‘that person in the middle’

Guards driving the basket are the bane of the aggressive style of defense played by such women’s basketball teams as Mississippi State and Tennessee.

“There’s going to be some heartache with dribble penetration,” State coach Vic Schaefer said. “When you give that up, it’s so good to have that person in the middle.”

For Mississippi State, that person is 6-foot-4 senior center Martha Alwal, who has surpassed 300 blocks for her career. She’s been limited by injury to 18 games this season and still has 43 blocks.

Overall, State is second in the conference in blocks per game, averaging 4.9. By comparison, Tennessee is seventh, averaging 3.9.

Tennessee’s version of Alwal is 6-3 senior center Isabelle Harrison, who had two blocks Thursday night against Kentucky. But she has just 18 for the season after recording 105 during her three previous seasons. As a sophomore, she had 52.

Harrison missed five games earlier this season with a sprained right knee. Foul trouble at the beginning of conference play likely has inhibited her as well.

Tennessee would benefit from a bigger impact in this regard. All the more reason to look forward next season to the return of 6-6 center Mercedes Russell, who is sitting out this season after undergoing surgery on both feet. She’s returned to practice and UT Holly Warlick said the second-year player is showing no ill effects from the surgeries. Russell played the role of Alwal during Saturday’s practice

As a freshman, Russell played a reserve role and averaging 18.5 minutes per game. And she still had 40 blocks. She’s big enough to do better than that.

Meanwhile …

— Junior forward Jasmine Jones is expected to miss her 11th consecutive game Sunday because of concussion-like symptoms.

— In case you missed it, Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell and his wife Jenna donated $10,000 to former UT coach Pat Summitt’s foundation during “We Back Pat” week.


Notre Dame leftovers

Despite losing five straight to Notre Dame, Tennessee’s women’s basketball series with the Fighting Irish delivers in terms of national exposure. The Lady Vols can’t take that for granted, particularly since they haven’t been to a Final Four since 2008.

Furthermore, it exposes them to a style of play not common in the SEC. As tough as it is to shoehorn a nonconference game into January, this sort of game might be more beneficial then.

“If we are going to play somebody outside of our conference in the middle of the conference season, we want it to be somebody that is going to help us get better,” UT coach Holly Warlick said, “and I think that Notre Dame exposes some things that we need to get better at, like they did (Monday).”

The teams will play again next season at Notre Dame. I’m not sure when, however.

A few other thoughts:

— Forward Jasmine Jones, who’s sidelined while recovering from concussion-like symptoms, was missed on Monday. Her 6-foot-2 size and athleticism would’ve been helpful in guarding Notre Dame’s backcourt.

— Tennessee has been outrebounded in three consecutive games. Notre Dame overcame a five-rebound deficit at halftime Monday to finish with a 36-34 advantage. Fighting Irish coach Muffet McGraw thought it was the difference in the game. That’s all that needs to be said about the significance of this trend.

Happy Anniversary

Was riding back from Auburn Friday when a story link about the first Tennessee-Connecticut women’s basketball game appeared on my Twitter feed. It was the 20th anniversary of that game and the date had totally slipped my mind.

If this had been a wedding anniversary, I’d be so far in the doghouse I couldn’t see daylight.

I’ve always felt that day was more significant to UConn and ESPN than Tennessee. And that’s not to diminish the game or the hoopla that surrounded it. Nor does it ignore the ensuing history.

It’s a matter of context.

By Jan. 16, 1995, the Lady Vols had appeared in 11 Final Fours — either AIAW or NCAA — and won three NCAA national championships.

They had played before a crowd of 24,563 on Dec. 9, 1987, at Thompson-Boling Arena against Texas. The pregame traffic was so thick, coach Pat Summitt struggled to reach the arena.

Vanderbilt and Tennessee played a No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup on Jan. 30, 1993 at Memorial Gymnasium in Nashville that drew 15,317, the first advance sellout in the sport’s history. Tickets were going for as high as $200. The game ended up being oversold. Not even Joe Wyatt, who then was Vanderbilt’s Chancellor, could get in. He and 300 others watched the game on local television from the nearby Stadium Club

Lady Vols tennis coach Mike Patrick was Down Under at the Australian Open and read a preview of the game in a local newspaper. More than 100 media outlets, including Sports Illustrated, covered the game.

Events like that tend to get lost in time. I was in Nashville in 1993 and I was in Storrs in 1995.

