Seniors lead the way for Lady Vols

The Lady Vols stayed perfect in the SEC with a 77-56 takedown of Alabama in their first game without Isabelle Harrison since she was lost to a knee injury. Seniors Ariel Massengale and Cierra Burdick led the way. Go inside with InsideTennessee for game analysis and video coverage.

Tennessee (23-3, 13-0) kept its league record unblemished with Thursday’s 77-56 win over Alabama (13-15, 2-11) in a game that wasn’t as close as the final score indicated.

Coach Holly Warlick added two new starters – three if Ariel Massengale is counted – and had all three freshmen on the floor with six minutes to go as no Lady Vol exceeded 29 minutes of play.

“We got some people a lot of playing time,” Warlick said. “Good film for us to go back and watch and evaluate and see how we can get better.”

Isabelle Harrison, who made her way to a seat behind the bench shortly before tipoff, tore her ACL last Sunday and is lost for the season. When fans saw Harrison emerge from the tunnel on crutches, they erupted in cheers and again when the senior forward was shown on the scoreboard screen in the second half.

The win set up a Monday matchup with South Carolina, also undefeated in the SEC, that will likely determine the league champion.

“Now we get to talk about South Carolina, now that the Alabama game is over,” Warlick said. “It was good for us to go out and see just how hard we were going to play, what we were going to do without Isabelle’s presence.

“I thought it was very important for us for everyone to get out and everyone play and get up and down the floor. I am glad we had a game in-between and before we play South Carolina.”

Warlick altered the lineup by inserting Nia Moore and Jaime Nared in place of Bashaara Graves and Jordan Reynolds.

“I thought it was a great game for us to experiment a little bit,” said Warlick, who noted she talked to Graves before the game to explain the change. “I wanted to get Nia in and get her some time with the starting group.”

Moore had six blocks, seven boards and six points on 3-10 shooting in her 22 minutes of play.

“I think the only thing I would tell Nia is slow down,” Warlick said. “I think she was trying to do everything, everything she did on offense was so fast. She was shooting away from the basket a little bit, kind of farther than she would. Everything was rushing.

“Six blocks is huge. I think Nia has always had a good defensive presence for us.”

The Crimson Tide, which has claimed league wins over Auburn and Missouri, was overmatched against Tennessee, so it was a safe time to get some players additional experience. But Graves should be on the court come Monday’s tipoff. The perimeter defense of Reynolds and board play – the sophomore had seven rebounds against Alabama – also will be needed.

Graves was 6-10 from the floor for 14 points, most of which came in the second half after she got in first half foul trouble.

Massengale, an experienced starter who has come off the bench this season, was the expected replacement in the lineup for Harrison.

“Whatever it takes for this team to win and us to get the W at the end of the night so whether it’s coming off the bench, starting or scoring, playing defense, I’m willing to do whatever,” Massengale said.

Massengale and Cierra Burdick combined for 33 points, seven assists and just one turnover.

Massengale connected on five three-pointers to account for 15 of her 17 total points and was a vocal presence on defense. She also called the in-bounds plays. Burdick was 6-9 from the field for 16 points, connected on a three ball, passed out four assists to no turnovers and grabbed nine boards.

Based on her post-game remarks, Burdick heard the national chatter that the Lady Vols would fall from their projected No. 1 seed and lose to South Carolina.

“So many people are doubting us saying we’ re out of the run and Tennessee’s off the map now, and we’re not going to get to Tampa, and we’re going to lose our number one seed,” Burdick said. “We just use that as motivation. It’s all noise right now.

“We dearly miss Izzy. I love that girl to death and she’s been our catalyst all season but we’ve got to do this for her. We’ve got to do this for ourselves. We are more than capable of doing it. We’re just going to continue to show the naysayers by our actions.”

Tennessee will need continued offensive production from Burdick and Massengale to keep its those goals on track, but Warlick has made sure to take the pressure off of the seniors, too.

“Can they lead this team? Absolutely,” Warlick said. “Can they score more points and get more rebounds? Yes, but they have to have help. That is what we need from our whole team.”

Andraya Carter chipped in nine points, while Alexa Middleton added seven. The Lady Vols had 20 assists on 26 made baskets, led by five from Nared. Tennessee also set a school record with a perfect 18-18 mark from the line. Middleton was 5-5, while Burdick was 3-3 from the stripe.

“They know how to shoot them, it is just total focus,” Warlick said of the team overall. “We put a lot of time in our free throws. That is solid. That is awesome. I was really, really pleased with it.

“That is making a statement right there.”

Tennessee bolted to a 10-point lead, 12-2, within the game’s first six minutes and led by 11 at halftime, 33-22. Within the first six minutes of the second half, the Lady Vols led by 18 points, 42-26, and the game was out of reach for Alabama.

“That has happened to us a lot,” Alabama Coach Kristy Curry said. “Again, you have to credit them. They did a great job of making plays, and we came down and missed some shots. Making shots will heal a lot of ills in those situations.”

Tennessee led 66-33 after an and-one play from Burdick with 6:19 to play. Warlick then went deep into her bench, and Alabama took advantage of the youngsters.

“We had some lapses, and we can’t afford to do that,” Burdick said,

The Lady Vols could afford it against Alabama. They can’t to close the season with road games at South Carolina and Georgia followed by the regular season finale at home against Vanderbilt.

Tennessee has won 41 games in a row against Alabama and leads the series, 48-2, including a 21-0 mark in Knoxville. The Lady Vols have won 20 straight games against SEC opponents dating to last season and have a 19-game home winning streak.

The crowd of 9,637 enjoyed a game to relax and not fret about the outcome. While there were several empty seats in the lower bowl among that announced number, it was a nice turnout considering the single-digit temperatures and icy conditions in Knoxville.

The Lady Vols needed a game to adjust to the loss of Harrison, who was making a case for SEC player of the year. Curry went behind Alabama’s bench to speak to the Tennessee senior when she entered the arena before the game.

“I just told her how sorry I was that it happened and that our thoughts and prayers were with her,” Curry said. “Her will and her leadership have just been unbelievable. I’m just really sorry it happened, and I’m praying for her and a speedy recovery.”

The Crimson Tide capitalized on Harrison being off the court as evidenced by the board totals – Tennessee nipped Alabama on the glass, 40-38 – and the points in the paint. The Crimson Tide won that battle 34-24.

“It is way too much,” Warlick said. “We were trying to do some different things and obviously it wasn’t very good. I will take responsibility for that. I thought we gave up too many offensive rebounds, too many put-backs. … That is a concern. We will fix that.”

Some of that arose from personnel combinations, a situation unlikely to be repeated at South Carolina. The Gamecocks won’t glean much from this game for scouting purposes. Curry has perspective on both teams.

“We’ve drawn South Carolina twice and have seen them up close twice,” Curry said. “Then, watching Tennessee tonight, then all the film I have watched of both, it’s going to be a great matchup. I look forward to watching it.

“I think the most important thing is going to be who can make plays and who can make shots. It will be a great game. It will be great for our league and great for women's basketball Monday night.”

GAME HIGHLIGHTS FROM UTSPORTSTV

INSIDE TENNESSEE VIDEO COVERAGE

Holly Warlick

Cierra Burdick, Nia Moore, Ariel Massengale

Alabama Coach Kristy Curry, Ashley Williams


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