Lady Vols close December with Top 10 win
Tennessee, 10-2, before a rowdy crowd of 11,123, secured a 74-63 win over Oregon State (10-1), handing the Beavers their first loss of the season and capping a 6-0 mark in the month of December. Coupled with the 59-40 win over Stanford before the Christmas break, the Lady Vols posted back-to-back wins over Top 10 teams for the first time since 2008 when Tennessee defeated LSU and Stanford in Tampa, Fla., for the program’s eighth national title. About the only thing Holly Warlick didn’t like about the box score was 12 missed free throws – especially after the Lady Vols had seemingly cleared this hurdle – but that can be fixed with, once again, additional reps at the line in and out of practice. Tennessee got 20 points, 12 rebounds and five blocks from Isabelle Harrison in her most dominating play of the season after missing most of November with a knee injury. Harrison returned Dec. 3, and the Lady Vols went 6-0, including a signature win over Rutgers on the road Dec. 14. “As Izzy goes, we go,” Warlick said. “She is our rock. She is a vocal leader. She is a leader off the court. We have to have her on the floor to win. It’s that simple.” Harrison’s versatility was on display as she got to the rim with moves and counters and also forced the defense away from the basket by hitting midrange shots. That, of course, opened up, driving lanes. “She just keeps getting better and better,” Warlick said. Harrison moved fluidly in this game and seems to have adjusted to her knee brace. “I have to embrace that,” said Harrison, meaning it’s become a necessary piece of body wear to protect her knee. She also has reminded herself not to get too frustrated by the physicality of play inside, with advice provided by Dean Lockwood. “Dean tells us every day that we’re the blue collar workers and that’s just a part of our game,” Harrison said. “You can’t get frustrated and at times, I do. I just have to remember that I’m a post and it happens.” Harrison logged 35 minutes, and the Lady Vols needed every one of them, especially with Jasmine Jones sidelined again with dizziness. Jones, a physical defender and rebounder, remains under a concussion protocol and is listed as day to day. “I got my cardio for sure today,” Harrison said. So did Ariel Massengale, who logged starter’s minutes off the bench at 32. Warlick has stayed with Jordan Reynolds to open the game, because the sophomore guard pushes tempo and is a complement to Andraya Carter on defense, especially full court pressure. But Massengale entered Sunday’s game in a hurry – within two minutes in the first half and within four in the second. “I love her coming off the bench,” Warlick said. “I told her, the Stanford game, when I watched the tape, it was a blur of her getting up and down the floor. Jordan seems to get us off to a great start. “I know every kid wants to start and that’s a big thing and they’re going to run out through the smoke, but what are you doing at the end of the game? That, to me, is more important. She played 32 minutes, and they were productive. At the end of the day, a kid wants to play, and she wants to contribute, and I think that’s what she’s doing.” The game was billed as a Top 10 matchup, and it met the criteria. “That is a huge win for us,” Warlick said. “They are just a difficult team to play. They can shoot the three and they can penetrate. Someone asked me if they should be in the Top 10. No question.” Oregon State is efficient from the arc, has guards who can penetrate and has size inside. The Beavers arrived in Knoxville undefeated with a signature win Dec. 16 over then-unbeaten North Carolina in Chapel Hill. The teams traded punches in the first half with both taking five-point leads – Oregon State less than two minutes into the game and Tennessee less than six minutes into action. The first 20 minutes featured six ties and five lead changes. Tennessee was getting its point from Harrison’s work inside and the midrange jump shots of Cierra Burdick and Alexa Middleton. Bashaara Graves got on the glass and tracked opposing players on the perimeter, as Oregon State got its offense in motion. The Beavers went 6-9 from long range before the break with Sydney Wiese shooting 3-3 from the arc; Gabriella Hanson 2-2; and Deven Hunter, 1-1. Oregon State wasn’t getting much scoring inside, but Ruth Hamblin, a 6-6 center, grabbed seven boards and the teams were knotted on the glass at the break, 19-19. Tennessee led by a point at halftime thanks to a strong closing 90 seconds after Wiese hit a three for a 34-29 lead for Oregon State. That was followed by a jumper and layup by Harrison and a steal with 11 seconds to play by Reynolds, who got the ball to Massengale, who got it back to Reynolds for a 35-34 halftime lead for the Lady Vols. “We didn’t defend the three ball in the first half very well,” Warlick said. “But we made some adjustments. We played extremely hard and had some hustle plays. I am proud of everybody’s effort.” Those adjustments included instructions not to help as much on defense. “We were getting beat on penetration, and they kicked it out because we had to help,” said Warlick, noting the staff decided at halftime to surrender a two, if necessary, instead of a three. It worked, as Oregon State went 0-7 from the arc in the second half. “I think we just put an emphasis on it,” Massengale said. “Sometimes we were helping in on the penetration and coaches told us at halftime that we want to force them to make layups, that we couldn’t let them get any more threes off. “As a team, we kind of had a team goal where we were going to give them no more than six threes in this game because we know that’s what they like to do. “At halftime we saw the stat sheet and it was like, “All right, we can’t give up anymore.’ ” Three factors aided the effort – the on-ball disruption by Carter, the sticky defense of Reynolds and the eraser-effect of Harrison, who had volleyball spikes for blocks. “I love kids that played volleyball,” Warlick said, alluding to Harrison’s high school volleyball career. “She goes up and doesn’t go into people. Every shot that she blocked was huge. She has that ability. It’s fun to watch.” The crowd was deafening for each one – even louder than its game-long ire with the lack of whistles for travels and knock-down fouls. “I just saw those guards looking toward the rim and ready to drive and I wanted to help our guards out if they weren’t able to get them up top,” Harrison said. “So, I just wanted to be that presence in the paint for us.” Oregon State opened the second half with a 4-0 run and took a quick 38-35 lead. Carter tied the game at 44-44 at the 14:53 mark with a driving, reverse layup, something she had worked on in practice Saturday. Graves tied the game at 50-50 with a layup and then a sneaky strip of Hanson in the open floor by Middleton and the subsequent layup gave the Lady Vols a 52-50 lead at the 12:07 mark that they never surrendered. It, however, remained a battle, as Oregon State kept the lead in single digits, including a Wiese layup at the 3:37 mark to trim the score to 66-62. Tennessee’s lead didn’t reach double digits until there were 35 seconds left in the game. Oregon State and Tennessee were trading baskets for a significant stretch of the second half, but the Beavers weren’t getting good looks from the arc. “What Reynolds and Carter did on the defensive end was outstanding,” Warlick said. “That doesn’t show up in the box score. That just doesn’t show up. They made (Wiese) work.” Wiese tallied 19 points but after a 5-9 mark in the first half, she was 1-8 in the second and 0-4 from the arc. “Credit Tennessee’s defense,” Wiese said. “They rushed us a little bit and kept us off our spots. Coach Rueck discussed with me a few times just to stick with the system and not force as much. Just trust what we’re doing as a team. I think there were a lot of shots that we normally make. We had good looks. It just didn’t fall for us today.” Oregon State launched 16 threes and connected on six (37.5 percent). Tennessee attempted three and hit none. Warlick said the game plan was to get makeable midrange shots, move the ball and get to the rim. “When we move the ball, we get great looks,” she said. “If we can get a 10-foot shot that we’ll shoot at 60-something percent, or a three that we’ll shoot in the 30s, I want to take the two. I kind of like getting three the old-fashioned way, where you get fouled, go to the line and make an and-one play.” The Lady Vols had plenty of chances at the line at 22-34 (64.7 percent), while Oregon State was 7-9. But Coach Scott Rueck wasn’t concerned about the disparity. He noted the Beavers’ game plan was to get three balls and wide-open looks for the posts at the rim. “We’re not a team that shoots a ton (of free throws) because of our three-point percentage or the number of threes we shoot,” Rueck said. “We shoot a lot of point-blank shots, too, because of Ruth. “Today, I thought they beat us to the ball several times. I thought that was the difference in the second half. When they did miss, they got offensive rebounds. That tends to lead to fouls. We did a few things that I thought were a little careless that we need to clean up. But overall, I thought it was because they were a little quicker than we were.” Tennessee took advantage of its quickness by forcing 19 Oregon State turnovers, which is a manageable number overall, except that the Lady Vols converted those into 26 points. The Lady Vols had just 12 miscues. “They have the ability to pressure you more than most teams,” Rueck said. “I knew that was going to be the game for us. We can’t give them the ball, and we can’t give them second chances. That’s how they survive and live. They thrive off that. They do a great job when they do force a turnover and capitalize and turn it into points.” Middleton’s steal and layup changed the tone in the second half. The freshman also stuck to the game plan on both ends. She eschewed the three ball, where she has struggled after a fast start against lesser competition, and found her midrange game. She also capitalized off team defense to fire up her offense. “I have made it a point to get up extra shots,” Middleton said. “I came in knowing that defense was most important. Play hard defense, and offense will come.” The defense of Harrison, specifically the blocks, also was a game-changer and snuffed out any chance of a late comeback by the Beavers. “As a perimeter player it gives you the confidence to know that you can get up into somebody and defend because if you do happen to get beat, you’ve got somebody back there who is going to take care of it for you,” Massengale said. Massengale added floor mopping to her point guard duties, much to the delight of the crowd in the second half. “Whatever it takes for us to get the win,” Massengale said. “They said the floor was a little wet and that was on our offensive end so I had to make sure that if Izzy caught the ball on the block, she didn’t slip or anything. Whatever it takes, all areas. “The ref asked if it was wet. Izzy was like, ‘Oh, it’s fine.’ I was like, ‘Do you need me to get the mop?’ She was like, ‘Yeah, go ahead,’ because we didn’t see anybody over there. So I was like, ‘All right, I’ll grab the mop, clean this up real quick, make sure I get it good so we had no issues, and then I had to get the crowd involved, also.” “She was so cute out there, wasn’t she?” Harrison said. “Thank you, Rel.” “You’re welcome,” Massengale said. “I didn’t want you to hurt yourself.” The Lady Vols are in a good place two months into the season – the seniors are leading, the defense is much improved and the offense has gotten better, though Warlick noted the three ball will need to become a weapon going forward in some games. Warlick also stated that the players were doing a better job of staying disciplined and sticking to the game plan, while also being prepared for adjustments. The Lady Vols shot 44.1 percent (26-59), prevailed on the boards 39-36 against a team with considerable size and took care of the ball, especially in crunch time. “On the offensive end, we played very aggressive,” Massengale said. “We were the aggressor. We attacked. We knew we had to make them defend and make them move. “I think the press was really good. I think that was a good call by Coach Warlick. I have to give a bunch of credit to Andraya Carter. She was tremendous. We claim her as our defensive stopper. “There is always room for improvement, but I think this team is headed in the right direction.” INSIDE TENNESSEE VIDEO COVERAGE Coach Holly Warlick Ariel Massengale, Alexa Middleton, Isabelle Harrison Oregon State Coach Scott Rueck, Ruth Hamblin, Sydney Wiese
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