The Lady Vols met with the media prior to Thursday’s matchup against Florida. Go inside with InsideTennessee for the latest on the Lady Vols.
Tennessee (10-3, 1-0) debuts at home in the SEC against Florida (12-2, 0-1) on Thursday evening at Thompson-Boling Arena. Tipoff is slated for 7:31 p.m. (TV: SEC Network); the game will be part of the SEC Network's whip-around coverage, so viewers wanting to see the Tennessee game in its entirety should use SECN+ and WatchESPN online.
Assistant coach Dean Lockwood took a turn with media Wednesday, as did Alexa Middleton and Bashaara Graves.
Here are the highlights from Lockwood:
The assistant coach acknowledged that Tennessee, which has won three in a row, including two games on the road against ranked teams, has improved over the start of the season.
“Who we were earlier is not who we are now,” Lockwood said. “But it's still not where we want to be.”
The team remains a work in progress, though there have been positive signs of overall maturity, especially in practice.
A significant corner was turned on the West Coast after Tennessee lost to Stanford with, outside of the fourth quarter, an abysmal showing of effort and execution. The players seemed to finally realize their way wasn’t going to work.
“When the pupil is ready, the teacher appears,” Lockwood said, meaning you can't learn until you accept being taught.
Head coach Holly Warlick has lauded the team of late for following the game plan on offense and the scouting report on defense.
Lockwood noted the players understand better now who they are individually and as a team. He added that while the rebounding numbers have been adequate – the Lady Vols have won nearly every glass battle – it’s not Tennessee’s level of toughness yet.
As players have healed – at one point just seven of the 12 players on the roster were available, and all of those weren’t completely healthy – the Lady Vols have unleashed more full court pressure.
“That was the vision all along,” said Lockwood, who added it’s an area that can be improved.
Deploying that style of defense means the coaches will have to use their depth – though Jasmine Jones (concussion protocol) remains out and Nia Moore (ribs) hasn’t played since November. Still, the Lady Vols used it to set the tone at Missouri from the opening tip.
While Lockwood praised the team for its improvement, he added Tennessee can get a lot better on defense and execute much better on offense.
“We see mountain ranges of areas to improve on,” Lockwood said.
Florida won 12 in a row this season and Lockwood, who prepared the scout for the game, said the Gators are much improved from last season. Tennessee will face a style similar to its own in a team that wants to attack, dribble drive to get in the paint, crash the offensive glass and bring pressure.
Here are the highlights from Middleton:
Full court pressure has worked because of overall team speed and decision-making. Middleton has created turnovers by knocking the ball free from behind after the opposing player thinks the press has been broken. That has occurred by design, not happenstance, an analogy that applies to the entire team.
“I think it feels like a new team,” Middleton said. “To the naked eye, it looks like we have a completely different mindset, and I think we do. We realized some things. We’ve taken care of some things. We’ve bonded in a new way. It’s refreshing, and it carries over to the court.
“We knew what had to be done. We all want to win. We knew we couldn’t win if we didn’t come together and figure out what we needed to do. We realize what’s at stake. I do think we have a better approach of coming in and following the game plan, trusting the game plan.”
Here are the highlights from Graves:
Tennessee’s defensive surge started in practice. It also was aided by getting players back after injuries.
“Mentally, we are there,” Graves said. “We are all on the same page.”
This is the best pressing team of Graves’ career, and she cited the efforts of Andraya Carter and the availability of freshmen Te’a Cooper and Meme Jackson as factors.
“We are just active on the ball, and that is what starts it,” Graves said.
As far as offense, Graves said the team overall has to improve by hitting the “chippies.” She also cited rebounding, specifically boxing out, as an area to improve.
The redshirt sophomore took a shot to the face and right eye against Missouri and had to leave the game. She would return in the fourth quarter.
The team saw “Creed,” a boxing movie, while on the road and Lockwood joked that DeShields must have wanted to look like one of the characters. DeShields is sporting a black eye now.
It’s been somewhat of a guessing game for media trying to publish projected starters for a game.
These three players seem to be locks: point guard Andraya Carter, power forward Bashaara Graves and center Mercedes Russell. Wing Diamond DeShields is expected to start Thursday against Florida and appears to be becoming a fixture there.
The fifth starter against Missouri was Jaime Nared. Nared is expected to be on the court again for the opening tip against Florida, though Kortney Dunbar will get minutes. Nared is ahead in terms of physicality on defense and the boards, though Dunbar is improved. Dunbar also gets the opponent’s attention in a hurry when she buries a 22-foot three-pointer, as she did against Missouri.