In phone interviews with InsideTennessee.com, the two incoming freshmen said they would use the first two weeks of August for some fun outings – the beach for Cierra Burdick and Six Flags theme park for Ariel Massengale – and to spend time with family and friends before they turn over their lives to college classrooms, Heather Mason’s conditioning sessions and Pat Summitt’s basketball court next week.
Massengale will make the trip to Knoxville from Bolingbrook, Ill., while Burdick will drive over the mountains from Matthews, N.C. They will move into an on-campus dorm and share a suite with fellow freshman Isabelle Harrison, who enrolled last June, played in the Women’s Pilot Rocky Top League and stayed for both summer sessions so that she could get a head start on her classes, play pickup with teammates and work out with Mason.
Burdick and Massengale would have arrived early but both were in Colorado Springs, Colo., for tryouts for the U19 USA Basketball team beginning in May, and, after making the first cut, reassembling in June in Orlando, Fla., for a second tryout session plus games, back to Colorado in July for training camp and then off to South America, where they won a gold medal in the 2011 FIBA U19 World Championship in Puerto Montt, Chile, on July 31.
Massengale was named to the All-FIBA U19 team after tallying 39 assists over nine games – including nine dimes to just two turnovers in the semifinal win – and Burdick earned her stripes on the boards and at the free throw line. It took a rare loss for the USA – Canada tripped up the youngsters in group play – before the team seized three straight wins in the quarters, semifinals and then championship game over France, Brazil and Spain, respectively.
“We had a heart to heart,” Burdick said of the team’s reaction to the defeat. “We watched how poorly we played, how terribly we executed and how there was just a lack of intensity and energy on the defensive end. We went over not only film and how we looked, but we also went over everybody … what we need from them.
“We went over every single person’s role, and I think that helped a lot, because some people were unsure of their role and when Coach (Jennifer Rizzotti) went through everybody in the room, we put feedback as players and they put feedback as coaches, and everybody found their role as soon as we lost to Canada. Everybody knew their role, and everybody played their role extremely well, and that’s why we were so successful in the medal round.”
The clear-the-air type of meeting is sometimes exactly what a team needs to get back on track.
“It is,” Massengale said. “That night we talked about it. Everyone defined their role on the team and I feel like once we made that clear to everyone we could start holding each other accountable of doing that.
“We knew that if we could get all our pieces together on a nightly basis that we could win a gold medal. We had to change our whole mind-set. Just because we put on a USA jersey doesn’t mean teams are going to lie down and give us a W. That is not the case. Every team comes out and plays their best game against us.
“With me being a point guard you have to keep reminding your teammates of certain things. I try to be the coach on the floor, lead the team, whatever the coaches are trying to get across.”
Burdick’s role was one of grit with board play and defense and effort on every play that drew comparisons to former Lady Vol Tamika Catchings.
“Shoot, if I can live up to her, man, that’s an awesome compliment,” Burdick said. “When we were in Orlando, we went around the circle and the coaches asked, ‘What are you going to bring to this team?’ This was before they made final cuts, and I was like, ‘Coach, I am just going to do whatever you tell me to do. If that’s go out and locking up their best player, then I will do my best to try and lock up their best player. If that’s grabbing 10 boards a game I am going to go out and grab 10 boards.
“I am not the type of player that I am going to go out and score 20 every night. I just have never been and I never will be. That’s something I’ve learned to do. I am going to take a charge or two and I am going to go to the boards hard. Hopefully, Coach Summitt will enjoy that part of my game. That’s why I did with USA, and I love my role.”
“You’re playing with 11 of the best players in the country side by side with USA across your chest. Not everybody can score 20 points a game. I learned I have to find my role, I have to develop my role, and I have to do it the best way I can. Thanks to USA I’ve become better mentally as well as physically on the court. I owe that to my coaches as well as my teammates because they’ve helped me become who I am on the basketball court. Bringing energy was my biggest role with USA Basketball, and I love that role.
“I love getting my teammates hyped. I love being hyped. I love chest-bumping and hopefully I’ll bring that to Tennessee.”
That attitude and effort should get Burdick some meaningful minutes as a freshman. Tennessee has returning scorers, especially three-point shooters in WBCA/State Farm All-American Shekinna Stricklen – the first for the Lady Vols since Candace Parker’s nods in 2006, 2007 and 2008 – Meighan Simmons and Taber Spani.
Summitt declared after the signing of Massengale last fall that she should start for Tennessee as a freshman – Summitt backed off this summer after the injury to combo guard Kamiko Williams and said the point position could be filled by committee but Massengale was likely to earn significant time – so both newcomers should enter the mix early in the process. Massengale heard the remarks about her being starter material and said she will earn her minutes on the practice court and accept any role on the team.
“At this point I just want to come in and help the team wherever I can,” Massengale said. “That is one thing I’ve learned being a part of the USA team is that everybody can score, everyone is used to being the top player on their high school teams, so just coming in and fitting in and doing what you’re good at doing, helping the team succeed, that is my main goal.”
