.”
The Lady Vols got 54 points in the paint, with 27 coming on fast breaks. The bench, which consisted of Massengale, Carter and Kortney Dunbar, accounted for 39 points.
Warlick used all eight available players early in the first half and got scoring from each one. Four players reached double figures with Bashaara Graves notching 12 points and Dunbar adding 10 to join Moore and Massengale in double digits. Alexa Middleton contributed six points, while Reynolds added five.
Nared got close to double digits with nine points, as did Carter with eight.
Carter missed her first three shots. Last season, she likely would not have attempted another one. This season, she followed the 0-3 start with a 4-7 stat line, including two pull-up jumpers. Carter can change a game on the defensive end. This season, Carter knows she has to add some offense, too.
“I think it is a great sign,” Warlick said. “She had a great summer. If I had to pick one person out of our team, Andraya had a great summer. She worked on her game. She played a lot of basketball. It led to her being a lot more confident. When you have confidence you are able to score, you are able to do some things that maybe you hadn’t been doing.
“I think she is playing with a lot of confidence, a lot of heart. As I said, it starts with what we have been doing in practice. We haven’t really had any bad days in practice.”
That speaks both to the “All In” motto of 2014-15, and the competition for playing time. The freshmen all have shown they can contribute. They got an early shot because of the game suspensions for missed classes or curfew, and they took advantage of the opportunity. Carter and Massengale showed they were ready to be back. Cierra Burdick returns this Friday against Winthrop, and Harrison and Jones are expected back soon.
That would give Warlick the use of 11 players. The challenge now is to determine a rotation and allotment of minutes.
“I just think it is a great problem to have,” Warlick said. “If we can continue to keep the tempo and the pace that we have, then a lot of people are going to play. Because I think you see all of them are capable. The only one you haven’t seen is Cierra Burdick, and she has been really awesome in practice as well.
“I haven’t really thought about playing time. I just really want results and if we can continue to press and run the way we have been doing, we are going to shuttle people in and out.”
After the short roster to start the season, it is indeed a good problem to have.
GAME HIGHLIGHTS FROM UTSPORTSTV
INSIDE TENNESSEE VIDEO COVERAGE
Holly Warlick post-game video
Ariel Massengale, Nia Moore, Jaime Nared
Oral Roberts Coach Misti Cussen, Vicky McIntyre