Lady Vols stay perfect in SEC
Tennessee (22-3, 12-0) was the tougher team against Kentucky (19-6, 8-4) – so said the Wildcats head coach – and kept its league record unblemished. “I thought they were very aggressive,” Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell said. “Whenever they needed a crucial play and whenever our first-shot defense was good, they just would not be denied. “If we put a body on them and it wasn’t tough enough, they just came through us and got the board and made the play.” The Lady Vols did so shorthanded as Jordan Reynolds exited within two minutes in the first half after getting dizzy – the sophomore guard got hit in the face in Thursday’s game against Ole Miss – and Isabelle Harrison had to be helped to the locker room one minute into the second half. Harrison, who wears a brace on her right knee because of an earlier injury this season, got tangled with a Kentucky player while grabbing an offensive rebound. Photo frames show Harrison’s right foot was planted when the Wildcat player backed into her right knee while losing her balance. To add insult to injury, Harrison was called for a turnover. The extent of the injury wasn’t yet known after the game, and diagnostic tests will be needed. Fellow senior Cierra Burdick was visibly upset on the court after the injury. The Lady Vols had unknotted a 31-31 tie at the break with a basket by Bashaara Graves, and led 33-31 when Harrison left. Kentucky took a two-point lead, 37-35, after getting to the rim with relative ease – Harrison is a shot blocker and repels drives – before Burdick went to work on defense and the glass. “Coach Kyra Elzy talks a lot about being even-keeled and I think, at first, when Izzy went down I was extremely emotional, and they were just like, ‘C’mon C, we need you, get back.’ “My teammates were great at just trying to get me back to focused, get back in the present moment. I think we all just tried to go out there and get this win for Izzy.” The seniors stepped up as Burdick tallied 14 points and nine boards. Ariel Massengale notched 17 points – she hit a three in the second half to join the trio of 1,000-point career scorers this season – and had four assists and zero turnovers against Kentucky’s pressure. Graves, who scored 11 points Sunday, was honored before the game for hitting the 1,000-point club in the last home game, joining Harrison and now Massengale. “I told her before the game she would have a good game,” Coach Holly Warlick said of the senior point guard. It didn’t start that way for Massengale, as she went 0-3 in the first half. “She started off and didn’t hit, but let me tell you what Ariel did today – she was a tremendous leader for us,” Warlick said. “She was a great leader and very vocal. She got the team where they needed to be. “Honestly, I don’t know what it is like to score 1,000 points, so I don’t know that kind of pressure. I don’t know if she felt any or not, but if I asked her, I guess she would probably be glad she got past that. I thought her threes energized us. When she scored, I thought we made some great stops.” Tennessee built an 11-point lead, 51-40, after Burdick cleaned up the offensive glass, but Kentucky cut it to four, 56-52, on a three by Jennifer O’Neill, prompting a timeout by Warlick, at the 8:01 mark. The Lady Vols got the lead back to double digits, 66-56, after an offensive stick-back by Jaime Nared, who finished with 10 points. A crowd of 16,013 that had fallen silent when Harrison screamed and fell to the floor roared its approval. The Lady Vols held onto the double-digit lead and stymied any shot of a Kentucky comeback. Mitchell was gracious in defeat and opened his press conference with concern for Harrison. “I think they did a great job of rallying,” Mitchell said. “That could not have been a comfortable situation to be in. It is just really hard when you see your friend and your teammate go down. I thought they stepped up big time. “I thought Cierra Burdick was really tough. I thought Ariel Massengale was really, really tough. All of them, I thought (Nared) came in there and got a big offensive board. That was big there. I thought Tennessee played a really, really tough second half.” Massengale definitely was playing with Harrison on her mind. “We knew we had to join together as a team and become even tighter then we were at the beginning of the game, and … we wanted to come out here and get that W for Izzy. “She’s been tremendous for us this season and her whole career here at Tennessee so we just wanted to have her back here tonight.” Harrison was 3-4 in the first half with six points and six boards. Her value on both ends on the court was encapsulated in six seconds shortly before halftime. Harrison snuffed a shot by Linnae Harper with a volleyball spike and then sprinted to the other end, where she scored in stride on a perfect pass from Graves. Kentucky was coming off a double overtime win against Mississippi State in which Makayla Epps tallied 42 points. Andraya Carter was her primary defender Sunday, and Epps was held to 13 points. “One thing Dean (Lockwood) said, I think it was before one of our practices, he was like, ‘Whether it is good news or it is bad news, it is old news,’ so the fact that she got 42 points, that is great, it is a testament to her, she was 18-for-30 in that game. I watched some of her shots, they were good shots, and she got them off. “So we knew we had to stop her, she is a huge energy boost for their team, she is a leader for them, she gets them going. There was definitely an emphasis on Epps because she is one of their best players, but they have a ton of good players so we really just needed to play solid team defense.” For the most part, that is exactly what Tennessee did. Kentucky shot 35.4 percent (23-65) overall and 30.8 percent (4-13) from the arc. The Lady Vols out-rebounded the Wildcats by 10 boards, 46-36, with Graves grabbing nine. Nared had four boards, and three came on the offensive end. The win was impressive – the two teams battled to one-point games in the last two matchups and Kentucky won in Knoxville a year ago – and made even more so by the Lady Vols being down two critical players in Harrison and Jordan. Harrison is the team’s leading scorer and rebounder, and Reynolds’ defense and ability to create a shot was tailor-made for the matchup. “It was tough, especially at the pace that Kentucky plays,” Carter said. “It was hard, we were tired but we just played together. Izzy goes down, Jordan isn’t feeling well or whatever happens, we just know we have to pull together. “If any of you have seen our practices, this is the type of game that they are made for so we are in good shape for a reason, and we pull together and play extremely hard.” Carter logged 37 minutes and tallied 11 points, four boards, three assists and two steals. She also was a menace on defense. Warlick’s pre-game speech was about fight and survival, a message intended to reflect the “Live Pink, Bleed Orange” game, the annual breast cancer awareness initiative. Both teams were in pink uniforms and pink and white T-shirts were draped on all of the lower level seats. “We talked a lot before the game about survival and fight since it was the breast cancer game,” Warlick said. “We wanted to carry that mentality over to our team. I am really proud of our players and how they competed and fought. It was a great win for us.” Tennessee shot 41.9 percent (26-62) overall and 30 percent (3-10) from the arc, with Massengale and Carter draining the timely long balls in the second half. The Lady Vols had 13 assists and a manageable 14 turnovers. They had 20 second-chance points and outscored Kentucky in the paint, 36-22. The question going forward, of course, is how extensive is the injury to Harrison. The line of questioning from the media already addressed how Tennessee could make up for the loss, whether short-term or season-ending. “One thing about Cierra is she’s a multidimensional player,” Warlick said. “She can play inside, she can play out, she can bring up the basketball. I don’t prefer for her to bring the basketball up but if need be she can. “That’s what I like about our team. You saw Bashaara bring the ball up today. We tried to post Jamie Nared up. We’ve got some kids that can play combinations of inside and out. It’s up to us as coaches to be able to run something to get them the ball.” For now the Lady Vols were happy with the win and level of basketball on display Sunday – stout defense and aggressive offense. “Big team effort for us and the crowd was awesome,” Warlick said. “They were into it and that was Tennessee basketball at its best right there.” GAME HIGHLIGHTS FROM UTSPORTSTV INSIDE TENNESSEE VIDEO COVERAGE Holly Warlick Ariel Massengale, Cierra Burdick, Andraya Carter Kentucky Coach Matthew Mitchell, Makayla Epps, Jennifer O’Neill
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