KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) Tennessee is preparing to welcome back a senior point guard while monitoring the status of an ailing post player.
Ariel Massengale is looking forward to returning for her senior season after missing the final 16 games of the 2013-14 season with a head injury. Massengale, who also underwent offseason surgery on her right knee, says she’s hoping to be 100 percent by the start of the school year next month.
While Massengale awaits her return, sophomore center Mercedes Russell is recovering from offseason surgery to her right foot. Lady Vols coach Holly Warlick said Russell is out kind of indefinitely right now” and was uncertain whether the injury would affect the 6-foot-6 center’s status for the start of the season.
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Russell, who was rated as the nation’s top high school prospect in her class by multiple recruiting services before enrolling last year, averaged 6.3 points and 5.0 rebounds per game as a freshman.
”She probably needed (surgery) at the beginning of the year,” Warlick said. ”She’s a tough kid. She chose to stick it out, tough it out. I don’t think we knew how bad it was until the end of the year.”
Tennessee is seeking its first Final Four berth since its 2008 national championship season after going 29-6 and reaching a regional semifinal last year. The Lady Vols spent much of that season without Massengale, who has been Tennessee’s starting point guard since her arrival on campus.
Massengale, a 5-foot-7 senior, was playing the best basketball of her career before getting inadvertently hit in the face while chasing a loose ball in a Jan. 23 victory over Florida. She averaged 12.5 points and 5.8 assists per game and had 2.3 times as many assists as turnovers. Despite missing nearly half the season, Massengale still ranked second on the team with 31 3-pointers.
”I thought last year was definitely my year, but I believe everything happens for a reason,” Massengale said. ”I learned a lot from that situation. I definitely do not take the game of basketball for granted. I know God has something in store. I don’t know what this year is going to bring, but I have a very good feeling it’s going to be something great.”
The latest injury continued a pattern for Massengale, who has a history of concussions dating back to high school. Although Massengale initially expected the latest injury to keep her out only a few weeks, her headaches continued throughout the season.
Teammates noticed the difference. They saw how the normally chatty Massengale wasn’t talking quite as much.
”It was sad to see how bad it affected her… how she’d have to turn down the TV, watch it with no sound, no lights in her room,” Harrison said. ”It was kind of depressing. It was that way for a while. I’m glad she was finally able to get over it.”
Massengale says she feels much better now. She says she was reassured after visiting a specialist about her head. Warlick said the Lady Vols are ”taking it slow” with Massengale, but she’s encouraged by her point guard’s progress.
That progress has Massengale eager to get back on the floor without being afraid of hurting her head again.
”I’m ready to go back out there,” Massengale said. ”I don’t have any fears or worries going out there with it.”