Tennessee, 3-0, continued its high-octane attack with the 81-48 win over Winthrop, 1-2, behind defense that had to stiffen when shots didn’t fall. The Lady Vols enjoyed great looks at the basket – sometimes from long range; other times point-blank – but the conversion rate slipped to 39.7 percent for the game.
That wasn’t the case for Ariel Massengale, who tallied 20 points on 7-12 shooting and made five consecutive three-pointers in the first half, accounting for 15 of the Lady Vols’ first 21 points.
“I was just in the zone,” Massengale said. “We had a great shoot-around today. My teammates were finding me when I was open and I just knocked down shots.”
Her first three treys were all assisted by Jordan Reynolds. Her fourth three, assisted by Bashaara Graves, took three bounces and fell – a true shooter’s touch. Her fifth one, assisted by Cierra Burdick, gave the Lady Vols a 21-7 lead at the 13:45 mark of the first half and led to a Winthrop timeout, ostensibly to locate Massengale behind the arc.
“Ariel could start,” Warlick said. “With how Jordan is playing, it is hard to get Jordan out of the lineup, and it is hard to keep Ariel not in the lineup the way she is playing. So it is a really, really good problem to have.”
Warlick solved it after halftime Friday by starting Carter, Massengale and Reynolds on the perimeter with Graves and Nia Moore inside. “I’m just happy to be back on the floor and being back able to play with my teammates,” Massengale said. “So, it doesn’t matter if I start, come off the bench, or don’t play at all. I’m just happy to be back and in the atmosphere and just know I always have to stay ready because you never know when your number might be called.”
“I think maybe she just wanted a little more energy,” Carter said. “We shot around a little bit, and they told us we were going in and we had to be ready like Ariel said.”
The energy was sought on the defensive end, as the Lady Vols were a tad uneven on that end of the floor in the first half, though they still led 40-25 at halftime.
“I just thought we needed a little bit more punch on the defensive end and for us to get going a little bit,” Warlick said. “I thought we at times were a little flat. I thought they would come in and give us a little more juice. I thought they did. I thought they got us going fairly early.”
Carter was a complete pest on defense and had six of Tennessee’s 19 steals. She also got on the boards with five – and kept several possessions alive by leaping with the bigs – and added nine points and three assists.
“It’s unbelievable. She’s probably one of the best athletes that I’ve ever played with as long as I’ve played the game of basketball,” Massengale said. “I had to challenge her at halftime, and I think she took that challenge and she picked it up.
“We just understand that we have a tough schedule this year and every game we are trying to get better and every game I want her to challenge herself to get better and better.”
Massengale’s fellow senior, Cierra Burdick, was back on the court – Isabelle Harrison remains out to rest her knee – and the forward was keyed up in warmups. Her shot bedeviled her – Burdick was 0-8 – but her defense didn’t dip as she drew two charges, grabbed 10 boards and added four assists, two steals and a block.
“Usually our kids, their offense affects their defense but Cierra had a solid game,” Warlick said. “I was happy for Cierra about getting back on the floor but probably more encouraged that she didn’t let her offense affect her defense.”
Massengale missed an exhibition game and the regular season opener, while Burdick missed the exhibition game and two games for team rules violations, involving curfew or missed class. The brief stint on the sideline to start this season seems to have led to another level of enthusiasm and appreciation for basketball for both players. Massengale, of course, also is renewed after missing the final two months of last season because of concussion issues.
While Warlick went with experience to start the second half, she ended it with youth as all three freshmen were on the floor and made contributions throughout the game.
Jaime Nared was 4-7 for 10 points and completed an and-one play with an athletic baseline drive and jumper. Alexa Middleton added four points, two assists and two steals, and Kortney Dunbar connected on a three ball and added a block and a steal.
Nia Moore continued her solid play with 14 points – she joined Massengale, Graves and Nared in double figures – and four boards. One series in the second half underscored her overall improvement, as Moore affected a Winthrop player’s shot at the basket and then sprinted to the other end and hit a layup in stride on a feed from Carter. The sequence on both ends took a total of six seconds.
Graves got the double-double with 15 points and 10 boards.
“I just want to stay consistent, just go out there and play hard,” Graves said. “It just starts with rebounds. If I get the rebounds, everything else will come to me.”
