Lady Vols stumble in opener

Holly Warlick

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. - Pat Summitt lost her first game as head coach of Tennessee. So did Holly Warlick. Go inside with InsideTennessee for game story and analysis.

Tennessee, 0-1, dropped its season opener, 80-71, at Chattanooga, 1-0, under a barrage of missed shots and turnovers and a spectacular performance from Taylor Hall, who had stopped playing basketball two years ago but decided to come back to the Lady Mocs.

Hall was 9-12 from the field and led all scorers with 24 points. She also added nine points, five assists, four steals, three blocks and zero turnovers.

"It was maybe the best game of my career," Hall said. "We all knew it was a big one, needed to execute and do the little things that we could do to help our team win. That was a definitely a game I enjoyed. That is a great way to start the season and it is a lot of early momentum."

Meighan Simmons led the way for Tennessee with 23 points while Bashaara Graves added 14 points and Isabelle Harrison notched a double-double with 13 points and 12 boards.

But the Lady Vols shot 38.1 percent overall, 18.8 percent from long range and had 26 turnovers.

"My hat is off to Chattanooga," Tennessee coach Holly Warlick said. "They played a great game. They played hard. We could not guard them one-on-one and that caused problems for us. When you can't contain the ball and give a team good, open looks you will gets tonight's result.

"I thought our defense affected our offense, and that's something we have to go back and work on. As long as we learn from this, it's alright, but if we keep making the same mistakes we're not going to get any better."

Tennessee settled down from a tough start of four turnovers to open the game and after falling behind 9-4 at the 12:35 mark, took the lead 10-9 on an Ariel Massengale free throw with 11:15 left in the first half.

The Lady Vols went up 20-11 after Harrison got to the rim but then didn't score for nearly seven minutes and Chattanooga took the lead, 21-20, on a three-pointer by Alex Black.

A layup by Graves with 1:31 left before halftime got Tennessee to 22 points and within two of Chattanooga, 24-22, and Massengale answered a Meghan Downes three with one of her own to tie the game at 28 at the buzzer going into the break.

However, Tennessee allowed 52 second-half points - while scoring 43 - and couldn't make up the deficit after Chattanooga opened the second half by hitting six of its first seven shots.

"I am not going to say it was our biggest win ever, but it is a very big win," Chattanooga coach Wes Moore said. "It is up there with the Rutgers win in the NCAA Tournament. Those two will be something that we'll never forget.

"Tennessee is going to be fine. We caught them in a year that they have a lot of inexperienced players and they graduated a lot of talent. But they still have a lot of talent and they'll be fine.

"Don't get me wrong, this is special. I told the team this will be something they never forget and can always be proud of."

Tennessee's coaches will look at the game film and the box score and see where the Lady Vols self-destructed, especially with the miscues. The 17 first-half turnovers didn't allow the Lady Vols to get into any offensive rhythm.

Tennessee did dominate the glass - Harrison had eight offensive rebounds - and the Lady Vols held a whopping 53-31 advantage on the boards.

"We gave up too many offensive rebounds, which I was afraid of, but we limited the damage somewhat," Moore said. "Probably the biggest stat is the assist-turnovers ratio. Seventeen assist and 13 turnovers is unbelievable.

"I can't say enough about Alex Black handling full-court pressure, but I thought our two seniors did a great job of handling the ball and helping get it up the court."

Even with its board prowess, Tennessee's inaccuracy from the field was too much to overcome, especially with Chattanooga shooting a scorching 56.3 percent in the second half and 46.8 percent for the game.

Black added 14 points for the Lady Mocs while Kayla Christopher chipped in with 11.

"This is huge," Christopher said. "This is a great way to start off my senior year. It is something we will never forget, and it gets us jumpstarted for the season.

"We know what we are capable of now and it really raises our expectations. We know we can do it, and now we just have to keep doing it."

The Lady Vols defense was a source of concern for Warlick, and the Lady Vols dropped into a zone at times in an attempt to slow down Chattanooga's offense.

"It was a good move when they went to a zone, and I thought we were a little disoriented for the first few possessions," Moore said. "That was a scary stretch and it was a good move on their part.

"Late in the stretch, they were just putting their head down, attacking the basket and attacking the offensive boards. We had a hard time keeping them in front of us and keeping them boxed out, but we were able to hold on.

"As a coach, I don't know if we are going to hit shots every night like we did tonight. The 80 points is nice, but you can't hang your hat on that every night. We're going to have to continue to work defensively. We gave up 43 points in the second half so that's a little concerning. But I am proud of them, and we were able to hit enough shots to keep a lead."

INSIDE TENNESSEE'S TAKE

The Lady Vols buried themselves amid turnovers and poor shooting and will start the season 0-1 after Friday's 80-71 loss to UTC.

Holly Warlick opens her career with a loss, just as Pat Summitt did to Mercer in 1974. Summitt sat cattycornered to the bench and posed for photos and signed autographs before the game. By the end of the game, the familiar stare was in place, and the head coach emeritus didn't look at all pleased with the play of Tennessee.

Senior Taber Spani mentioned in the post-game press conference that Tennessee was in a period of adjustment with a lot of new players and a new era on the bench.

The Lady Vols are a very young team - those warning bells were sounded all preseason - but a season opening loss to Chattanooga was still a surprise.

Lady Mocs coach Wes Moore said he didn't feel the game was in hand until about nine seconds were left on the clock because he knew that Tennessee had firepower and could dominate the offensive glass.

Tennessee did indeed own the boards, 53-31 with a whopping 22 on the offensive end, but the Lady Vols also let the ball squirt loose 26 times in a variety of manners from bad passes to charging fouls to three seconds in the lane.

