Lady Vols host Middle Tennessee tonight

Ariel Massengale (Danny Parker photo)

The last time Tennessee was 2-2 this early in the season, Ariel Massengale was not even on Earth yet, a fact that caused the freshman point guard to shake her head in disbelief.

One day after the 76-67 loss to No. 1 Baylor, now-No. 8 Tennessee had to get ready to host Middle Tennessee (4-2) on Tuesday evening at 7 p.m. Eastern (SportSouth) at Thompson-Boling Arena.

The last time Tennessee started a season with a record of 2-2 was in 1990 when the Lady Vols went win, loss, win, loss against Stanford, North Carolina State, Virginia Tech and Vanderbilt.

Through four games this season Tennessee went win, win, loss, loss, against Pepperdine, Miami, Virginia and Baylor.

It should also be noted that the Lady Vols went on to win a national title at the end of that 1990-91 season, and Tennessee showed Sunday that it could compete at the elite national level one week after leaving its fan base gobsmacked by the outcome at Virginia.

The message to the Lady Vols at practice the day after the loss to Baylor was to be proud of the effort but unsatisfied with the outcome.

"The object is to win the game – we didn't do that," Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood said. "We were succinct and tried (to bring) a great deal of clarity. Didn't win the game. Effort was very good. Showed more toughness than this team has shown in quite some time in our estimation. But didn't win the game. Here's why we didn't win the game.

"And the last thing was challenging them. One of two things can happen now. You can be a team that plays with that type of determination and toughness and focus all the time. Or you can go back to fluttering and floating through and be like a thermometer on a day when you don't know whether it's going to be hot, cold, rainy or sunny. It's up to you."

The test comes immediately, too. Middle Tennessee is not ranked but is a well-coached team that is capable of competing. One of Rick Insell's assistants is Alex Fuller, a former Lady Vol with national title rings in 2007 and 2008. Does Tennessee set the tone or let the Blue Raiders dictate as Virginia did?

"This is the most athletic Middle Tennessee team that any of us have seen in the last four or five years," Lockwood said. "So what do we do going forward?

"You can either embrace this mindset and the tone that you brought or you can flounder through again. We floundered at Virginia obviously. We did not flounder (against Baylor). We just weren't good enough and came up short. We needed to make some shots, make some plays."

Ariel Massengale, who was born in 1993, may not have been born yet the last time the Lady Vols started 2-2, but she will be a big factor in turning around the young season. And while she shook her head when told it had been 21 years since Tennessee had two losses in its first four games, she was also smiling.

An unflappable point guard is a must at this level of college basketball, and Massengale has the temperament to handle adversity. One of the first orders of business on her list is to hit some shots.

When asked what had happened to her shot-making ability, Massengale smiled and said she had asked herself the same question. In the past two games, Massengale was 2-16 from the field, including 1-10 against Baylor.

"It just didn't go in," Massengale said. "It was one of those nights. It looked good. It felt good. I thought they were going in. I know I can shoot the ball."

Massengale's make, a trey ball off a pass from Vicki Baugh, put Tennessee up by four midway through the second half against Baylor.

"Coach (Mickie) DeMoss told me, ‘Just imagine your next one is going in,' and right after she said that, that is when I hit the one shot for the game."

Sophomore Meighan Simmons was 1-12 in Sunday's game, and the coaches are concerned about the shooting woes at the guard spots. But they are not upset by the shot selection.

"They had some great looks," Lockwood said. "I think most of them are good shots."

While Simmons took quick shots against Virginia, she played within herself against Baylor. In that case the quickness was in the mechanics, not the shot selection.

"I think sometimes a couple of them are very, very quick – she doesn't let herself get set and balanced," Lockwood said. "But by and large she had some good looks, and she missed.

"We believe in them 100 percent. Our concern is that they believe in themselves. Because we do believe in them. We know that it's got to be frustrating for them. It's frustrating for all of us. It's got to be disappointing, especially Meighan because she had so much success in that area last year.

"Our biggest interest at this point is that they don't lose faith in themselves. There is nothing like a shooter. Good shooters know the next ball is going in. They may go through some periodic turbulence, but they know that next one is going in and I hope they feel that."

Massengale managed to smile at the media's line of questioning about her MIA made jumpers.

"I was asking the same question to myself," Massengale said. "You think about it after the game."

She also knows that overthinking the process is never a good idea.

"After the game my family and I went out to dinner and I pretty much told them I don't want to talk about basketball," Massengale said. "The game is over. Just give me some time. That helped to get my mind off things."

That is a healthy approach for an athlete because the conversations are plentiful with coaches and teammates. The cure is a gym court, not a chat session.

"But you think about it," Massengale said. "We're just going to take it as a learning experience, can't ponder on it too long because we've got MTSU coming in.