The stats were impressive, but a better sign for Tennessee was Graves’ resiliency. She was fouled without calls and missed some shots, a situation that could put her in a funk last season as a sophomore. But Graves battled, like she did as a freshman, and has done so in all three games this season.
“I love Bashaara’s effort right now,” Warlick said. “She is back to what our expectations are of Bashaara. She is scoring, she is being physical, she is rebounding the basketball, she is diving for loose balls. She was a great example tonight of how we need to play all the time.”
Winthrop was led by Schaquilla Nunn, who went 6-12 with 12 points, and grabbed 15 boards. She is an athletic center and physical rebounder, and when she picked up her third foul in the first half and had to head to the bench, the Lady Vol separated themselves from the Eagles.
“It was the difference in the game,” Winthrop coach Kevin Cook said. “Those 10 minutes that Quilla sits out, it hurts because we’ve got a couple players hurt.”
When Nunn was in the game, it felt like a wave of defenders came at her at times.
“This game means something to all of us,” Nunn said. “So me getting into foul trouble was just hard for me. But I knew on the bench I could still help. I cheered. Be the loudest cheerleader.”
The Lady Vols also took advantage of an avalanche of turnovers by Winthrop, and Cook joked that he was hoping the media wouldn’t bring up the 34 miscues.
“That’s uncharacteristic of us,” Cook said. “We rushed things at times, and they do a good job. They’re long, they get into passing lines and their double teams are pretty hard, but I didn’t expect us to turn it over quite that many times.”
That is Tennessee’s game plan, and Warlick is eying defensive effort and execution very closely. She used all nine players available, and no one reached 30 minutes expect Reynolds, who had six points and seven assists. Jasmine Jones remains day to day under the concussion protocol.
“I just want us to play at a standard that we need to play at,” Warlick said. “That is playing hard. Nobody has been concerned thus far about who is starting and who isn’t. I thought we had good balance of playing time. I think kids, if they get the opportunity to play, that is what they should be focusing on, on what the result is and not who is starting the game.”
Defensive rebounding will be an area for some practice work, as Winthrop has 15 offensive boards, and the Lady Vols barely clipped the Eagles on the glass, 46-44.
“To give them 44 rebounds, that is not acceptable,” Warlick said. “We will go back and focus on that a little bit more in the next couple days of practice.”
Defense and rebounding are the tenets of Lady Vols basketball, and Warlick will adhere to them. Cook apparently was impressed and opened his press conference by saying Tennessee was a Final Four team. He also saluted his team’s effort.
“I thought we battled hard. But you know when you’ve got more McDonald’s All Americans than there are McDonald’s in Knoxville, it’s pretty tough,” Cook said. “They played hard. Credit to Holly and her staff and those players, they played hard but make no mistake, we played hard, too.”
Warlick appreciated the Final Four endorsement, but she still saw plenty to address.
“Well, I appreciate him saying that but … we have a chance,” Warlick said. “We gave up too many rebounds, I thought we needed more hustle plays, I thought we played at 80 percent of how hard we can play. I thought we could play harder. Obviously, we have to be able to shoot the ball better. …
“We do have a chance. We just have to clean up some things and make sure that we stay (in shape), I thought we got winded a little bit tonight and we haven’t gotten winded. But we had some pretty tough practices this week, so hopefully that is the reason.”
It is a long way to postseason. Tennessee has three games next week – Tennessee State at home on Monday followed by road games at Chattanooga and Texas, which beat Stanford, which beat Connecticut. It will be the first time away from the supportive atmosphere of Thompson-Boling Arena this season. Carter has plenty of road experience. She knows the slate is about to get tougher.
“I definitely think we can pick it up, the whole time, we just didn’t feel like that was Tennessee defense as a whole,” Carter said. “Even if it was in spurts, it wasn’t consistent. Against good teams, we have to play our Tennessee team defense to win and we know that.
“So, a couple good plays here and there aren’t going to get it done. We have to be in the passing lanes, get ball pressure, go to help side. Team defense is what we need.”
GAME HIGHLIGHTS FROM UTSPORTSTV
INSIDE TENNESSEE VIDEO COVERAGE
Coach Holly Warlick
Bashaara Graves, Andraya Carter, Ariel Massengale
Winthrop Coach Kevin Cook, Schaquilla Nunn