Lady Vols survive battle with Wichita State

The Lady Vols overcame turnovers and a gritty Jody Adams-coached team – with Cierra Burdick providing the orange complement – to hold on at home for a 54-51 win over Wichita State. Go inside with InsideTennessee for game analysis and video coverage.

Tennessee (8-2) needed poise down the stretch – something that was sorely lacking for most of the final 10 minutes – to secure the victory over Wichita State (6-3).

The Shockers, which have wins this season over Ohio State, Clemson and Kansas State, tried to pull off the shocker in Knoxville but came up short thanks to two free throws by Ariel Massengale and a critical offensive rebound from Andraya Carter.

Coach Holly Warlick acknowledged the win – and was grateful for it – but she noted her team needed to clean up its play with 13 second-half turnovers, the majority of which were unforced and bad passes.

“I knew it would be the way it was,” Warlick said. “Jody and I are great friends and we talk a lot of basketball. She gets her team playing extremely hard and it is just a battle.

“We got a 10-point lead, and then we started getting real casual with the ball and we ended up having 13 turnovers in the second half. Obviously, we wanted us to play a little bit better but it is a win.”

Tennessee had several chances to get separation from Wichita State but squandered them with turnovers. Isabelle Harrison made it 40-30 with 13:05 left in the game on a sweet feed from Alexa Middleton; Wichita State, meanwhile, couldn’t find the basket.

The Lady Vols appeared to be poised to put the game away – a scenario that would have allowed game minutes for Jannah Tucker – but that Middleton-to-Harrison basket was followed by three consecutive turnovers, including a subsequent behind-the-back missile from Middleton that had no shot of reaching Harrison in transition.

“We were getting careless with the ball when we were up and we just weren’t being smart with the ball,” Middleton said. “Holly told us that we needed to take care of the ball and be smart with it. There were a couple plays in there where we turned it over and that kind of hurt us a little bit and got us into that close of a game at the end.”

Wichita State’s Alie Decker ended the Shockers’ second-half offensive woes and drained a three-pointer on its end, and a tight ball game broke out before a restless but energetic crowd of 9,026. A considerable part of that energy was used screaming at the officials, who allowed Harrison and Bashaara Graves to be adorned by Shockers like Christmas tree ornaments.

Wichita State coach Jody Adams said the game plan was to swarm the ball inside and see if the posts could hit shots with two to three people hanging on them. Harrison was 7-11, while Graves was 1-5.

“I think that is how, until our guards hit shots, that is how I would play us,” Warlick said. “I would double down on Izzy. At times there were four people on her. I am sure that was Jody’s game plan. We have to knock down shots.”

Middleton went 4-4 from the field, while Cierra Burdick was 4-8, but the other guards struggled, and Tennessee shot 40.8 percent overall (20-49) and 59.1 percent (13-22) from the line. It wasn’t for lack of good looks – the shots were at the rim, midrange and three-point line. Middleton accounted for the lone make of the team’s 1-7 mark from the arc.

Harrison is still getting back into game flow – she said after the game that her knee felt fine but she was moving stiffly at times – and the plan will be to get her in motion.

“We have to move her around more,” Warlick said. “We’ll get back to working to get her a little bit more comfortable. We have to move her because when she’s on the block they keep converging on her. … It would help her if our kids would hit outside jumpers. It’ll loosen them up on defense.”

Wichita State played man defense – Adams called it a gap defense – as it mimicked a zone inside. Harrison would find open shooters on the perimeter, but the guards weren’t connecting from outside.

“All of the defenses we’ve seen are sagging in on our posts and rightfully so,” Burdick said. “We’ve just got to do a better job, as guards, spacing out, really cutting hard and opening it up for them. As soon as we start to hit outside shots and make them respect us, it’ll open up for our bigs inside as well.”

Burdick did her part by connecting on baseline jumpers and hitting both free throws. She also grabbed a career-high 17 rebounds, including one while falling all of bounds and finding a teammate with the pass before toppling onto a cameraman. Burdick surpassed her previous career high of 16 boards against Texas A&M on Feb. 28, 2013.

“They had a lot of one-and-done plays because Cierra was awesome on the boards,” Warlick said. “Cierra was just fantastic.”

Burdick started in place of Jasmine Jones, who suffered a blow to the head in the second half against Rutgers on Sunday. Jones is now under the program’s concussion protocol for the second time this season.

Carter could very well join Jones. Carter had the game’s critical rebound with 45 seconds left, and the Lady Vols clinging to a 50-48 lead. Harrison was fouled after getting an offensive board of her own but missed both free throws. Carter plucked the board amid the posts and got the ball to Massengale, who found a wide-open Harrison at the rim for a 52-48 lead with 38 seconds left.

However, Harrison, while headed down court, plowed into Carter, whose head connected with Harrison’s shoulder. Carter went down and didn’t move, while Wichita State hit a three on the other end to cut the lead to 52-51 with 25 seconds left. The officials stopped play with 23 seconds left.

