Tennessee closed out the regular season with a record performance at Thompson-Boling Arena, sent the seniors out in style, including an appearance by Isabelle Harrison in the final seconds of the 79-49 win over Vanderbilt, and claimed a share of the regular season championship. Go inside for analysis and video coverage.
Tennessee (25-4, 15-1) beat Vanderbilt (14-15, 5-11) behind a barrage of three-pointers, including a career-high eight by Ariel Massengale and arena-record 12 overall by the Lady Vols.
Massengale and Cierra Burdick were all smiles in the post-game press conference, where they were joined by Andraya Carter, who drained a trio of three balls Sunday.
It was Carter who helped set up the game’s most emotional moment when she dribbled the ball to Isabelle Harrison, who checked in with less than five seconds and stood near center court to thunderous applause.
The crowd of 13,027 already had sent Burdick and Massengale to the bench to standing ovations and then rose to its feet and let loose a deafening roar when Harrison pulled off her warmups and walked to the scorer’s table.
Carter grabbed a rebound off a missed Vanderbilt free throw and dribbled the ball to Harrison.
“I just thought it would nice for Izzy to hear the crowd one last time for her at home,” Coach Holly Warlick said. “That’s the only way we could do it. I got nervous. I have to be honest with you, I got nervous when Andraya was coming right towards her with the ball. She should have thrown it a little sooner.”
The Vandy defenders went with Carter, but they backed well off of Harrison. Warlick didn’t need to worry as Carter was directing traffic.
“I told Izzy to be ready,” Carter said. “So my plan was to just grab it and throw it to her, but I didn’t want to do that so I just ran right to her and actually told the players to move because I just wanted it to be Izzy’s.”
It was a poignant end to an emotionally charged game that began with ceremonies at center court for Massengale, Burdick and Harrison and their families.
Before the Massengales headed to the tunnel, Ariel’s father, Carvel, stopped to hug Pat Summitt, who was sitting courtside, and speak with the head coach emeritus.
“I texted her yesterday afternoon just to make sure she was coming to the game and that we would really love to see her,” Ariel Massengale said. “We were the last class to play for her and so it’s kind of special, having her here tonight and seeing her. I went and gave her a hug and she told me that she loved me.
Burdick and Harrison also hugged Summitt before player introductions. The trio are the last three to play for Summitt, with Warlick becoming their head coach in their sophomore season.
“It means a lot and it’s something I will cherish with me forever,” Massengale said.
Massengale was Summitt’s chosen starting point guard while she was still in high school. On Sunday, Massengale showed Summitt she was worthy of that designation.
Tennessee senior Ariel Massengale knocks down one of her eight 3-pointers versus Vanderbilt on Sunday.
The senior led all scorers with 26 points and was an eye-popping 8-11 from the arc. Her eight makes ties the school record held by Meighan Simmons.
“I had a pretty decent shoot around; it was nothing spectacular so I had no idea this was going to happen, but it was pretty solid,” Massengale said.
Tennessee learned during the post-game press conference that South Carolina had lost to Kentucky in Lexington, making both teams 15-1 in the SEC. The Lady Vols and South Carolina now will share the 2015 SEC title.
“These players deserve it and it’s all about the credit to them and how hard they’ve worked and really proud of them,” Warlick said. “That’s awesome and I’m really excited for them. I’m excited for our staff and I’m not going to lie, I’m excited too!”
While Tennessee and South Carolina will be co-champions in the SEC, the Gamecocks are the No. 1 seed in Little Rock, Ark., for the tourney based on head-to-head competition. In an indication of how tough the league is, the Lady Vols beat Kentucky twice this season, on the road and at home.
“They’ve worked hard this season and they’ve worked hard since Izzy got hurt,” Warlick said.
Harrison’s career ended with a torn ACL against Kentucky two weeks ago. The Lady Vols closed the regular season 3-1 in her absence with defeats of Alabama, Georgia and Vanderbilt and the loss to South Carolina.
