“I think we definitely needed this and it wasn’t just the win,” Andraya Carter said. “It was kind of just how we won, the energy on the bench, the energy on the court … the way we played together as a team.”
Those elements had been missing in the two road losses at Chattanooga and Texas, but a spirited practice Tuesday apparently set the tone for Wednesday evening.
“I thought that we would play well today because yesterday we probably had, well we did, I thought we had the best practice we have had all year long,” Coach Holly Warlick said at her post-game press conference. “If you had to rank a team number one, we would be the number one team in the nation in practice.
“But we have to learn how to carry that into the game. I thought tonight we stuck to our game plan, and we played hard.”
Tennessee, 5-2, ran into a team that liked to run as much it did, and the result was a blistering of the Red Flash. Saint Francis, 0-5, was overwhelmed by the orange-and-white – and a team that Tennessee should have smoked – but the final score stands out, not because of the Lady Vols’ 111 points but because of the opponent’s 44.
Ohio State scored 113 against Saint Francis, but the Red Flash dropped 97 of their own points in that contest and arrived in Knoxville averaging 91.8 points per game. Saint Francis’ goal is to lead the country in possessions per game.
Tennessee scorched the nets at 50.0 percent, while Saint Francis connected at just 22.4 percent. Part of the Lady Vols’ game plan was to make at least five passes before launching a shot – unless a player was at the rim – and the result was nine assists on the first 12 baskets. The Lady Vols finished with 20 assists, led by four each from Carter and Alexa Middleton.
The Lady Vols swarmed the Red Flash on the boards, 71-28, and fell just five short of the school record 76 rebounds set Feb. 27, 1988, against Tennessee State in Knoxville. It was the fourth time in school history that the Lady Vols have grabbed 71 boards, a feat last accomplished at Youngstown State on Feb. 9, 1993.
“Not surprised at how good Tennessee is,” Saint Francis coach Joe Haigh said. “That’s our opening thought. I was disappointed in our lack of rebounding. At least we competed in the first half. The second half, we had some letdowns that I’m not happy with, but you know coming into a game like this how good Tennessee is, how good the program is, how good they are individually this year.
“We missed a lot of shots, and when we’re trying to press people, you make shots to get into your press. We play with a lot better energy when we’re making shots. That hasn’t really happened since we played Ohio State in the beginning of the year, but when we hit shots, we tend to play a lot better.”
Warlick and her staff certainly can relate to those words.
“Chattanooga and Texas we didn’t play hard,” Warlick said. “We had no fight in us. We have talent, but talent doesn’t always win. You gotta play with heart. You have to be passionate about what you do. I thought those two games we were neither.
“Tonight, we played with a lot of heart, and we played hard. When you do those things, great things happen because you are talented. If you go out there and think talent is going to win every time, it is not. It is not going to do it.”
All 11 available Lady Vols logged minutes – including Isabelle Harrison, who returned from a knee sprain and last played Nov. 14 – and every player scored and boarded. No player logged more than 20 minutes, and Warlick used from five for five substitution patterns. The bench provided 65 points, a tally greater than the offensive output against Chattanooga and Texas.
All three seniors came off the bench, though that doesn’t necessarily figure to last, especially in the case of Harrison who was missed tremendously inside.
“It doesn’t matter if she is rusty or if she doesn’t feel like she is playing her best,” Carter said. “We love seeing her out there. The way Izzy plays, the way she carries herself on the court, her energy, her leadership. So just having her out there, it’s really good.”
Harrison entered at the 15:16 mark of the first half and took just 28 seconds to score on an and-one play and put Tennessee up 14-6. Harrison went 1-5 from the floor with seven boards in 13 minutes of play. She was perfect from the free throw line at 3-3.
“I am not worried about what she shot,” Warlick said. “I just know what impact Isabelle Harrison has on this basketball team. Just her presence, just her leadership. She leads by example because of how hard she plays. She leads vocally. She gets this team to rally around each other. I think she can lead so much more when she is on the court.
“I thought she got up and down the court so much better than I thought since she hadn’t played in a while. It’s tough coming off a knee injury. It’s tough when you go up for a rebound and you worry about your knee. I don’t think she worried at all about her knee tonight.”
Harrison was all smiles at the post-game press conference.
“I felt a little rusty,” she said. “I haven’t been at game speed in a while but, I have just got to keep working on it. Encouragement from my teammates really helped a lot.”
Harrison will next play against Lipscomb in her hometown of Nashville on Sunday. Her ticket list is at 14 and growing.
“I’m really excited,” Harrison said. “I’m just so happy to see family, friends. It’ll just be fun. I’ll get to see them, and my teammates will see them.”
Harrison’s two fellow seniors, Ariel Massengale and Cierra Burdick, came off the bench and did well. Burdick got on track offensively and was a perfect 9-9 from the line. Her stat line of 15 points, 10 boards and four assists should set her at ease. As the team ran to the tunnel for player introductions before the game, Burdick yelled, “Let’s get this game started!” Massengale totaled eight points – and went 2-3 from long range – with two assists and zero turnovers.
