KNOXVILLE, Tenn. - Just a few days removed from the sunny beaches and warm weather of the Bahamas, the Tennessee women's basketball team is back on campus preparing for a big game this week against longtime rival Texas on Sunday.
The Lady Vols went 2-0 in the Junkanoo Jam last week with wins over Virginia and SMU that featured strong offensive play by the Lady Vols' backcourt. Seven games into the season, Tennessee has seen starting guards Meighan Simmons and Ariel Massengale kick their games into high gear.
"When you see Meighan and what she's done in the past, you know it's a matter of time of her getting on a roll," head coach Holly Warlick said. "I thought that she's a great shooter and great shooters have to get volume shots. I think Meighan took great shots down there for her. She took shots within the offense and that allowed her to get good looks, and Ariel as well. I think (Ariel) is learning what's a good shot for her and what's a forced shot. As long as we're attacking the basket, which I thought Ariel did a great job of, we're going to get great looks."
While Warlick and the coaches are pleased with the offensive production of Simmons and Massengale, they are still pushing for improved defense from the backcourt.
"I think we've made a lot of progress," Warlick said. "We've been preaching defense, and I think that we haven't gotten a 40-minute game of it, but we're getting better."
Massengale, Simmons and the rest of the UT guards will have their hands full on Sunday when they go against a skilled Texas backcourt that is led by senior guard Chassidy Fussell. Fussell, who is averaging 10.3 points and 1.9 assists, has led the Longhorns in scoring in each of the previous three seasons.
KEEPING THE ROUTINE IN THE BAHAMAS
Last week's change of scenery in the Bahamas featured some warm weather that was happily welcomed by the coaches and players. Despite their gorgeous surroundings, the team stressed focus on its usual routines to prevent distractions.
"It was a different environment," Warlick said. "It was a small gym. It was different surroundings and a different kind of routine for us a little bit. I thought they stayed very focused in what we needed to do because in the Bahamas you can get easily distracted."
Massengale and Simmons were roommates on the trip and the junior point guard said that they helped keep each other in check.
"Just relaxing before games, getting our naps in, listening to music, we just kept our normal routine," Massengale said. "I think we calmed each other down on the court, and she had a tremendous tournament."
ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT
Even though the Lady Vols came away with two wins last week to remain undefeated at 7-0, there are always areas where the team can improve.
"I think we're always self-critical," Simmons said. "The coaches always want us to be better. I think that when we do get better, we get to focus on the little things and that's something we've been able to do this year is attention to detail and taking care of the little things. When we do that, things come easier for us and it makes us a better team as a whole."
Simmons said that the defense has dictated the offense thus far - leaving much room for improvement for the third-ranked Tennessee team.
"I feel like offensively with our rebounding, it's been good, but it can always be better," she said. "Our offense is pretty good. It hasn't been dictating our defense; our defense has been dictating our offense."
Warlick noted that the team's play against zone defense is an area of emphasis for the coaches this week.
"I think we've got to get better against zones, and I think that's my fault," she said. "As we've spent a lot of time on our man offenses and a lot of time on our defenses, I think our zone offense has suffered. So we've gone back to work and put in a lot of time with it. I hope we'll see a better result of us moving the ball and have player movement as well against the zone."
MASSENGALE'S SHARP SHOOTING
Massengale's improvement as a shooter has been one of the biggest upgrades for the 2013-14 Lady Vols. The junior point guard is shooting 42.4 percent from the floor, 47.1 percent from three-point range and 82.8 percent from the foul line.
In her previous two seasons, Massengale shot below 39 percent from the field, below 36 percent from beyond the arc and below 78 percent from the line. So what has been the difference?
"I would say confidence," Massengale said. "I worked on it a lot over the summer and just making shots. Repetition, repetition, repetition, definitely helped with my confidence. You know now I'm not afraid to just knock down the open shot."
That confidence came from Massengale's time with USA Basketball this past summer as she helped lead the Americans to a gold medal in the World University Games in Russia. In addition to that boost of confidence, the Bolingbrook, Ill., native is also motivated to have a bigger role for the Lady Vols.
"Coming back and it's my junior year, Coach Elzy and I always talked about how time is ticking," she said. "Time is running out for me and if you want to accomplish things, you have to go for it."
SIMMONS LOOKING UP
Despite having a gradual start to the Lady Vols' 7-0 season, preseason media and coaches SEC Player of the Year Simmons is finally getting back into her groove, and the senior guard couldn't be happier about it.
After a 32-point game against Virginia in the first game of two in the Junkanoo Jam in Freeport, Bahamas, she is playing like the Simmons everyone knew and loved from the 2012-13 season.
"It's a great accomplishment to actually win one of our first tournaments and have the experience of seeing what a championship actually feels like," Simmons said. "It was a great experience. The first game, I didn't know it was going to come like that, but it happened and I'm grateful to God to have that kind of game and get back into the flow of how I normally play."
Against Virginia, Simmons was only one point away from her career high in scoring, which was set in a 33-point game against North Carolina in 2012. Simmons also recorded five assists, while shooting eight three-pointers, tying a career best and school record.
As the team moves from the warm sunshine and back to winter-like conditions in Knoxville, Simmons and her teammates are eagerly preparing for Texas on Sunday.
"It's always a big game against Texas," she said. "When they play here, they always want to play their best and give 110 percent."
The UT battle is always a special one after the storied rivalry between former head coaches Pat Summitt and Jody Conradt. But Simmons says the stories are simply stories - to her, it's another game.
"We have to come in knowing they're going to play hard," Simmons said. "I think it's something where we have to take it one game at a time and play Tennessee basketball and even though they aren't ranked, we can't take them lightly. We have to treat them like any other team."
Simmons complimented the storied program and mentioned that Texas still has some great players, regardless of what the AP or coaches polls may say.
"I think it does stand out because it's always a good competition game," she said. "Texas has a great team. They have Chassidy Fussell, who is probably one of the better scorers in the country. It's just something that we get to look forward to and a test to see how we handle certain situations. We're going to see how well we adjust to their intensity."
As the Lady Vols stand undefeated with seven wins, Simmons knows there are targets on each of their backs. But she says it doesn't intimidate them - it only gives them confidence.
"It's a good experience for us to be 7-0 in the beginning and not losing our first game and learning from last year, just going in and playing hard," Simmons said. "It's a great experience, and I'm glad that we're 7-0. It does give us a lot of confidence, but we're never going to be too satisfied. There's always work to be done and we have to take these things and pay attention to detail."