Massengale’s presence is timely with the injury to Williams – she had ACL surgery July 22 and likely will need a redshirt recovery year – and the transfer of point guard Lauren Avant. The point position has been handled primarily by Stricklen, a converted small forward, and Simmons, a converted shooting guard, with Briana Bass, a 5’2 senior, also in the mix.
“I’ve known Lauren since seventh grade,” Massengale said. “We always talked about being teammates and being together. That really hurt, but it comes down to what’s best for her with her health. I just want what’s the best for her.
“Miko, I was looking forward to playing with her (this season) as well. On my visit at (summer) orientation we talked a lot about the upcoming season and what we were going to do and the plans that we had. With her (being out) that hurts our team, but people go through injuries and they get to see a different side of things – her moral support and her wisdom that she has to give us freshmen and still being there, a part of the team.”
Off the court, Massengale is soft-spoken and polite – her conversation is peppered with yes and no ma’am – but on the court she becomes vocal and, if needed, confrontational with teammates.
“Just a competitive edge and the will to win,” the 5’6 Massengale said of her on-court and off-court personalities. “I just hate losing. When we lost to Canada I didn’t talk to anybody for the rest of the night because that is something that just doesn’t settle with me well.
“Some people try to say I have short-person syndrome sometimes on the court. I am the smallest one. But when I step between those lines it’s all about business and every time I step on the court I step on the court to get better and to win.”
The post position is senior-laden with Glory Johnson, Alyssia Brewer and Vicki Baugh – and Spani and Alicia Manning play inside and out – so Harrison, a 6’3 forward from Nashville, has a logjam ahead of her for court time, but with the mass graduations to come after the 2011-12 season she will need to get some first-year experience.
Being in Knoxville all summer should end up being beneficial for Harrison.
“It is extremely important, because I feel like it gives me a step up,” Harrison said last June while playing in the summer league. “I am working on what I really need to do.”
It was the second summer spent earning a world championship gold medal for Massengale and Burdick, as both were on the 2010 USA team last summer that won the inaugural FIBA U17 World Championship in France.
It has allowed the two to get to know each other well on and off the court.
“Rel and I are extremely close,” Burdick said. “I know how she is going to play, and I believe she knows how I am going to play and if either one of us is not playing to our fullest potential we’re going to get on each other. That is what we need to bring to the table.”
Massengale took home the All-FIBA team hardware with her gold medal and performed well on the international stage, which should boost her confidence, though Burdick noted the point guard doesn’t lack for it.
“Rel has never had a confidence problem,” Burdick said. “She is not cocky or arrogant or anything like that. She never shies away from the ball, and she’s always had that leadership role as far as being the point guard. Hopefully, this has just brought her confidence up even more, and she’ll bring that to Tennessee.
“When people ask me about Rel the first thing I say she’s the best point guard I’ve ever played with. I just love Rel to death. She’s going to get the ball to the players that need to have the ball in their hands. If she needs to hit some big-time shots she is going to hit that as well.”
Burdick said Massengale’s tally of 39 assists should have been higher.
“She would have (accumulated more) if some post players, including me, would had finished some of her nice passes. She would get on us after the game joking, well half-joking, ‘C’mon, man, you’ve got to finish that layup. You’re messing with my assists.’ I love Rel. I am looking forward to having these four years with her.”
Massengale has a point guard mentality the second she steps on the court.
“Growing up playing travel AAU basketball I always played the point when I played for my dad,” Massengale said. “My freshman year of high school I played the two because we had a senior point guard. My coach told me that if I wanted to play major D1 basketball I was going to have to be a point guard because of my size.
“Everyone loves putting the ball in the basket. That is pretty much what a two does. That year our point guard (Janisha Gearlds, now a senior at St. Louis University) pretty much took me underneath her wing. She taught me what it was going to take and how to talk the game.
“At home with my dad we watched games and talked about strategy and situations and what was a great thing to do and what was not a good decision. Both of my parents always told me that I watched a basketball game differently than another person does because people watch it for the entertainment and I watch it looking at moves or what kind of defense a team is playing or they just ran the same offensive play two times with different options.
“I think it was something I was born with and then being a student of game and talking to people and always wanting to learn I feel like it helped me along the way.”
Both Massengale and Burdick also have had the chance to interact with Harrison – they both came in briefly over the summer for an orientation session on campus – and Harrison and Massengale were teammates previously on the AAU club Tennessee Flight.
“When I was up there for orientation, Izzy and I were talking,” Burdick said. “Izzy is a funny person just from spending time with her those three days. I learned she is hilarious. I am looking forward to getting to know her. She will be our suitemate in the dorm so I’m sure that us three will be The Three Musketeers all over the place.”
Being on USA basketball squads also means interacting with players that Tennessee is recruiting, and Massengale and 2012 guard Alexis Jones, who is from Irving, Texas, became close friends during the experience, as did Massengale, Burdick and Elizabeth Williams last summer, though Williams ultimately chose to go to Duke.