Vanderbilt Coach Melanie Balcomb faced Tennessee twice this season in the second game of SEC play and the final one, so she saw the Lady Vols win with Harrison and without her.
“I think it’s obvious people have stepped up, Burdick, Graves and obviously Massengale,” Balcomb said. “Those three now it’s like they’re the big three.”
Graves had seven points, six boards – five on the offensive end – and added three assists, a block and no turnovers. Balcomb noted that Graves was playing more aggressively now.
“And then you have Burdick who has stepped up and she’s been more aggressive as well as Massengale,” Balcomb said. “They’re a different team. I don’t necessarily think they’re better or worse. I think a lot of Izzy she’s a great player. She’s from Nashville and I watched her play, recruited her, and I’m as sad as everybody else about her injury.
“It’s a tough way to end your career. And I think one of the things she did was she improved more than probably anybody I’ve seen here at Tennessee over her four years. That girl got better. I know she was doing some good work for them.”
Burdick tallied 12 points – she needs just five to join Harrison and Massengale in the 1,000-point club – and added six boards, seven assists, two blocks and a steal.
Carter also notched 12 points and added four boards, five assists, a block and a steal. Her senior day is still two years away, but the redshirt sophomore has learned to cherish her time on the court.
“I remember watching them when they were freshmen and wanting to play with them,” Carter said. “I know it flies by, and I know I have to appreciate it.”
Freshman Jamie Nared also reached double digits with 13 points and grabbed five boards – three on the offensive end. She also had two assists and a steal.
“I wish every night was senior night,” Warlick said. “I think we did some great things. It was a great team effort. We played hard. We were tough down the stretch.”
Tennessee is a different team with Harrison out – as evidenced by the 32 points in the paint for Vandy to just 16 for Tennessee. The Lady Vols shot 47.4 percent (27-57) overall, 54.5 percent (12-22) from the arc and 86.7 percent (13-15) from the line with Graves a perfect 3-3; Alexa Middleton, 2-2; and Nared, 7-8 from the stripe. Kortney Dunbar drained a three from the corner to join the long ball brigade.
The Lady Vols won the glass battle, 37-27, and had a remarkable 24 assists on 27 made baskets. The defense was stout with 14 steals and seven blocks. Nia Moore had four thefts and a block.
“One thing I liked is that we didn’t quit on a play,” Warlick said. “We didn’t quit on our transition break where it looks like they are going to go in and get an easy two, we pursued the ball and got some blocks from behind, and that’s good to see.”
The one statistic that Warlick didn’t like was the 13 first-half turnovers. Tennessee led 39-24 at the break, a lead that could have been even higher without the miscues. Vandy matched Tennessee with 13 of its own in the first half and had 25 for the game.
“We lead the league in turnovers,” Balcomb said. “As soon as we tried to get more possessions and we get the ball back, we give it right back to them and not convert on those possessions. That obviously is frustrating to the players.
“I think that’s been an issue all year with us. I would rather attack in turnovers and be more aggressive and I think a lot of it has just been hesitating.”
Vanderbilt was led by Paris Kea, an athletic freshman guard from Greensboro, N.C., who tallied 18 points, three assists and three steals.
“In practice coach tells me I need to work harder, to transfer that over to a game,” Kea said. “So that’s what I’ve been doing, listening to coach and it’s shown. I don’t think we got the results we wanted, but I’m definitely seeing improvement.”
The Lady Vols got the throwaways under control in the second half with just six.
“The first half we turned the ball over too much,” Warlick said. “We made adjustments and got that straightened up. I’m really proud of our effort and the whole team.”
Burdick was happy to earn a share of the SEC crown. It is the 18th SEC regular season title for Tennessee, the fourth in last six years and the second in three years as a head coach for Warlick.
“I would rather have to share it than not have it at all,” Burdick said. “We want a piece of it and we want to have that regular season championship and then we want to have the SEC Championship and we want to have the national championship and then we can just leave happy.”
INSIDE TENNESSEE VIDEO