Massengale off to fast start for No. 3 Lady Vols

(Eds: With AP Photos.)By STEVE MEGARGEEAP Sports Writer

Tennessee guard Ariel Massengale believes a rare stint on the bench this summer has helped her get off to a faster start.

Massengale adjusted to a backup role this summer while helping USA Basketball win a gold medal at the World University Games. Massengale said the experience gave her a new perspective when she returned to campus.

”I probably never had done it before in my career,” Massengale said. ”It definitely helped me learn. It also gave me an easier way to relate to my teammates back here who may not get as much playing time, to let them know and assure them they’re just as important as the five people who are on the court.”

Massengale has responded with a breakthrough season for the third-ranked Lady Vols (7-0), who next play Sunday against Texas.

After averaging 7.7 points per game over her first two seasons, Massengale is scoring a team-high 13.7 points per game this year. The 5-foot-7 junior also leads the Lady Vols in assists (6.6) and steals (1.9).

”She’s playing with a lot more confidence,” Tennessee coach Holly Warlick said. ”I think she’s taken this team on her shoulders. I think she understands the importance of her being a great leader.”

Although she stepped right into Tennessee’s starting lineup as a freshman after leading Bolingbrook (Ill.) High School to three consecutive state titles, Massengale initially struggled to provide leadership. Teammates say she’s come a long way.

”She’s more talkative,” senior guard Meighan Simmons said. ”The Ariel that I know was very homesick, really didn’t want to communicate with anybody, but she’s grown. She’s blossomed into an amazing leader.”

Tennessee’s point guard situation was one of the team’s biggest questions at the start of the season. The Lady Vols were loaded in the frontcourt with 2012-13 Southeastern Conference newcomer of the year Bashaara Graves, Isabelle Harrison, Cierra Burdick and Mercedes Russell. They were set at shooting guard with Simmons, the preseason SEC player of the year.

But the Lady Vols needed more from Massengale, who closed her sophomore season with just one point in an 86-78 Oklahoma City Regional championship loss to Louisville. Massengale noticed defenses weren’t respecting her shooting ability.

”We have great post play and great wing play,” Massengale said. ”A lot of teams (were) starting to sag off me, saying I wasn’t a threat.”

They can’t do that anymore.

Massengale is shooting 47.1 percent (16 of 34) from 3-point range and 42.4 percent (28 of 66) overall after entering the season with career percentages of .343 from beyond the arc and .378 overall.

Her USA Basketball experience helped her confidence. Playing on a team that included Baylor’s Odyssey Sims, Oklahoma’s Aaryn Ellenberg, Connecticut’s Bria Hartley and Louisville’s Shoni Schimmel gave Massengale an opportunity to work out with some of the nation’s top guards.

”The summer was great for her,” Warlick said. ”I think the understanding that our players, they need her. And she’s accepted that challenge.”

Massengale also responded to the challenges she received from her coaches.

Warlick talked before the season about how she wanted more leadership from her point guards. Massengale said she also received advice from assistant coaches Jolette Law and Kyra Elzy.

”It’s my junior year, and Coach Elzy and I were talking about how time is ticking,” Massengale said. ”Time is running out for me. If you want to accomplish things, you’ve got to go for it.”