Monthly Archives: January 2015

‘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, 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.