Wiedmer: Warlick's warning spurs Lady Vols past UTC

Wiedmer: Warlick's warning spurs Lady Vols past UTC

November 15th, 2013 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Tennessee head coach Holly Warlick reacts to being down by four points against Chattanooga in the first half of thier NCAA basketball game on Thursday, Nov. 14, 2013, in Knoxville.

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

KNOXVILLE - An hour later, University of Tennessee Lady Vols point guard Ariel Massengale could laugh it off. Chattanooga's bid for a second straight upset of Big Sister had been averted. A 32-all halftime score had become an 80-56 revenge rout, much to the delight of most of the 10,508 gathered inside Thompson-Boling Arena on Thursday night.

But Massengale's recollection of Lady Vols coach Holly Warlick's halftime instructions was probably anything but funny at the moment the coach first delivered them.

Said Massengale, a grin growing on her face: "She said, 'If you don't come out of this game with a win, I'm going to make your life a living ...' (long pause) ... well, you can fill in the rest."

Asked to confirm her junior quarterback's story, Warlick said, "In those exact words."

She soon added, "I must give a heck of a locker-room halftime speech."

It certain seemed that way. Looking every bit as capable as the UTC team that shocked the world a little more than a year ago by spoiling Warlick's head-coaching debut inside Chattanooga's McKenzie Arena, UTC spent the first 20 minutes expertly spreading the floor, knocking down 3-pointers and keeping the No. 4 Lady Vols off balance.

But much as UT (3-0) was adjusting to Warlick a year ago after the close of the long and illustrious career of Pat Summitt, UTC is now adjusting to Hall of Fame coach Jim Foster after Wes Moore's departure to North Carolina State at the close of last season.

And just as last year's halftime tie wound up comfortably on the side of the Lady Mocs, Thursday's tie almost instantly was shredded by UT, which outscored UTC 27-6 over the first 7:36 of the final half, much of the damage done by an agressive, trapping full-court press.

"We flat-out knew they were going to [press]," said a frustrated Foster. "We weren't agressive in the second half at all. We had some people who didn't want the responsibility of the ball."

Agreeing with her coach, Lady Mocs senior forward Taylor Hall said, "When they came at us, we backed down."

Having already blasted No. 12 North Carolina on the road, the Lady Vols figure to make a lot of opponents back down this season. That UTC held firm for 20 minutes away from home against an opponent geared up to pay it back for last year's upset bodes well for the Lady Mocs' future.

Especially if UTC (1-1) can keep hitting 3-pointers at the rate it did against UT, dropping in 10 of 24 (42 percent).

But this Lady Vols team could also look much different once freshmen such as 6-foot-6 Mercedes Russell (15 points, four rebounds) better blend with veterans such as Massengale (16 points, five assists), senior Meighan Simmons (10 points, three assists, two steals) and Bashaara Graves (11 points, seven rebounds).

"We can be so much better," said Warlick, her words surely sending shock waves throughout all of college basketball, especially the Southeastern Conference.

Of course, she also added, "Our talent helped us win. Against great teams, you can't do that."

If that sounded like a dig at the Lady Mocs, it almost assuredly wasn't meant to be. Warlick talked about the Lady Vols playing "scared" last year at McKenzie. She said she cautioned her players more than once, "We don't need to stay close with this team," given UTC's 3-point skills.

Yet if Foster believed there was a talent gap, he kept it to himself. He instead seemed to embrace the notion of an execution gap, which he seemed to determined to correct quickly, if not sooner.

Looking ahead to Saturday's practice after taking an off-day today, he said, "If I was a freshman, I'd come into practice really anxious on Saturday."

Ironically, it was the UT freshman Russell who shed the most light on how much her coach anxiously wanted to make amends for last November at UTC.

"We definitely watched the end of last year's game," she said. "I knew that wasn't going to happen again."

After all, payback is ... well, you can fill in the rest.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com