Women's summer league gets underway

The Women's Pilot Rocky Top League got a little later start this summer and has been compressed into two weeks, but the fans turned out Monday evening at Christian Academy of Knoxville and were treated to three games, including the first chance to see incoming Lady Vol Isabelle Harrison.

Isabelle Harrison, a 6'3 post from Nashville, teamed with Tennessee sophomore Meighan Simmons on the Pilot team to secure a 91-71 win over Duncan Automotive, which was led by 21 points by former Lady Vol Faith Dupree, who will play next season at Tennessee-Chattanooga.

Harrison tallied 15 points while Simmons poured in 38 on the strength of eight treys. Harrison was on her way to the basket with the ball in the open court when her left shoe popped off, but she kept heading to the paint, much to the delight of the crowd and her future teammates watching in the stands.

It's the informal nature of the league that is appealing to the fans and players, who signed autographs and posed for photos throughout the evening. Kelley Cain, who retired last spring with one year of eligibility remaining because of chronic pain, also was in the stands to cheer on the teams.

"We love our fans," senior forward Alicia Manning said. "We love that they support us. As you can see they all showed up, and we are very appreciative of that."

Manning teamed with fellow senior Glory Johnson on the DeRoyal team to scoot past the News Sentinel, 88-74, in the first game of the night. Manning had 32 points while Johnson tallied 33. Webb senior Marjorie Butler, who is verbally committed to Georgia, led the News Sentinel with 34 points.

Butler is one of at least 12 high school players who signed up to play this summer, an experience that is particularly beneficial for the youngsters with the chance to go against college talent. Butler's game is college ready, but a few of the high schoolers looked a little shell-shocked when they took the floor.

Johnson and Manning combined for 65 of DeRoyal's 88 points, and it could have been even higher as both passed up open shots to get teammates involved as they deferred to the Lady Vols. Kaylah Cutshaw, who plays for Christian Academy of Knoxville, added 12 points for DeRoyal.

One of the area's best prep players isn't even in high school yet but was helping her father, Atlee Hammaker, on the sideline, as he is coaching the Pilot team and helping to fill in for league Commissioner Habibi Andre, whose out-of-state job has prevented her from being present. Anna Hammaker, who is not playing in the league just yet, will be a freshman at CAK this fall and is already getting interest from Division I schools.

But the overall appeal for the fans is the presence of the Lady Vols, and Pat Summitt, who can't watch the proceedings by NCAA rules, granted the OK for the Tennessee players to participate.

There was good news about the health of a few of those players. Johnson, who had surgery on her left thumb last April to repair ligament damage, had it taped but has been cleared to play. Alyssia Brewer, who missed most of last season after Achilles tendon surgery, had a cleanup procedure after the season.

Vicki Baugh, who is coming back from multiple knee surgeries, is not playing in the league because of injury risk but does participate in pickup with her teammates on campus. Given the varying levels of skill on the court in a summer league, extra caution is needed, and the Lady Vols avoided collisions at times.

"I think she is getting a lot more confident," Manning said of Baugh. "We play pickup, and she does scrimmage with us. She is so long and athletic. She can just get up to the rim with ease."

Baugh and Brewer, who were both limited last season by injury and rehab, will be needed this season even more with the graduation of Cain.

"I think we all knew she was hurting, but it was kind of up in the air as to what she was going to do," Manning said. "It was a little bit of a shocker for us."

"With people playing when they're hurt, it's tough," Johnson said. "You're not going to play to your full potential."

"My mind-set even before we knew she wasn't coming back was that I needed to do big things for this team, kind of like my sophomore year, but better," Brewer said."

Harrison also will provide some depth in the paint with her summer priority being to get in college basketball condition. She showed her athleticism Monday evening on some plays – and finished a left-handed layup cleanly – but will have to get prepared to run the floor. Baugh sets the example in the pickup games.

"Exactly," Harrison said. "She gets up and down the floor even though she had a knee injury. She still works her butt off even in the weight room. We are (weight room) partners, and it helps push me, because I know if Vicki can do it she will help me out, and I can push through, too."

Brewer was in the stands and leading the cheers with Kamiko Williams when Harrison lost her shoe on the court. When Harrison made a nice move to the basket, Brewer, Williams, Manning and Shekinna Stricklen erupted with the other fans.

"I think it will help a lot that she has upperclassmen to look to, unlike we did when we came in," Brewer said. "It's going to be different for us in a way because we're not only going to continue to lead this team but show (the underclassmen) what it takes, sort of handing down the reins."

Brewer's team wrapped up play on Monday evening as she teamed with Williams on Smith & Hammaker.

The relaxed nature of the league was on display when Brewer got called for a foul when Stricklen drove to the basket. Brewer protested the call to a smiling official, and Stricklen, as she prepared to shoot the free throws told Brewer, "You displaced me."

"I displaced your shot," Brewer retorted to much laughter from Stricklen and Taber Spani.

Brewer said she was just cleared to run a week ago, and she is using the league to help get in game condition.

"It feels a lot better than what it did before," Brewer said. "I am just trying to get back in the groove. That's why I look like I haven't played in months. I haven't. I am staying here second session to work out with Heather (Mason) and to rehab."

Brewer chipped in with nine points, while Williams tallied 21 points. Stephanie Torrence, who played at Farragut High School and is now at Auburn-Montgomery University, added 19 points.

Spani, who is playing in the league for the first time – she missed it a year ago to recover from a foot injury – scored 24 points and Shekinna Stricklen added 22 to lead Fellowship of Christian Athletes to a 79-70 win over Smith & Hammaker.

It was the last game of the evening – and the most entertaining as FCA went down by 14 points in the second half and came back on the strength of Spani and Stricklen's shooting to seize the win. Tyler Powers, who plays for Lenoir City High School, banked in a trey to tie the game at 67 and finished with 20 points.

Brewer is one of five true seniors on the Lady Vols team – the others are Manning, Johnson, Stricklen and Briana Bass, who worked the scoreboard for all three games Monday – seeking their first Final Four. Redshirt senior Baugh won a national title as a freshman.

"Senior just kind of rolls off the tongue," Brewer said. "It feels longer than three years. It feels like it's been five or six. We've had to learn everything the hard way.

"I have a really good feeling about this team. Every year we get more mature. You can tell in the way we play pickup and in our workouts. It's a totally different atmosphere. We know that it's do or die now."

Play resumes Tuesday at Christian Academy of Knoxville beginning at 6 p.m. with Smith & Hammaker vs. Duncan Automotive, DeRoyal vs. Pilot and the News Sentinel vs. FCA. Admission and parking are free.

VIDEO COVERAGE

Game One: DeRoyal vs. The News Sentinel

Alicia Manning and Glory Johnson

Game Two: Pilot vs. Duncan Automotive

Isabelle Harrison and Meighan Simmons

Game Three: Smith & Hammaker vs. Fellowship of Christian Athletes

Taber Spani

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