"I know I can shoot the ball. My teammates know I can shoot the ball. Just get in the gym and work on it. (Monday), we got some shots up. It felt pretty good again so we'll see what happens.

"If the shot wasn't feeling right then I would probably go back and break it down, but (Sunday) it was coming off my fingertips really nice. It felt fine; it just didn't fall."

Massengale has been tossed into the proverbial fire – and she missed nearly the entire month of October while recovering from a concussion so severe that she didn't even attend practice for several days to avoid exposure to motion and lights – and faced two top 10 teams in her first four collegiate games.

"I am just taking it one game at a time and knowing that it's all a learning process," Massengale said. "Playing at this level, playing with this competition, knowing you can't take plays off, you have to know sets and how to defend other team's sets.

"It is very mental. You have got to stay mentally tough, physically tough and stay confident in yourself."

Massengale made strides from the Virginia game, where she got rattled on the road when the game spiraled out of Tennessee's control, to Baylor, where she faced the No. 1 team in the country and was guarded by a ball hawk in Odyssey Sims. She had seven turnovers against Virginia and just one against Baylor.

"The coaches kept warning us that she is going to hawk the ball, she is going to get after you, so you have to protect it," Massengale said. "I feel like Heather Mason has given us these great bodies, and we need to use them to protect the basketball and take care of it."

Massengale also is getting in game shape after missing three weeks of preseason, a process she feels improves each time she takes the court.

"I feel like every day has gotten better," said Massengale, who logged 31 minutes in a demanding game Sunday. "I actually felt pretty good conditioning-wise after that one. I think it's coming. In practice I have to push myself every possession and that is going to get me ready for game time."

Massengale also has her mind on defense – something freshmen are not often asked to excel at, but she has to pick up the ball, which has been a weakness at Tennessee for the past three seasons. She has dealt with some early foul trouble as she gets used to the skill level of college guards.

"You have great guards who are just as quick as me, just as strong as me, so I am going to have to make sure all my techniques are right to stay out of foul trouble," Massengale said.

The best indicator from Massengale that she will adjust is the smile on her face and upbeat attitude when answering the questions.

"It's only game number four," Massengale said. "It's still early in the season, and we're just working every day to get better. It all comes down to staying the course. Our main goal is still going to be to win a national championship.

"Every day we are working towards that. We knew it was not going to be easy. We understand that. We like the obstacles because it's going to make the great times that much better."

PROBABLE STARTERS

Tennessee Coach Pat Summitt is expected to start: Ariel Massengale, 5'6 freshman point guard, No. 5 (4.8 points per game, 3.0 rebounds per game, 6.3 assists per game); Taber Spani, 6'1 junior guard/forward, No. 13 (15.8 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 2.0 apg); Shekinna Stricklen, 6'2 senior guard/forward, No. 40 (17.3 ppg, 9.8 rpg); Glory Johnson, 6'3 senior forward, No. 25 (14.3 ppg, 9.5 rpg); and Vicki Baugh, 6'4 redshirt senior forward/center, No. 21 (10.3 ppg, 7.0 rpg, 3.0 apg).

The starting lineup for the Lady Vols should always come with an asterisk because of two factors – health matters and the staff's willingness to tinker if needed.

Baugh played 32 minutes on Sunday and has dealt with tightness in her left leg. Spani is recovering from a left knee injury sustained in the Virginia game and logged 31 minutes against Baylor.

The short turnaround between games – and Tennessee faces the same scenario in two weeks on the New York/New Jersey leg of the schedule followed by one day at home before a cross-country trip to California – means the bench needs to be deployed.

"We need that," Dean Lockwood said. "It's a two-way street. We need to give them that opportunity, but they also need to be productive with their minutes. We are going to need a long bench."

Senior forward Alicia Manning likely tops the priority list as she has proven her worth. Freshman forward Cierra Burdick has been learning the three spot, but the coaches recognize her potential and are likely going to get her some repetitions at the four position in the foreseeable future.

"You may see that more as time goes on," Lockwood said. "We've got to get the train in the tracks and get her the practice time."

