Lady Vols enter SEC tournament on a roll

Lady Vols enter SEC tournament on a roll

March 4th, 2014 by David Paschall in Sports - College

Tennessee forward Jasmine Jones, left, and South Carolina center Elem Ibiam battle for a loose ball in their game Sunday in Knoxville. South Carolina is seeded first and Tennessee is seeded second for the SEC women's tournament this week in Duluth, Ga.

Photo by Associated Press/Times Free Press.

Tennessee head coach Holly Warlick yells to her team in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Florida last Thursday in Knoxville. Tennessee won 89-69.

Photo by Associated Press/Times Free Press.

Conference basketball tournaments often give coaches the opportunity to preach about clean slates and forgetting about the past.

Not Tennessee's Holly Warlick.

Warlick is hoping her Lady Volunteers can pick up where they left off when Tennessee begins Southeastern Conference tournament play Friday night against the winner of Thursday's matchup between Alabama and LSU. The Lady Vols are the tournament's second seed and are coming off Sunday's 73-61 whipping of top-seeded South Carolina.

"It's momentum for us," Warlick said Monday. "That was tough game, and South Carolina is a solid, very well-coached and very good basketball team. They won the regular season, so we're going to take that and use it as momentum that can follow us into the tournament. Hopefully we can stay as focused as we can.

"That was a pride thing for us. We weren't going to win the championship, but it was to prepare us for going into this tournament and then the NCAA tournament."

The Lady Vols will take a 24-5 overall record and a 13-3 league mark into the SEC tournament, which will be held Wednesday through Sunday inside The Arena at Gwinnett Center in Duluth, Ga.

South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas A&M and Kentucky are the top four seeds and do not have to play until Friday. The tournament opens Wednesday night with 12th-seeded Missouri taking on 13th-seeded Mississippi State and 11th-seeded Arkansas facing 14th-seeded Ole Miss.

While Tennessee has 16 SEC tournament titles -- 10 more than any other school -- this is new territory for the Gamecocks (26-3, 14-2).

South Carolina has an all-time SEC tournament record of 7-22, with its win percentage the worst of any school other than Missouri's 0-1 mark. The Gamecocks have made just one trip to the semifinals.

"We have to stay true to form and not look ahead and just focus on our task," South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said. "We don't need to play too fast or play outside the moment. We need to play in the moment and continue to do the things that got us here, and I think that the rest will take care of itself."

It was Warlick's Lady Vols who were coming off the regular-season title last year. Tennessee defeated Florida in the quarterfinals but was then upset by Gary Blair's Texas A&M Aggies in the semifinals.

Texas A&M, which was in its first year in the SEC after moving from the Big 12, went on to down Kentucky in the league championship game and went 13-3 in conference play this season.

"We were 7-1 in [league] road games and have done a great job," Blair said, "but the team that was the most consistent this year was South Carolina. They deserve the championship. They've been the best defensive team overall for the whole year, and defense and rebounds usually wins championships."

Though the league has expanded from 10 to 14 teams since the debut of the SEC women's tournament in 1980, no team consistently has more of a fan advantage than Tennessee. It's no different in Duluth, which is housing the event for the fourth time in the last eight years.

"We've got such a strong fan base, and we travel well," Warlick said. "If it's within a day's drive for us from Knoxville, our fans will really come out and support us. It's fun for us when we have three-fourths of a gym filled with Lady Vols fans."

Massengale update

Tennessee junior point guard Ariel Massengale has not played since Jan. 23, when she was inadvertently hit in the face in a win over Florida. She had started all 19 games and was averaging 12.5 points per game, with her 30.6 minutes per game and 110 assists leading the team.

"This whole thing has been out of my hands," Warlick said. "As long as she has headaches, she won't play. She's working out, and we're trying to get her back to where she can do some things, but you just can't hang your hat on the possibility of her coming back.

"We've adjusted to it, and if she comes back it would be a great bonus."

The Lady Vols are 9-1 in Massengale's absence.

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524.