For me, there’s a lot dates and events to remember. I guess there’s too many. So from the doghouse I offer a belated,  but no less hearty, Happy Anniversary!



Right on schedule

Tennesse currently is ranked No. 2  in RPI and its women’s basketball schedule is rated 10th, per the NCAA. The schedule is ranked ninth by RealTime RPI.

The resume reflects the Lady Vols’ 14-2 record (which includes three victories over top 10 opponents) and 10-game winning streak. It also refutes my thought that their early season schedule might be too soft.

I wondered whether six preseason games against Penn, Oral Roberts, Winthrop, Tennessee State, Saint Francis and Lipscomb was perhaps two or three too many to gird Tennessee for the rest of its schedule. As the season has played out, the bigger issue was center Isabelle Harrison missing five games with a sprained knee and needing at least two more to begin rounding into form. Her absence was a factor in losses to Chattanooga and Texas.

The Lady Vols didn’t suffer for playing so many overmatched foes because they didn’t develop bad habits. Against a similar schedule last season, they committed too many turnovers and didn’t play hard enough on defense. Those issues lingered throughout the season and played a huge part in their NCAA regional exit against Maryland.

This season, a recent dip in offensive efficiency was reversed in the past two games, during which Tennessee recorded 37 assists while committing 19 turnovers. The Lady Vols had reason to grumble about their defense against Arkansas yet they surrendered just 51 points.


Long-range thinking

As noted in my story for tomorrow’s editions of the News Sentinel and online at govolsxtra.com, there’s room for improvement regarding Tennessee’s 3-point shooting.

And there’s reason to believe improvement could be achieved.

For example, Andraya Carter came into the season with a career shooting percentage of 39.1 percent from long range. The figure was based on 87 attempts, too. Her shooting history suggests that her 2-for-18 accuracy on treys so far is an aberration.

Someone worth watching is freshman guard Alexa Middleton. She shot 35 percent from long range as a senior at Riverdale High in Murfreesboro and won the 3-point shootout held in conjunction with last Spring’s McDonald’s All-American Game. She hit both of her 3-point attempts in the season opener against Penn but is 6 for 21 overall. She was 5 for 6 from the field against Oregon State Sunday but all of her attempts were from inside the arc.

Fellow freshman Kortney Dunbar remains second on the team in treys with 10 but has played in just seven games. Redshirt freshman Jannah Tucker’s potential, meanwhile, still is just that. She’s made just one cameo appearance in her return from multiple knee surgeries.


SEC Preview

The unbalanced SEC women’s basketball schedule will be kind to viewers but not so kind to Kentucky.

The Wildcats will play league heavyweights Tennessee and South Carolina twice this season. All three teams are ranked among the nation’s top 11 teams.

Kentucky plays the Gamecocks twice annually. The Lady Vols, along with Ole Miss, are the rotating opponents.

As for some of the league’s other top contenders and who they will play twice:

— Texas A&M: Missouri, LSU, Arkansas.

— South Carolina: LSU, Kentucky, Alabama.

— Tennessee: Vanderbilt, Georgia, Kentucky.

— Georgia: Tennessee, Florida, Auburn.

— Mississippi State: Ole Miss, Alabama, Vanderbilt.

Advantage A&M. But the Aggies play Tennessee, Georgia, South Carolina and Mississippi State on the road.

Same Defense: South Carolina has upgraded its offense without sacrificing any defense.

The Gamecocks lead the conference and are among the nation’s best in scoring defense (47.6 points per game). They held their last three opponents to 46 points per game.

Higher profile: South Carolina’s A’ja Wilson and Jatarie White and Tennessee’s Jaime Nared all were ranked among the top 10 recruits in the Class of 2014 by ESPN HoopGurlz.

Yet Victoria Vivians has made the biggest first impression among SEC freshmen.

Mississippi State’s 6-foot-1 wing, who was ranked 24th by HoopGurlz, is tied for second in the league in scoring (16.3) and has been named freshman of the week as many times as Wilson (twice).

Butler Update: Georgia guard Marjorie Butler, who played at Webb School, has started all 13 games for the Lady Bulldogs. She leads the team in assists (48) and is third in steals (27).

Didn’t Expect This: The league’s leading scorer is Kelsey Brooks, a sophomore guard from Arkansas who is averaging 17.5 points per game.