Middle Tennessee Coach Rick Insell is expected to start: Shanice Cason, 5'6 freshman guard, No. 5 (5.0 ppg, 2.5 rpg, 2.3 apg), hails from Murfreesboro, Tenn., just fifth freshman under Insell to start first game as Blue Raider, played at Siegel High School, named to 2011 Tennessee Sports Writers Association's All-State Team; Kortni Jones, 5'9 junior guard, No. 24 (15.7 ppg, 2.5 rpg, 4.0 apg), hails from Oak Ridge, Tenn., connected on six three-pointers in last game against East Tennessee State, started 27 of 31 games last season, led team with 159 assists, the second most in a single season in program history, nominated for 2009 McDonald's All-American game; Janay Brinkley, 5'8 sophomore guard, No. 1 (3.3 ppg, 1.8 rpg), hails from Pasadena, Md., earned first career start two weeks ago against Penn State, played in 13 games last season, led high school team to state semifinal game and won Baltimore city championship; Icelyn Elie, 6'1 junior forward, No. 13 (14.0 ppg, 8.3 rpg), hails from Lebanon, Tenn., named to 2011 Preseason All-Sun Belt Second Team, started 23 of 31 games last season and reached double digits in 15 contests, played in the 2008 AAU Junior Olympic Games in Auburn Hills, Mich., for Tennessee squad; and Ebony Rowe, 6'1 sophomore forward, No. 21 (14.7 ppg, 10.3 rpg), hails from Lexington, Ky., preseason 2011 co-Sun Belt Player of the Year and All-Sun Belt First Team, was selected as Sun Belt Freshman of the Year, nominated for the 2010 McDonald's All-American game, has three double-doubles in six games this season with 14 points, 14 boards in last game.

Another key player for Middle Tennessee is KeKe Stewart, a 6'1 center from Oak Ridge, Tenn., who has started four games this season and averages 4.2 points and 3.2 rebounds a game.

SCOUTING REPORT: Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood handled the scout for the Tennessee-Middle Tennessee game. Here is his assessment.

Offensively, "they are very good off the dribble," Lockwood said. "They are very good drivers. They are averaging 21 free throws a game so they are getting to the free throw line and doing a great job of it. They struggle shooting the ball, especially from the arc. It is a little different Middle team in that regard. They don't shoot it as much or as well.

"But boy they go to the rim. They go hard. They're athletic. They're tough. They will get to the basket off the dribble drive."

As a team, Middle Tennessee is shooting 31.8 percent from long range and connected at a 38.2 percent in the last game against East Tennessee State. The Blue Raiders did connect on 13 of 34 long-range attempts in that game. In the previous game Middle Tennessee shot just 28 percent from behind the arc and connected on seven of 25 attempts.

The Blue Raiders have half-court sets, but they also can abort those at any time in a possession.

"They will run a half-court offense, but they have the ability to break out of that and just go attack and make a play," Lockwood said.

The aggressive approach doesn't always extend to the open floor.

"They will run hard off turnovers, and they are very opportunistic," Lockwood said. "But they won't push tempo constantly."

Middle Tennessee wants to get the ball as much as possible to sophomore Ebony Rowe, who Lockwood compared to Alysha Clark, the Sun Belt Conference Player of the Year in 2009 and 2010 who was crafty in the paint and found a way to score even against much taller defenders.

"She is a version of (Clark)," Lockwood said. "She's active. She seals. She's got great footwork. She's got the shot fakes, the up and unders. She is a handful.

"That is somebody , I'll be frank, I am concerned that we get our arms around that kid, figuratively speaking, early. That kid could go off. That kid could have a 25-point night."

Defensively, "they are very active," Lockwood said. "They will deny. They are doing a lot of man. They are very active, a lot of pressure in their man to man."

"Full court after makes you will see a lot of 2-2-1 zone. They will face guard you in that zone. They have occasionally pressed after their misses."

Tennessee had just one day of preparation after the Baylor game and the coaches had to strike a balance between court time to work on Middle Tennessee and the recognition that players logged extended minutes and will need their legs Tuesday.

"Our challenge today was to get as much prep time as we can but stay off our legs," Lockwood said Monday after practice. "We probably covered about 80 percent of it, but there was still 15 or 20 percent I would like to have had on a perfect day."

SEC PLAY: Only two other SEC teams are in action Tuesday in these matchups: Belmont at Florida; and Arkansas-Pine Bluff at Ole Miss.

Five SEC teams take the court Wednesday: Troy at Auburn; S.C. State at Georgia; South Alabama at Mississippi State; South Carolina at Xavier; and Vanderbilt at Austin Peay.

The Lady Vols begin final exams Dec. 1. The next game after Middle Tennessee is this Sunday at home against Texas.

ODDS AND ENDS

Tennessee leads the series with Middle Tennessee State, 18-0. The series began in 1971, and Pat Summitt has been the head coach for 12 of those wins. … Tennessee is 6-1 in games played on November 29. The last win on this date was against the University of Puerto Rico-Mayaguez, 136-26, in the San Juan Shoot-Out in 2002. The first win on November 29 was against Clemson, 75-66, in 1978. The lone loss on this date was to the Soviet National Team, 102-59, in an exhibition game in 1979. … Middle Tennessee Coach Rick Insell coached his 200th career collegiate game on Nov. 23 and got win No. 150 in the home opener against South Dakota State on Nov. 17. Insell, who is in his seventh year, is one of four head coaches in Middle Tennessee program history to reach the 150-win mark and he got there the fastest, doing so in just 198 games.

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