Jordan Reynolds was just 1-5 from the field, but she is hard to get off the court because of her willingness to always push tempo. Carter has always been a superior defender – she slid across the court on a steal attempt, got up and swiped the ball on the second try in the first half – and she will distribute the ball and get on the glass, but the redshirt sophomore finally is willing to shoot, so it’s difficult to pull her, too.
“Actually I had a meeting with Holly the other day and she was like, ‘I have more confidence on the offensive end than you do,’ ” said Carter, which was a funny remark from the head coach, an assist machine in her playing days but not a shooter.
“So, they want me to be relaxed and just play, do what comes natural to me. So it really just comes from them – the confidence that I have this year. Even though I’m missing my teammates are like, ‘Keep shooting Draya.’ In practice they tell me to shoot. My coaches have my back. So, it’s easy to have confidence when everybody around you has confidence in you.”
Carter was 5-9 from the field with a three-pointer for 12 points. She added four assists, three steals and three boards. Her forays to the paint elicited delighted gasps from the crowd because of her leaping ability.
“She scores around the basket because of her athletic ability,” Warlick said. “I thought she hit some good shots outside as well. Draya tends to think a lot about her shots, but tonight I think she just played and didn’t think about it.”
The lead was in double digits less than seven minutes into the game and had mushroomed to 53-21 at halftime. All 11 players for Tennessee had scored by the break.
Middleton had two highlight plays in each half – a coast-to-coast layup in the first half after grabbing the defensive rebound and going right to the rim after a jump-stop, and a fake pass and layup in the second half that brought the Lady Vols bench to its feet.
Fellow freshman Kortney Dunbar wowed the crowd with two deep threes, grabbed five rebounds and made an athletic block on the perimeter.
The third freshman, Nared, led Tennessee offensively on 7-12 shooting and was a perfect 5-5 from the line. She added six rebounds and four steals. Nared plays with a quiet confidence on the court.
“I feel comfortable playing with this team, and they just did a great job of distributing the ball,” Nared said.
Saint Francis was led by Alexa Hayward with 26 points, including six three-pointers. Hayward, who averages 27.3 points per game, now holds the school record with a career 238 treys, besting the previous mark of 235 set by Stacy Alexander from 1992 to 1996.
“Playing here, it’s a dream,” Hayward said. “Growing up, you always hear about Tennessee. It’s cool that I can say that I set that record here on their floor in the presence of greatness.”
While the Lady Vols got scoring at 11 spots on the roster, Saint Francis had just five players in the scoring column with Aisha Brock adding 10 points. Brock and Hayward combined to take 38 of the team’s 67 shots, which was by design.
Brock didn’t play to the scoreboard and played tough in her 29 minutes. She also deployed an interesting defense that worked when Reynolds had a breakaway layup in the first half. Brock stopped and clapped in Reynolds’ face, who seemed startled and missed.
“I just feel like you can’t go into a game like, ‘Oh, this is Tennessee. We’re just going to come in and play hard, and they’re going to kick our behinds,’ ” Brock said. “You have to go at them no matter what. I just think you have to be in attack mode all the time.”
The fans in attendance deserve a shout-out, too. Wednesday is church night in East Tennessee, and the Lady Vols had returned home after a bitterly disappointing road swing. But the 9,126 in the arena shouted encouragement – and remained on their feet and clapping until free throws started the scoring in each half – and most stayed until late in the second half, despite the lopsided score.
The Lady Vols could be 12 deep soon. Jannah Tucker has been medically cleared and has now served her two-game suspension for missed classes, but she apparently missed class again. Warlick indicated additional missed games were likely.
“She will be available for us soon,” Warlick said. “She is another kid who has to get her timing down. She hasn’t played in two years, but I will tell you this, it hasn’t affected her scoring the basketball.”
Tennessee will see a lot to like on film – 52 points in the paint, 31 off turnovers and 29 second-chance points from 27 offensive boards – but there are some clean-up tasks, too.
The game started with two turnovers, and the free throw line is anything but for the Lady Vols with erratic results from the stripe. Even with the perfect marks from Harrison, Burdick and Nared – they were a combined 17-17 – the Lady Vols shot 73.7 percent with 10 misses.
“We will watch the tape just like we did the last two games,” Warlick said, when asked about grading this game. “I just wanted them to go out and set their own personal goals and challenge them to do that. Just bring your best.
“When you have a team that is collectively very good, then we are going to win the basketball game, but just do what you do best.”
GAME HIGHLIGHTS FROM UTSPORTSTV
INSIDE TENNESSEE VIDEO COVERAGE
Coach Holly Warlick
Isabelle Harrison, Jaime Nared, Andraya Carter
Saint Francis Coach Joe Haigh, Aisha Brock, Alexa Hayward