When a Texas player went down in the paint earlier this season, and Tennessee headed down court, play was stopped immediately under the rule of helping a defenseless player, and the Longhorns were able to make a substitution. However, play didn’t stop Tuesday, and a livid Warlick confronted the officials, while the crowd booed voraciously.

“They said they were in a transition play. What can I say,” said a clearly still upset Warlick.

Warlick spoke to Carter after the game before the head coach met with the media.

“They must have hit pretty hard, I think she cut her lip a little bit but I think she will be fine,” Warlick said. She said she was OK. She is a tough kid.”

Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean Carter would be available for the Stanford game, as the program’s concussion protocol – which is engaged with blows to the head – is strict and test-driven. A player must pass cognitive and physical tests before being medically cleared to return to the court.

When play resumed, Wichita State swarmed the ball, forcing a Tennessee timeout with 16 seconds to go. The Lady Vols knew they had timeouts remaining and the possession arrow in their favor. Tennessee got the ball into Massengale’s hands out of the timeout – Warlick trusted her to make free throws – and she was fouled with five seconds to play. Massengale connected on both for the final 54-51 score.

“I wanted the ball in Ariel's hands because she steps up and makes free throws,” Warlick said. “I thought at that point we had our best free throw shooters in.”

The game started with rousing ovations for Adams and assistant coach Bridgette Gordon, both former Lady Vols. Adams, Gordon and Warlick all hugged Pat Summitt, who was seated in the front row, before the game, and Adams presented her former head coach with a Wichita State T-shirt.

“To have her here at the game, it meant a lot,” Adams said. “She mentored us for four years. She forced us into being women early on in life. She taught us a lot about life. It meant a lot to have her here.”

Before tipoff, Adams and Gordon were hearing shouts of hello from fans, and they waved to several familiar faces.

“It was unbelievable,” Adams said. “It was great to be back in the state. It is special to bring a team here to see what she and I were a part of. If I had to pick any of my teams to come here, it would be this group. This is a great group of women and not just basketball players.”

Adams was a gritty player, and her team reflected that. The Lady Vols led just 31-28 at halftime and the Shockers could have wilted during Tennessee’s second half surge, but they regrouped and turned it into a contested game to the final seconds.

“They have Jody’s personality, I think Jody was that type of player as well,” Warlick said. “She was an overachiever, she was listed 5-5, but I think she’s probably 5-4 or 5-3. Bridgette, when it comes to basketball and you cross that line, Bridgette’s tough. She’s a great kid off the court, but she’s got some mean in her. Both of them are very tough, I knew it was coming.”

The Lady Vols returned home after a brutal matchup with Rutgers that claimed Jones with a one-day turn-around. That could account for some of the sloppiness, though Burdick refused to endorse that line of thinking.

“We are a no-excuses basketball team,” Burdick said.

The Lady Vols did prove in the last two games that they could close out close ones – on the road against Rutgers and at home against Wichita State.

Warlick had hoped for a chance to get Tucker into the game, but the pace – not to mention the physicality – nixed that plan. Tucker, who last played a live game in the summer of 2012, has been cleared after two knee surgeries. She moved well in warm-ups and hit shots, though, granted, that is pre-game.

“She wasn’t ready for that kind of pace; we have to ease her back into it,” Warlick said. “She’s ready to play, and I want to get her in ASAP. You’re talking about somebody who can make shots, she can make shots.

“She hasn’t played in a game in two years, so we have to get her used to going up and down and getting game experience. That will come, I think she’s still worried about her knee, but when you get out and play, that goes away.”

The schedule will provide two stiff tests – with a break between games for Christmas – with Stanford arriving Saturday and Oregon State coming to Knoxville on Dec. 28. Oregon State knocked off previously unbeaten North Carolina on Tuesday.

The Lady Vols have found sufficient defense – though Carter’s status is critical, as she remains a difference maker on that end – and dominated the boards with a 45-24 effort against Wichita State.

Offense remains a work in progress. Burdick added 10 points, as did Middleton. Harrison notched 14 points and nine boards. The Lady Vols also had 13 assists on 20 made baskets with Massengale, Carter and Jordan Reynolds combining for nine of those. But the Lady Vols have been anemic behind the arc, and the guards have to find some offensive punch.

Warlick indicated offense will become a point of emphasis, and the team also will address the slippage at the free throw line.

“We’ve got to get in the gym and we’ve got to get some extra shots, and we’ve got to help our posts out,” Burdick said.

“We wanted to play a little bit better, but it is a win and we will go back and learn from it,” Warlick said. “Now, we are getting focused for Stanford.”

GAME HIGHLIGHTS FROM UTSPORTTV

INSIDE TENNESSEE VIDEO COVERAGE

Coach Holly Warlick

Cierra Burdick, Alexa Middleton, Isabelle Harrison

Coach Jody Adams, Alex Harden, Alie Decker


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