Knoxville, Tenn.--(UTSports) fter handing Texas A&M its first SEC loss of the year and ruining the Aggies unblemished record at home for the 2013-14 campaign, the Lady Vols return to Thompson-Boling Arena on Thursday to take on the Arkansas Razorbacks in a 7 p.m. ET matchup.
DRAYA STEPS UP
After junior point guard Ariel Massengale suffered a facial injury in the first half of the game against Florida, redshirt freshman Andraya Carter was called upon to fill her shoes. Carter credited her older teammate with helping prepare her for such a situation.
"Ariel has been so much help, especially these last two games," Carter said. "But the whole season, too. I wouldn't have had near as much confidence if it weren't for Ariel. I was playing because she was out, but the reason I was playing well was because of her. She was one of the first ones to text me after the Texas A&M game, saying she was proud and that she felt like a proud mother. She has helped me so much. We compete when we're on the court together, but she has my back and I know that."
"I think Draya is in a time where she has to be a leader for the team with Ariel being out," senior guard Meighan Simmonssaid. "Lately she's been playing very well; in the Texas A&M game, she started out and brought the intensity up from the get-go. I think everyone is very excited. I know Ariel is excited about her being able to be in that position and being able to play and do something that she loves."
Prior to the Texas A&M tipoff, assistant coach Kyra Elzy referenced an earlier practice in the season where the redshirt freshman had struggled with communicating and leading. Elzy reiterated that Carter was prepared for her role and the team had faith in her.
"It was the toughest day I've had since I've been here," Carter said of the difficult practice she experienced earlier in the season. "I broke down. I was frustrated. The coaches talked to me afterwards and said `it's only because we see so much in you.' My teammates were right there in the locker room, encouraging me after, telling me they still had faith in me. The next day I came in and we had a great practice."
The team and coaches' faith in the Flowery Branch, Ga., native has helped spark her confidence and ability to lead on the hardwood.
"Andraya is a team player," head coach Holly Warlick said. "I think she learned a lot from Ariel, and she's taking what Ariel's taught her, what she has seen and putting it to work. Andraya is a smart player. She played 40 minutes the other night and we needed her to. I think the last two games have given her a tremendous amount of confidence."
"I feel pretty good," Carter said. "A good friend of mine told me confidence is repetition. I've just really been sticking with that, and being in the gym has given me confidence. Talking with my teammates and coaches, knowing my role, knowing the game plan, all of that helps with confidence. We just have to keep it going."
The Lady Vol committed a season-low 10 turnovers against Texas A&M.
"We cut down on our turnovers," Warlick said. "When we turn the ball over, it seems to ignite our opponent, and they get easy buckets. We've really focused on limiting our turnovers, moving the ball, making the defense play defense and not quick-shooting the basketball. That's helped us tremendously."
Against Florida and Texas A&M, Tennessee snagged a combined 16 steals and forced 28 turnovers, notching 37 points off the opponents' miscues in those games.
"I think it's not a matter of comfort, but being able to change our defenses some way somehow," Simmons said. "I think the 3-2 (zone defense) has been really good to us, and we've been consistent with it since the Florida game. We just want to continue doing it, and it's going to help us later on for good three-point shooting teams. We just have to know who their shooters are and go out to get rebounds on the offensive end; get a one and done."
Tennessee is hoping to continue its momentum and high level of play heading into the month of February and rounding out SEC play.
"It's mental, and it's physical," Simmons said. "Everything has to be in one, and then your body will follow after. I think it's just a matter of getting out there and running; you can be thinking, but you need to be doing both at the same time. You need to be a mental and a physical player going into the SEC and preparing for the NCAA."
After beating Texas A&M in UT's first trip to College Station, the Lady Vols have gained a huge boost of confidence.
"I think it shot our confidence up," Simmons said. "We knew it was one of those games where we had to come out and make a statement. We knew where we wanted to be toward the end of the season, so it was just a matter of going out there and playing hard. We knew we could beat them, so we just had to go out there and do what we do best, which was focus on ourselves to go out there to get a win."
Carter stresses that a sense of urgency has been prominent in the last few games for Tennessee, adding an extra push and motivating factor in Tennessee's play.
"There have been a few games where we haven't reached our full potential and it's been extremely obvious," Carter said. "That's frustrating for us, for the coaches and I'm sure it's frustrating for the fans. It's frustrating for us. After the Notre Dame game, especially, we came out against Florida and we had something to prove. We wanted to play together; we wanted to play like we knew we could. With Texas A&M, we had motivation there because they were the No. 1 team in the SEC. We want to continue and be consistent and be a great team. We've learned from our losses and that's a good thing."