KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) Tennessee guard Ariel Massengale says the Lady Vols are listening more closely to coach Holly Warlick this season.
The Lady Vols are hoping that extra attention helps them earn the Final Four bid that has eluded them since their 2008 national championship season. Tennessee opened practice Monday with most of the nucleus back from a team that went 29-6 and reached a regional semifinal last season.
”Everything the coaches have been talking to us and preaching to us since we’ve had this new coaching staff, we’re finally taking heed to it,” Massengale said. ”We’re finally putting it into action. They’re very happy about that, and we’re very happy about that. (We’re) understanding now that what they say to do, we have to do it.
”We can no longer go on our own agenda because, as it’s shown the past two years, it hasn’t gotten us to where we want to get to.”
Warlick notices the difference. She took over the program in 2012 after spending 27 seasons as an assistant to Pat Summitt, who led the Lady Vols to eight national championships before retiring.
The seniors ”had to see me go from assistant coach to head coach,” Warlick said. ”It’s a different role I have to play, with them as well. That transition, I think at first was a little challenging, but I think now they’re comfortable. They understand what we need to do.”
The Tennessee team that opens the season Nov. 14 against Penn will be more experienced than Warlick’s first two squads.
Tennessee has three seniors – Massengale, all-Southeastern Conference center Isabelle Harrison and forward Cierra Burdick – with 168 combined career starts. The Lady Vols’ lone senior last season was guard Meighan Simmons, who averaged a team-high 16.5 points per game. Warlick’s first team had only two seniors and one junior.
”When you look at all the great basketball teams, they have great leadership,” Burdick said. ”If you look at the Final Four teams last year with UConn and Notre Dame, they had Kayla McBride, Stefanie Dolson, Bria Hartley, Natalie Achonwa even though she got hurt. You look at those teams and you see great senior leaders. I’m looking forward to seeing what we can do this year. We’ve got experience under our belt. Holly’s in her third season now. We’ve got some great freshmen, great talent across the board. I think it’s going to be a great year.”
Tennessee returns five players who made at least 19 starts last season and welcomes a freshman class that includes guard Alexa Middleton and guard/forwards Kortney Dunbar and Jaime Nared. The Lady Vols won’t have backup center Mercedes Russell, who is expected to redshirt due to foot problems.
That depth creates plenty of competition, particularly at point guard. Massengale opened last season as the starting point guard before missing Tennessee’s final 16 games with a head injury, continuing her history of concussions. Andraya Carter took over from there and helped Tennessee win an SEC tournament title. Both players are back this season, as is sophomore point guard Jordan Reynolds.
All those point guards are benefiting from the presence of North Carolina transfer Diamond DeShields, a first-team all-Atlantic Coast Conference selection as a freshman last season. DeShields can’t play for Tennessee until the 2015-16 season, but teammates say she already is making an impact.
”She’s one of the best players in the country,” said Massengale, who says she’s back at 100 percent. ”To have someone like that to practice against, if you can score on her and make plays against her, then I have no doubt we can do it on anyone else in the country.”