Didn’t Expect This Either: LSU is 6-6 entering league play. Guard Danielle Ballard, the team’s leading returning scorer, was suspended before the season’s start for a violation of team rules and hasn’t played.

Full-Service Star: The conference’s most productive player is Ole Miss’ Tia Faleru. The 6-0 senior forward is tied for second in scoring (16.3) and leads in rebounding (10.5). She’s second in field goal percentage (57.0) and fourth in blocks (1.6)

Hoping for more from Moore

Tennessee’s Nia Moore is not starting nor is the Lady Vols junior center playing the same amount of minutes as she was earlier in the season.

The return of All-SEC center Isabelle Harrison, who missed five games with a sprained right knee, has a lot to do with that. But Tennessee assistant coach Dean Lockwood said that Moore hasn’t played recently with the same aggressiveness that she showed in scoring at least 20 points in three of UT’s first four games. She also set a new single-game career high for rebounds during that stretch with 14.

“I think the last couple of games she didn’t come out of the gate as strongly as she had been,” Lockwood said on the News Sentinel Sports Page radio show. “She wasn’t as assertive or as aggressive as she had been.”

Moore hasn’t scored more than eight points or grabbed more than six rebounds in any of her last six games. She played three minutes apiece against Rutgers and Wichita State.

It’s worth noting that Tennessee’s schedule has gotten more difficult. Nonetheless, Lockwood thinks Moore is capable of still having “a solid role.”

“We still are very, very optimistic that Nia is going to help us some,” Lockwood said.

Dividing the playing time

Regardless of whether the starting lineup changes, Tennessee will reconsider how it shares the playing minutes for Sunday’s game at Rutgers.

“That’s a great question,” UT coach Holly Warlick said when asked Wednesday about playing time against the Scarlet Knights, Tennessee’s greatest test since facing Texas.

It likely requires a great answer from Warlick and her staff.

To date, every Lady Vol is averaging at least 12.7 minutes per game and nobody more than 27.6. The balance reflects UT’s schedule to date but might not be suited for the schedule to come.

“I don’t know if the time or the minutes will be that balanced,” Warlick said. “I think we’ll see how the game flows and how we’re playing and who’s playing well together. Things like that.”

The most important thing is winning.

“We have to win the ballgame,” Warlick said. “If somebody doesn’t get to play, they don’t get to play. Then we’ll figure it out the next game.”

In other matters:

— Warlick said she anticipates Jannah Tucker being available on Sunday. The redshirt freshman guard is believed to have served her disciplinary time for missing class. The variable is how she feels with respect to her surgically repaired left knee.

— The team is leaving for New York on Thursday and attending the play “Kinky Boots” on Thursday night.




Take time to make time

Tennessee altered its women’s basketball practice schedule this week and devoted more time to shooting.

There’s not enough time in any practice week, though, to do justice to this important skill. Therefore, it behooves the players to make time for more shots.

Lady Vols assistant coach Dean Lockwood estimated that a player would be fortunate to get more than 60 extra shots during the course of most practices.  But an extra half hour in the gym might quadruple that number.

“If you go in the gym and get a teammate with you, a coach with you, say you get two or three of you together with two balls,” Lockwood said, “I’ve done it where you can easily get 250 to 300 shots in about 30 minutes.”

Two such sessions per week could translate into 500-600 extra shots, not to mention added confidence and consistency.

The view from my seat is that the Lady Vols’ confidence in their shooting will be the most important variable in their success this season. Think the view from the bench is becoming similar.

Regarding extra shooting, Lockwood said: “I hope our elder statesmen — our seniors and juniors — will lead in this area. We have to develop the work ethic and also the understanding that that has tremendous value.”


Maddening reply

When asked about Tennessee leading scorer Nia Moore playing just five minutes against Texas, teammate Jordan Reynolds defended the Lady Vols coaches. The sophomore guard probably could’ve chosen her words more carefully, however.

“Whatever our coaches do, there’s a reason behind their madness,” Reynolds said. “So whatever they did, there’s a reason why they didn’t play Moore or something. Whatever their mentality was, we just stuck with them. We’re Tennessee, we’re going to stick together.”

— Chattanooga’s follow-up to its upset of Tennessee was a 57-52 loss at Arkansas State Monday night. The Mocs fell behind by 16 points. Guard Keiana Gilbert, who looked like an All-American in scoring 27 points against the Lady Vols, had 15 against Arkansas State.