Massengale motivated to repeat

Ariel Massengale

DULUTH, Ga. - The Lady Vols open SEC tourney play Friday against Florida. Go inside for full coverage, including video interviews, from The Arena at Gwinnett Center.

Ariel Massengale was on crutches, not adept at using them and didn't think she would make it down the hall to see the end of the Tennessee game against Texas A&M last week.

So, Jenny Moshak and Dr. Greg Mathien carried her to the end of the long hallway and she then made her way to the Lady Vols bench.

Fortunately for her team, Massengale has shed those crutches and will be on the court Friday when Tennessee (23-6) takes on Florida (18-13) at noon Eastern (TV: SportSouth) in the SEC Tournament opener for the Lady Vols.

Tennessee, the top seed in Duluth, needed overtime to beat Florida in Gainesville, 78-75, on Jan. 13. The No. 9 seeded Gators came back to beat Arkansas on Thursday, 64-59, to earn the right to advance to Friday's game.

Massengale could hear from the locker room the announcer call teammates' names, especially that of Bashaara Graves and Kamiko Williams, so she knew things were going well for Tennessee last week as the Lady Vols tried to clinch the regular season title. Moshak approved the return to the bench, but retrieved a set of crutches.

"I said, ‘Crutches, JMo? have never used crutches a day in my life,' " Massengale said. "She tried to explain it to me. We had to walk down this back hallway to get to the bench and at the pace I was moving I would have missed the game."

That is when she got the lift from Moshak and the team's surgeon.

"JMo and Dr. Mathien carried me from the locker room down to the end of the tunnel and then I got on the crutches and walked out to the bench," Massengale said.

"I was very adamant about getting out here."

Massengale isn't certain what happened to cause her to collapse to the court. The mishap frightened the sophomore, not to mention the Lady Vol fan base as they watched the team's point guard cry and reach for her right knee.

"I know I went to close out (on the opposing player) and she jabbed one way and all of the weight went on my knee and it just kind of gave out on me," Massengale said.

"I was scared. I was really scared. Because I have never been someone to get hurt. Especially knowing what was on the line that night. We were playing for an SEC championship and all that we've overcome this season. It all kind of flashes in front of your face in that moment."

Assistant coach Dean Lockwood helped Moshak get Massengale to the locker room. It is unfortunately a job Lockwood has had often this season as he has assisted injured players Andraya Carter, Isabelle Harrison, Jasmine Jones and Massengale off the court.

"That is having a Marine dad right there," Lockwood said. "You always carry your people off. … I don't like being out there a whole lot. I would prefer to stay right where I am on the bench."

The team's orthopedic doctor met Massengale in the locker room and did some quick diagnostic tests that indicated the ligaments were OK, but an MRI was ordered to be certain. When that came back negative, Massengale was released to play. She returned for the final regular season game against Kentucky.

"I am back out here on the court," Massengale said with a smile. "Everything looked really good."

Massengale's father, Carvel, was in attendance at the game and made his way to his daughter in the locker room. She had taken a stoic approach to the injury but got emotional when she saw her father.

"I was trying so hard to be a man and be strong but after I saw him I couldn't take it anymore," she said. "I was glad he was here. My mom wasn't here, so she was calling and it was a good thing he was here because she had somebody to call.

"She wouldn't have known until after the game, and she would have been a nervous wreck. It is always good to have family here."

Massengale will still undergo some rehab, but she said she hasn't been bothered by pain or swelling and has been diligent about applying ice.

That was welcome news for the coaching staff since guard Kamiko Williams is hindered by two sprained ankles, though cleared to play, and post Isabelle Harrison is doubtful for Friday.

"Anytime somebody goes down, you hold your breath," Lockwood said. "You've got your starting point guard there … we were very relieved.

"When somebody goes down and they're holding a knee, you might as well put a shiv 10 inches right in your gut, because that's what it feels like."

Massengale will be starting her first postseason game. A year ago Tennessee went with five seniors to finish the season. She does have considerable postseason experience, but it will be the sophomore's first start in March.

"Winning," Massengale said when asked for the motivation factor of the team.

If Tennessee were to seize the tourney trophy, they would set SEC history as the first team to do so four consecutive years.

"Every time you step on the court the motivation is winning," Massengale said. "Our coaching staff is adamant in letting us know that we still don't have the respect that we deserve.

"We have put a lot of time in this year and proved a lot of people wrong, but I guess you've got to continue to do that and winning a championship is a huge way to get that done."

PROBABLE STARTERS

Tennessee coach Holly Warlick is expected to start: Ariel Massengale, 5-6 sophomore guard, No. 5, hails from Bolingbrook, Ill. (8.1 points per game, 2.7 rebounds per game, 4.7 assists per game); Kamiko Williams 5-11 senior guard, No. 4, hails from Clarksville, Tenn. (6.6 ppg, 4.1 rpg); Meighan Simmons, 5-9 junior guard, No. 10, hails from Cibolo, Texas (17.7 ppg, 3.9 rpg); Taber Spani, 6-1 senior forward, No. 13, hails from Lee's Summit, Mo. (10.1 ppg, 4.3 rpg); and Bashaara Graves, 6-2 freshman forward, No. 12, hails from Clarksville, Tenn. (14.3 ppg, 8.5 rpg).

