Lady Vols set for season opener at MTSU

Knoxville, Tenn.--(UTSports) he 2013-14 season is here, and fresh off a big exhibition win over Carson-Newman on Monday the No. 4 Tennessee women's basketball team is gearing up for Friday's season opener at Middle Tennessee.

On Wednesday, players and head coach Holly Warlick met with reporters to discuss how the team has prepared for the official start of the season this weekend. Warlick said that she and the coaches did not judge tape of Monday's 115-31 win over Carson-Newman by the score, but instead by the effort, focus and sustained drive that the team displayed from start to finish.

"I thought for the most part, we played exceptional," Warlick said. "That's just from pushing the ball, playing tough defense - we've really been focusing on defense - and guarding penetration and those types of things. I think we did some really, really nice things."

The Lady Vols will face Middle Tennessee on Friday at 7 p.m. CT (8 p.m. ET) in Murfreesboro and then head to Chapel Hill, N.C., to square off against No. 12/11 North Carolina on Monday at 9 p.m. ET.

Friday's game against Middle Tennessee marks the second year in a row that the Lady Vols open the regular season away from their home court.

Last year's Elite Eight Tennessee squad fell in its season opener against Chattanooga, 80-71. Veterans like junior center Isabelle Harrison remember that early stumble and are focused to prevent an early let-down this year.

"I think we definitely learned from it," Harrison said. "It kind of brought us a blessing in disguise. As you know, it really affected our defense and we learned that we can slip up on whatever team it is. We need to take every team seriously."

Junior point guard Ariel Massengale echoed those sentiments and said that that loss still resonates with the team.

"I know we all have that game in the back of our minds and we remember it," Massengale said. "That is something we do not want to let happen again."

This year's game against MTSU will mark the fourth consecutive year that UT will open its season against an in-state opponent. While everyone knows how ardent and supportive Lady Vol fans are, Warlick points out that Tennessee is a fantastic state for women's basketball from end to end and expects an excited crowd on Friday.

"It's a state where they love women's basketball, they love girls’ basketball, and I think they support whoever plays and wherever you play," she said.

The Lady Vols' last game against Middle Tennessee was a thriller that needed a 10-0 UT run in overtime to put away the Blue Raiders, 88-81.

Warlick said that MTSU was a very well-prepared team last year and executed from outside and inside to pressure the Lady Vols.

"I think the standard that Rick Insell has and he does a great job preparing his team, whoever is on the team," Warlick said. "Last year, they hit big threes, they played great defense and the inside gave us problems. I would anticipate the same thing happening this year - well-coached and prepared to play us."

Harrison recalls how hard the team battled to overcome a four-point halftime deficit and ride the energy of the Thompson-Boling Arena crowd to victory.

"I remember that game being crazy; we went into overtime with them," Harrison said. "I remember everybody having clutch moments in that game and of course we were here so we felt like we could really get into our element."

Harrison knows that MTSU will look to use that same energy from its home court if the game is close late.

"Now it's going down to Murfreesboro," she said. "It's going to be a different feel and we can't give them any chance to take over us and we have to keep on paying attention in practice to personnel. Everything they're going to try to do to us and embrace it."

When asked if the team has dwelled on last year's season opener vs. Chattanooga, Warlick responded that both the Chattanooga game and the MTSU game from last year stick with the Lady Vols.

"They have a little bit more of a maturity about them," she said. "They understand the sense of urgency in us to be prepared to what I think will be a hostile environment at MTSU."

The Tennessee roster possesses extraordinary size this season with 6-6 Mercedes Russell, 6-3 Nia Moore, 6-3 Harrison, 6-2 Bashaara Graves, 6-2 Cierra Burdick and 6-2 Jasmine Jones. For a skilled point guard like Massengale, that kind of height in the post can create opportunities for lob passes and easy points near the rim.

"The way that Izzy and Mercedes can sell out down low - they have great hops and great hands," Massengale said. "If you throw it at the rim, they can go up and get it. I'll take my two post players up against anyone in the country."

Massengale said that she has been serving up lob passes her entire basketball career and looks forward to the opportunity to dish it high to her bigs this year.

"I am excited because those are the best passes to make," she said. "When you have post players that you can throw it up to and know that they are going to go get it whether it is a good pass or a bad pass, I know they are going to do their best to make me look good."

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