Massengale is more likely to act as the orange-and-white pitchman at times, while Burdick rarely brings up recruiting.
“I kind of leave it alone,” Burdick said. “If they come to me and ask me about Tennessee and why I chose Tennessee, I am always up to talk to them about it and tell them why. Ariel and Alexis have gotten really close, and I think Rel talks to Alexis about it a lot.
“Rel is a go-getter. She has been 100 miles per hour on Lex and they’ve actually become best friends because of it. They call each other best friend. They don’t call each other Ariel and Alexis.”
Burdick said that even the chatty Massengale doesn’t often raise the topic – it became a running joke between her and Jones – and the players put aside recruiting for the most part while together.
“When we’re wearing USA across our chest that’s the only thing we’re thinking about,” Burdick said. “We just play for our country.”
Massengale said, “I pretty much just go with the flow. We’re all 17-, 18-year-old girls so there are times where we laugh and play around with each other and there are times when we have serious moments, heart to hearts with each other, and there are times we just sit and talk about recruiting.
“Sometimes they have questions to ask about our decision and how we came about it. Sometimes we ask them what they’re looking for in a school. It’s just finding a balance between the two. It’s not like you’re always wearing Tennessee gear or the Connecticut girls are wearing UConn gear always throwing our schools down their throat, but it’s just getting to know them and being able to have fun with them and then also sometimes being able to have a serious conversation with them.”
Both Burdick and Massengale noted the conversations lack pressure when held among the same peer group – teenage girls being recruited. The pressure comes when others, such as friends, fans, family and coaches – enter the conversations. They also said they know how difficult the process can be when a player is still trying to decide.
“I do,” Massengale said. “And that’s the reason why we are not always throwing things at them. They’re getting it from people at home and friends wanting to know, ‘Well, where are you going?’ We get it a lot from a lot of different places. It’s not always something that you want to hear from a teammate, but it comes up in certain situations. It’s just not something that we’re harping 24/7 on.”
Although the summer was packed with domestic and international travel, practice and games, Burdick said the opportunity to play for the USA means dividends now and later.
“The total experience,” Burdick said. “The players that you get to practice with every day and the players that you play against every day, you’re competing against the best athletes and some of the best players in the world. Being around that every single day for three weeks just takes your game to another level mentally and physically and emotionally.
“It prepares you for the future and what you may have in store in college and the pro level.”
Massengale also cited being able to go against top competition as a primary benefit of playing on the USA teams.
“Also, the experience of having played in a world championship before and just knowing what it takes to be on top and knowing you may not play your best game every day, but there are certain things that you can do to help your team win and that’s all that really matters,” Massengale said.
The next step for Burdick and Massengale will be individual workouts with the coaches, which are limited in duration and scope, and then conditioning sessions with Heather Mason, who gets more time per week with the players in early preseason than the coaches do by NCAA rules.
“I think I am more ready than some other freshmen may have been in the past just because of the place that I train,” Burdick said. “I train at Accelerate Basketball (in Charlotte, N.C.). Every single workout I feel like I’m about to cry, but if it’s a workout and I don’t feel like I’m hurting enough or if I don’t feel that I’m getting to the point where I’m about to cry then I don’t like it.
“I’ve heard a lot of rumors about Heather, and I am actually kind of looking forward to it. I want to get stronger and get faster, and I think she is going to be the person that best prepares me for that.”
Massengale also has talked to her teammates about what to expect from Mason. It caused her to seek a little divine assistance, which is not an uncommon reaction.
“They tell us it’s not going to be easy,” Massengale said. “They’ve informed us of all of the workouts and things they do. My main question is, ‘Is it all worth it?’ and they say it is. Playing for a program like Tennessee they have a resume as one of the best in the country and they have done what I hope to do one day with my career.
“Whatever it takes to be the best – and I know it’s going to be tough – but I am just going to put my faith in God and the plan that he has for me and that I’ll make it through.”
The two enter Tennessee at a time when the resume needs to be shored up. While the Lady Vols have eight national titles, they haven’t been to a Final Four since 2008, a drought by Tennessee standards.
“That’s my main goal every year, and this year is no different (despite being a freshman),” Massengale said. “I think it’s more important this year for our senior class because they have not had the opportunity yet to go to a Final Four.
“You always want to play hard for your seniors because when you’re in their shoes you want your freshmen to come in and do the same thing. Get to Denver, Final Four, national championship, we’re going to stick with (those goals) and that is going to be our motivation.”
Massengale and Burdick’s last summer before the start of college was a rather whirlwind one with the travel – they both basically spent the month of July away from home – but both said they were preparing for the transition.
“Spending time with friends and family, having some fun days,” Massengale said. “I am just spending time with everyone.”
“Right now it’s a lot of excitement,” Burdick said. “Right now I am trying to see all the people I can see before I head on to Knoxville. I am trying to get it all in while I can.”