The Gators are guard-oriented - and also have Jennifer George inside; she missed the second half against Tennessee because of shoulder injury but went 32 minutes Thursday - so Williams could get the nod for ball-handling and defensive help on the perimeter.

Or Warlick could opt for sophomore Cierra Burdick, who is averaging 8.4 points and 7.1 boards a game, for help inside. Burdick missed the first matchup because of a broken right hand.

Florida coach Amanda Butler is expected to start: Jaterra Bonds, 5-7 junior guard, No. 10 (12.5 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 3.4 apg), hails from Gainesville, Fla., tallied 17 points in Thursday's win over Arkansas and was 10-12 from the line; Sydney Moss, 5-11 freshman guard, No. 40 (10.3 ppg, 6.5 rpg), hails from Union, Ky., tallied 13 points, three assists against Arkansas and was 7-8 from the line; Lily Svete, 6-2 redshirt junior guard-forward, No. 31 (5.1 ppg, 1.9 rpg), hails from Granger, Ind., shoots 42.3 percent from the arc, logged just 11 minutes Thursday; Christin Mercer, 6-0 freshman forward, No. 25 (6.1 ppg, 4.1 rpg), hails from Douglasville, Ga., shoots 52.7 percent from the field; and Jennifer George, 6-0 senior forward, No. 32 (11.7 ppg, 8.0 rpg), hails from Fresno, Calif., tallied six points, six boards against Arkansas, has 46 blocks, 55 steals on season.

Three key players off the bench for Florida are January Miller, a 5-8 freshman guard from Orlando, Fla., Carlie Needles, a 5-6 redshirt freshman guard from Highlands Ranch, Colo., and Kayla Lewis, a 6-0 sophomore guard/forward from Decatur, Ga.

Miller was 5-9 from the field for 14 points against Arkansas, while Needles notched eight points, and Lewis added four, plus a block and a steal.

The Gators pushed Tennessee to overtime nearly two months ago. The Lady Vols went on to win the conference.

"I think we take great confidence from that game," Butler said. "We learned some tough lessons on that matchup. … But I think what happened before really doesn't have as much of an impact.

"(Friday) will be about who is more ready, who has an expectation of winning, and who puts up the greatest fight."

GO GET IT: If Meighan Simmons needs any reminder about her speed, she can just read her shoes.

She has the words "Go Get It" on one shoe flap - it is a favorite song by the artist Mary Mary.

"It is a song I listen to and it makes me get out there and play really hard," Simmons said.

Simmons also has Bible verses on her shoes.

"My favorite scripture is Colossians 3:23 and Philippians 1:6," Simmons said. "One is about confidence and the other is do things unto God instead of doing it for man. The way I play is for God."

Simmons became aware of her speed when she was in the second grade and realized how beneficial it would be in basketball. As she got older, she realized how effective a change of speeds would be on the court.

But it is her sudden bursts of speeds that wows the crowds, and she had it on display against Texas A&M last week when the Aggies made a seemingly safe in-bound pass deep into the backcourt.

Simmons, under a directive from Kamiko Williams, took off for the ball, beat two Aggies to it and scored for Tennessee on the other end. Williams had noticed that Texas A&M was likely to make a deep pass on the in-bound play.

"Miko was like, ‘Meg, watch back, watch back,' and she said, ‘Go get it!' and I was like, ‘OK, OK, I am just going to take off," Simmons said. "As soon as she said go get it, that is when I automatically took off."

Adding defense to her ability to score has made Simmons a better overall player. Simmons will log a lot of minutes - the Lady Vols need her to score - and if she is a force on both ends it makes Tennessee a much more formidable team.

"I can get rebounds, get steals and get out and run," Simmons said. "I think my defense is about a nine if I had to rate it. There is a lot more that I can do, not staying on my toes too much, not opening up too much, sticking to the details of what I need to do."

SOPHOMORE SUCCESS: The sophomore class of Ariel Massengale, Cierra Burdick and Isabelle Harrison were on the last team coached by Pat Summitt and the first team coached by Holly Warlick.

Having Warlick selected as SEC Coach of the Year nearly felt like a team award.

"It was wonderful," Massengale said. "Everyone thought there was going to be such a letdown with coach Summitt stepping down, but Holly has done a great job of keeping the tradition and those of us that played under Pat have been trying to do the same thing.

"We're still here. We want to win. That's the goal. Just because she is no longer here doesn't change our decision. We all came here to win national championships, and Holly has done that with Pat leading the way, so she knows what it takes to get it done."

GAME NOTES

Tennessee leads the series with Florida, 45-3. The Lady Vols are 8-0 against the Gators in the SEC tourney. Tennessee's all-time record in the SEC tourney is 69-17 with 16 championships. Tennessee last lost in the tournament in 2009 against Auburn in a semifinal matchup in Little Rock, Ark. The Lady Vols won their first SEC Tournament title in 1980 when Holly Warlick was the point guard. That was also the league's inaugural postseason event. … Lady Vol fans wanting to see the team receive its regular season trophy need to be in their seats before tipoff. The team is scheduled to receive it 12 minutes before the noon game. Kyra Elzy will be honored at halftime as one of the SEC Legends.

INSIDE TENNESSEE VIDEO COVERAGE

Dean Lockwood

Lady Vols practice

Florida coach Amanda Butler

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