After spending several weeks going through conditioning drills and skills instruction, the Tennessee women's basketball team has transitioned into practice mode. Sunday's first full-scale hoops workout signaled that the 2012-13 season is just around the corner.
With an exhibition contest vs. Carson-Newman slated for Nov. 1, first-year Lady Vol Head Coach Holly Warlick and her staff put the team through its paces. According to Warlick, Sunday's performance stacked up as a good starting point for this squad as the program begins preseason practice without Pat Summitt at the helm for the first time since 1974. Summitt, who in April made the decision to step aside after 38 seasons as head coach after being diagnosed with early-onset dementia, Alzheimer's type in August 2011, has moved into the role of head coach emeritus this season. She was seated courtside on Sunday.
"I thought it was a great day today," Warlick said. "Our first full practice, we went for about three hours, and I was pleased. We can always continue to get in better shape, but I thought our effort was there. Our freshmen looked really good and they're blending in with our seniors. It was a great first day for us."
Tennessee lost five players from a 27-9 squad that won its third-straight SEC Tournament title and advanced to the NCAA Elite Eight last season. First-round WNBA draft picks in 6-2 guard/forward Shekinna Stricklen (15.4 pgg, 6.6 rpg) and 6-foot-2 forward Glory Johnson (14.2 ppg, 9.9 rpg.) are gone, as is another WNBA selection in 6-4 forward/center Vicki Baugh (7.5 ppg, 6.7 rpg). Also departed are two others who started the final seven games alongside that trio: 6-1 forward Alicia Manning (3.9 ppg, 3.9 rpg) and 5-2 point guard Briana Bass (2.0 ppg, 0.7 apg).
The Lady Vols return six letterwinners, including three who have extensive experience as starters. Senior Taber Spani, a 6-1 forward who was averaging 12 points per game before injuries curtailed production a year ago, is healthy again and has 57 starts under her belt, including 15 a year ago. She hit 34 of 85 attempts from three-point land a year ago for a 40-percent clip.
Junior Meighan Simmons and sophomore Ariel Massengale earned 22 and 24 starts, respectively, last season. Simmons has been on the floor for tipoff 58 times, is averaging 12.3 points for her career and possesses UT's top-returning scoring average from a year ago at 11.1. Massengale, meanwhile, recorded a UT-freshman record 162 assists and an SEC leading assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.1 en route to Full Court Freshman All-America status in 2011-12.
Also back and with big things expected of them are 6-2 forward Cierra Burdick (36 games, 4.6 ppg, 2.8 rpg), 6-3 sophomore center Isabelle Harrison (31 games, 3.3 ppg, 2.7 rpg) and 5-11 senior guard Kamiko Williams (2.8 ppg, 1.8 rpg), who saw duty in 22 games last season after overcoming an ACL tear during the summer.
Among the five newcomers are three HoopGurlz/ESPNU Top 100 players in 6-2 forward/center Bashaara Graves (#5, Clarksville, Tenn./Clarksville H.S.), 5-9 point guard Andraya Carter (#21, Flowery Branch, Ga./Buford H.S.) and 6-2 forward Jasmine Jones (#39, Madison, Ala./Bob Jones H.S.).
Joining that trio will be Jasmine Phillips, a 5-10 sophomore guard (Hartsville, S.C./Hartsville H.S.) who was a junior college All-American at Louisburg (N.C.) College last season, and Nia Moore, a 6-3 post player (Chicago, Ill./Bolingbrook H.S.) who played alongside Massengale as a prepster.
No Nerves For Warlick
Warlick was asked if she was nervous running practice today for the first time as head coach. She credited previous experience during her 27 years as an assistant for Pat Summitt with making this day not much different than any other.
"No, because I was fortunate enough that Pat let me do what I did today in the past," Warlick said. "It was just kind of another day for me to run practice. It was different from the sense that we only have two seniors, so we had to do a lot more teaching than we've normally had to do."
Pleased With The New Staff
Warlick expressed how much she has enjoyed working with her staff and having Summitt as part of that group.
"I couldn't be more pleased. They've (assistants) been on the road working and their knowledge of the game... I knew it, but when I get them out here on the court and hear what they're saying and how they're teaching, it's incredible. I am very fortunate, and these young ladies are fortunate to have three great assistant coaches.
"She's (Pat) is going to be here every day. She was here the other day at 6:15 in the morning. I struggle to get here, and she was here before me. I anticipate that she's going to be here every practice."
Players Didn't Give In To Fatigue
With the team going longer for the full-scale practice than they have for the fall workouts, Warlick said her players seemed to handle the rigors of more time on the court very well.
"I thought they didn't give in to fatigue. They fought through times when they got a little tired and winded. It was primarily a defensive practice, and we did a little bit of up and down. I was very pleased with our effort and our energy.