Tennessee also shot an abysmal 18.8 percent from long range and 38.1 percent from the field overall.

Combine those stats with porous defense in the second half, and it added up to a season opening loss for the first time since 1999, when the Lady Vols lost to Louisiana Tech.

Warlick was disappointed in her team's debut - and especially their defense - as the Lady Vols failed to stop the Lady Mocs and couldn't hold onto the ball.

She indicated that Saturday's practice in Atlanta - the schedule ratchets up even more with Georgia Tech waiting to open its new arena on Sunday - would consist primarily of one-on-one defense.

Warlick specifically cited freshman Andraya Carter as the one player willing to put pressure on the ball handler. Carter didn't enter the second half until nearly midway through - Tennessee was behind and the freshman doesn't yet hunt shots on offense - but she made an immediate impact on one end of the floor. Step one for Warlick will be to get the precocious guard to be a threat on both ends as soon as possible.

In the first half the three best players on the floor for the Lady Vols were Carter, sophomore point guard Ariel Massengale - she was 2-4 from long range, including a buzzer-beater three to knot the game at 28 right before the half - and freshman Bashaara Graves.

Warlick said the halftime emphasis was to strengthen the defense - it was actually stout at times in the first half - and instead Chattanooga hit six of its first seven shots. The Lady Vols trailed the rest of the way and when the final buzzer sounded, the students streamed onto the court.

A boisterous crowd of 8,468 at McKenzie Arena was ready for an upset - Tennessee last lost to Chattanooga in 1973 - and it got it. The Lady Vol players looked stunned and saddened as they left the court while the celebration commenced around them.

Warlick was dismayed with her team's defense in the post-game press conference, while Moore endorsed her as the head coach for Tennessee and pointed out how young the Lady Vols were.

That youth was on display throughout the game, and especially in the first half when the players were noticeably jittery. That was apparent in the stat box in the first half with 17 miscues, enough for an entire game.

One bright spot, though, Graves played 15 minutes in the first half and tallied nine points, seven boards and zero turnovers. She moved into the starting lineup in the second half, and, despite fouling out, made a case to be there again.

Tennessee managed to get the miscues under control in the second half with a more manageable nine, but then the defense got soft and Chattanooga went where it wanted to with the ball from shooting behind the arc to getting to the paint.

Chattanooga's Kayla Christopher said the Lady Vols' frustration was apparent in the second half and the Lady Mocs knew they had the edge because of veteran players.

Chattanooga pounced - its biggest lead was 13 points - and the Lady Vols played the entire second half chasing the Lady Mocs. They never caught them, though two free throws by Isabelle Harrison cut the lead to seven points, 70-63, with 1:57 to play.

Tennessee's predicted advantage with speed didn't materialize as Chattanooga's guards, led by Alex Black, were more than willing to keep pace. The Lady Mocs also did a good job in transition defense and while Meighan Simmons went coast to coast several times, the Lady Vols didn't erupt as they did in the two exhibition games when they wore down the opponents in the second half.

Simmons was 9-25 but she was told to shoot by her teammates, as she was willing to attack the basket. While a few shots may have been ill advised, Simmons mostly worked well within the offense. She also was one of the players willing to take shots - some teammates passed up open looks in moments of indecision - and she finished with 23 points to lead Tennessee.

Graves, who looks more impressive every game out, added 14 points and eight boards. Harrison tallied a double-double with 13 points and 12 boards but also had a team-high six turnovers.

Graves had just one miscue in 29 minutes of play on a quick whistle for three seconds. She was 6-7 from the line - Harrison was 7-10, another bright spot as the post players are hitting their free throws - and Graves was crushed when she fouled out. Graves gets it. She needs to get on the floor as much as possible.

So does Carter, who must become an offensive threat. If Tennessee is going to be a defensive-oriented team, those two need to log significant minutes. Despite being freshmen, they are two of the best defenders on the team.

It was a signature win for Chattanooga and Moore, always gracious and engaging, shared an anecdote after the game. He said his wife had to leave the arena for her mother's 100th birthday and the last thing she said to him was, "Don't embarrass the family."

He didn't as Chattanooga sent a message to the rest of the Southern Conference that being picked third mat have been too low. Moore warned his team in the locker room after the game that the bar was just raised.

Warlick, on the other hand, wasn't at all pleased with her team.

"I think our defense was nonexistent the whole night," Warlick said. "I think, outside of Andraya Carter putting pressure on the ball, we didn't affect them one bit. We were at the mercy of them missing shots.

"Our defense was nonexistent, and you can't beat a veteran team like Chattanooga on their home floor when you can't score."

Warlick acknowledged that her team was young. But she won't use that as an excuse when she didn't see enough effort on the defensive end.

"I think we are a little anxious," Warlick said. "We are young, have a new coach and were playing in a hostile environment. When it comes down to it, you have to take care of business and we didn't.

"Things may not go your way, but you can always get down on the defensive end and play. You can control that. There was one series where we missed four layups in a row right underneath the basket, but the ball didn't go in. We can always muster up a little heart and energy to play defense. That's all it is."

The schedule gets significantly tougher with Sunday's game at Georgia Tech, a home opener against Rice and then a trip to play at Miami.

Warlick knew the schedule was tough and that her team was going to take some hits. She likely didn't expect one in the season opener, though she had warned her team that Chattanooga was a rugged road game.

It's a new era at Tennessee. And if the Lady Vols are to return to their winning ways, they will have to play like the Tennessee of old - defense matters.

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