KNOXVILLE, Tenn. - SEC action opened up last week, as the Lady Vols dropped their home league opener to LSU, 80-77, before bouncing back with a 15-point victory at Georgia.
Juniors Ariel Massengale and Isabelle Harrison have proven to be key components for the team early in conference play, as Tennessee welcomes Ole Miss to Thompson-Boling Arena Thursday for a 7 p.m. ET matchup. CSS will have the telecast.
SEC TITLE UP FOR GRABS
The first week of SEC women's basketball action resulted in upsets and jaw-droppers, as the Lady Vols lost their home opener to LSU, 80-77, and Kentucky fell to Florida, 83-73, in Lexington. Tennessee bounced back with an 85-70 win at Georgia, but knows the road ahead will be a tough fight.
"The SEC is a very tough conference, and LSU showed that anything can happen," Harrison said. "You've got to be ready for any team and you can't take any team for granted because everybody's coming after you. So, I think it just makes us gain a sense of urgency whenever we play anybody that we've got to be ready."
"You have to be ready to play every night," Massengale said. "No game is going to be easy. No team is going to let you on the court and win by 40 or 50 points. Everybody is going to come out there and give it their all and their best, so the best team of the night is going to win."
Harrison says preparation and paying close attention to scouting reports are two ways to get help get ready for games.
"I think with all of the teams in our conference, we definitely need to pay attention to their strengths," Harrison said. "When it comes to scouting reports, we can't take those lightly at all. We can't give people season highs in regular games. We've got to really get down on defense and really make that our priority. I think that will tell a difference for us this whole season and the rest of this year."
Head coach Holly Warlick knows the SEC title race is always wide open, with the crown being up for grabs for anyone.
"Don't take anything away from Florida or LSU," Warlick said. "We bounced back. I always say the SEC is a tough conference. It's tough to play. It's physical. It's athletic. It's fast. There are great coaches. You have to be on your game, I don't care who you're playing, and we proved that last Thursday."
Following the loss to the Tigers, Tennessee regrouped and focused on the Lady Bulldogs. The result was a 15-point victory on the road, as the Lady Vols claimed the first SEC road trip win for the sixth season in a row.
"I think any game is a lesson for us," Warlick said. "I was proud of how we came out and how hard we played. It put us in the position to see the effects of how our defense is and how we can capitalize on our defense. I thought our defense was solid against Georgia. We shot layups. When you shoot layups and get open looks, you're going to be up by a lot."
STEPPING INTO ROLES
Junior Ariel Massengale racked up a career-best 28 points against Georgia, scoring 23 points in the second half. The Bolingbrook, Ill., native has been recognized mostly for her assists this season, dishing out five or more assists in 12 of 14 games this year, while two of those occasions she handed out 10 or more helpers. But Massengale says she steps into the role needed for the game at hand.
"I think it changes from game to game," Massengale said. "Just being aggressive and doing what the defense gives me. I'll do whatever it takes for the team to be successful. Some nights it's going to be Meighan's night, some nights it's going to be Izzy's night. My job is going to be to distribute the ball and put them in position to score. Sunday happened to be my time, and we had to take advantage of it."
Junior Isabelle Harrison also has been a key contributor to the Lady Vols' success this season, as she has recorded double-doubles in the last six consecutive games and seven times overall this year. Harrison is averaging an astounding 22.0 points and 10.0 rebounds per game during league action.
"I'm just glad that I'm able to get to the point in my game where I can be comfortable with it also and helping my team," Harrison said. "Every game I just try to do my best, and that's what Holly (Warlick) really talked to us about. I just wanted to do the best for her and my teammates."
Harrison's hard work on her defense and rebounding, as well as being explosive on the offensive side during the off season, has helped contribute to her outstanding play.
BECOMING PERFECT FROM THE LINE
During Tennessee's 85-70 win on the road at Georgia, juniors Ariel Massengale and Isabelle Harrison combined for a perfect 18-of-18 from the charity stripe. The duo helped boost the Lady Vols' free throw percentage during the game, as UT finished 30-for-33 for a 90.9 shooting percentage, marking the best outing for Big Orange this season.
"I think shooting free throws just comes down to mental focus," Massengale said. "It's mental toughness. Over the past couple weeks we have been putting extra practice into our free throws, and it paid off for us on Sunday."
Last Thursday towards the end of the LSU game, Harrison missed a free throw that would have tied up the game, 78-78, with 16 seconds left. She bounced back by going a perfect 8-for-8 in free throws against Georgia.
"Towards the end of that game I got kind of frustrated with myself when I could've tied the game up," Harrison said. "I mean, you can make 1,000 free throws and whether you're in that state of mind it still dictates whether you're going to make it or not. So, I really got it in my head to be focused at the free throw line and try to make as many as I could."
"It just comes down to being focused, being confident and knowing that we can shoot free throws," Massengale said. "We've been shooting free throws all our lives, and we just have to go up there and knock them down."
TURNING IT OVER
Although Tennessee bounced back with a victory in Athens, the Lady Vols still tallied 20 turnovers.
"I think we just need to slow down on offense," Harrison said." I think we try to get ahead of ourselves too much and try to make that fantastic play. I think Holly and all of them, the coaching staff, gave us great plays to run and use and if we stick by those, we'll have some good offense. We don't need to get ahead of ourselves."
Despite the high number, Coach Warlick says she was okay with the turnovers because of the aggressive play of the team.
"I was okay with a lot of them because some of them were in transition or we were attacking," Warlick said. "I think we'll just continue to work on them in practice. It does concern me, but I thought a lot of them were what we were wanting to do, such as get the ball inside and attack in transition, so those are things we have to keep working on to get better at."