"We really have a good camaraderie about us. It's a good close-knit feel right now. I love that. I haven't felt that in a long time. I think it's well-needed for this team."
Praise For The Newcomers
Warlick had some positive comments about how the newcomers performed and the skills they are displaying.
"I think they all looked good in their own particular way. We have some defensive stoppers. I was very pleased with Jasmine Jones and her effort on defense and Jasmine Phillips; Bashaara for how physical she is; Andraya's ability to lead a basketball team and Nia's presence inside. It's something we needed, and she showed a lot of that today."
Newcomers Will Play
Warlick didn't hesitate when asked how much action Tennessee's five newcomers would see this season.
"We want to run. We want to play fullcourt defense. We want to push the tempo. I see all of our freshmen and incoming players getting a lot of playing time."
Pushing The Tempo
"We have athletes, and I think we need to take advantage of our athleticism, our quickness, our physicalness. We're strong. We have a lot of people who can handle the ball fullcourt. All of them can. Probably Izzy is the only one I'd be a little skeptical about going coast to coast, but she has the ability to do that."
"We have Meighan, Taber and Massengale who have quality time on the offensive end in a halfcourt offense, but I just think it is to our benefit to run up and down the floor.
"You can really tell if you watch practice how much time and effort Cierra Burdick has put into her game. She's always been dedicated, but this summer she put in some hours. If one practice is any indication, I am just so pleased with her. I saw a big change in her ability to get up and down the floor and play on the defensive end. She's worked really hard at that, so I am proud of her."
Carter Turned Nerves Into Excitement
Freshman Andraya Carter may have had some nerves before the team's first full scale workout Sunday, but her butterflies quickly turned into excitement.
"I was pretty anxious about it," Carter said. "I was just excited to get out there. The nerves kicked in a little bit right before, but my teammates were great. They were all just telling me to be excited and bring energy, so I just turned the nerves into excitement and it went well."
The newcomer from Flowery Branch, Ga., is one of two new guards to join the Big Orange, along with JUCO transfer Jasmine Phillips. Carter says the adjustment to playing collegiate basketball has been huge.
"I think for anyone coming into college, it's going to be a huge adjustment," Carter said. "Just the speed, the intensity and the physicality of the game-it's a huge adjustment."
For as much of a shock adjusting to playing at the college level has been for Carter, teammate Taber Spani praised the newcomers on their hard work in today's practice.
"They did great," Spani said. "Obviously, everybody starts out good, but by the end it's really mental. You have to mentally stay in it and it's draining towards the end. I thought they picked up everything really well, worked hard and that's why I'm really proud of them. They have no quit in them."
Massengale Feeling Strong Entering Sophomore Season
Sophomore Ariel Massengale had some injury obstacles during preseason as a freshman, but compared to a year ago, Massengale says she's in top shape for the new season.
"I feel great," Massengale said. "Heather Mason does a great job of getting us in shape and getting us ready." "I've been able to get in shape, get my body right and just get ready for the season. It's a long one so just getting stronger, getting faster and working on my endurance."
The Lady Vols have implemented a quick-tempo style of play this season, and the transition has been a little new for the returnees.
"It's very high paced and high intensity," Massengale said. "That's the way we want to play this year, so that's the way we have to practice."
Massengale believes the hard work the Lady Vols are putting in will show results in the end.
"I don't think a lot of people are expecting a lot from us," Massengale said. "I don't think we have anything else to prove. We know what we're capable of doing, so if we go out there and play hard, play Tennessee basketball and do what we're supposed to do, then in the end we'll be successful."
Spani Ready To Lead Team
As one of two seniors on the squad, Taber Spani feels great responsibility in leading the team.
"As a senior, I feel like it's part of my responsibility not to let the Lady Vol tradition down," Spani said. "Yes, our team last year was the first to not make it to the Final Four, so Kamiko and I feel a great responsibility."
Spani says the transition to the quick style of play Warlick has implemented has been new for everyone on the squad, not just the newcomers.
"I have all the confidence in the world in how we're going to pick it up and play like the coaches want us to play, and the way the coaches want us to play," Spani said. "It's going to take a little adjustment because we're all new to this. It's not like the veterans know what to expect, everybody is going through the new stage. That's exciting and I think we're going to be able to pick it up and go for it."
The Lee's Summit, Mo., native knows her time is winding down at UT, which has given her even more motivation to contribute to the Lady Vol effort as much as she can.
"I think I've also just caught myself thinking every moment, every day, no matter how hard it is or what it looks like, it counts," Spani said. "And it makes a difference so that's exciting to me and gives me a sense of urgency as well. To know I have a time clock and I have to maximize everything and give everything I can for my team."
"We believe in each other, and we believe in what we can do. We want to do it for Lady Vol nation - past, present and future."
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