Lady Vols to open season versus UTC

Isabelle Harrison

Last March, Isabelle Harrison fought back tears while sitting inside a locker in Iowa. It was a conversation with Dean Lockwood that would set the tone for the summer to come and, ultimately, the season opener. Go inside with Inside Tennessee to get ready for tipoff.

Tennessee officially opens the season tonight at 7 p.m. at Chattanooga at McKenzie Arena. Holly Warlick, who has no career wins or losses, will make her debut as head coach in a game that counts. With Pat Summitt now retired after nearly 40 years on the sidelines for the Lady Vols, Friday's game is truly one for the record books.

Warlick arrives in Chattanooga with a very young team – four players put on a Tennessee uniform for the first time ever in last week's exhibition games. Three others are sophomores. The roster is rounded out by one junior and two seniors and a juco transfer sophomore who didn't play in the exhibitions because of injury.

One of those three returning sophomores is Isabelle Harrison, a role player as a freshman since she played behind forwards Glory Johnson, Vicki Baugh and Alicia Manning.

Johnson was a top five WNBA draft pick and made the All-Rookie Team, Baugh is now playing pro ball in South Korea, and Manning had an offer to play overseas but opted to finish her graduate degree this fall and then pick up basketball again. A fourth player, Shekinna Stricklen, also played inside and out and also went in the top five in the draft.

So, a freshman forward who needed to get stronger didn't get a lot of court time last season, and the frustration spilled over last March in Des Moines, Iowa, in the NCAA Tournament.

The media was allowed into the locker room after the team's cooling off period – as per NCAA rules in the postseason – and the players sat at their lockers to field questions about the Sweet 16 win over Kansas, a game in which Tennessee went down by double digits in the first half and came back to win.

The lockers at Wells Fargo Arena were rather spacious, and players could sit back and be nearly obscured from view. Harrison was basically buried in hers.

"There are certain moments that are just etched in stone that you will not forget," Assistant coach Dean Lockwood said. "One of my moments is somewhat consoling. In the NCAA tournament, she doesn't play a minute, and she's trying to hold it in and she's trying to be happy for the team, and she was just fighting emotionally the hurt of not playing.

"She almost barricaded herself into those wide wooden lockers. She was way on the inside and I was on the outer edge, but we were talking. I turned and had her face me and I told her, ‘Hey, you're playing behind two players who will be drafted. I understand the hurt, but take a look around this room.'

"I made her. I said, ‘Look around this room. Who goes? She goes, she goes, she goes.' We looked at Vicki, Glory, Alicia. And Strick even. I said, ‘I've got news for you. Who do you think has got to anchor our frontline?

"Take a look around. Show me.' She said, ‘You're exactly right.' I said, ‘I understand the hurt now, but you had better know something. Next year it's a whole new ballgame.' "

Harrison played in the Elite Eight loss to Baylor in Iowa, and while she was in foul trouble, she showed a willingness to battle in the paint against 6-8 Brittney Griner, the consensus player of the year and likely No. 1 draft pick in 2013.

When that game ended, Tennessee's experienced post players headed for the exits via graduation and professional opportunities.

And Harrison entered the off-season knowing that she was going to have to play significant minutes this season. Three freshman forwards, Bashaara Graves, Jasmine Jones and Nia Moore weren't even on campus yet.

"She is the most experienced post by far," Lockwood said.

Harrison embraced the challenge and plunged into off-season workouts before the spring semester ended. She stayed on campus for summer school and when she did slip home to Nashville, she worked out with her older brothers. When the freshmen arrived, Harrison showed them around campus and got in the gym with them.

"She was in our senior shadow and I think at times Izzy didn't understand why she was not playing last year," Warlick said. "I said Izzy we are going to have this same conversation next year and when you want to come out I am not going to bring you out when you need to come out.

"I have been very pleased with her. She has really made a commitment to getting better, and you can tell. Izzy's game has changed."

Harrison smiled when reminded of Iowa, a frustration that stemmed from her desire to help the team.

"I didn't feel like I was there for my team," Harrison said. "I am one of those players that I am willing to do whatever I can for the team but when I actually can't physically do it, that's weird for me because I never had to not do that."

The media could see Lockwood huddled with his post player and left them both alone to have a quiet but pointed conversation.

"He knows how to get the point across to whatever player it is," Harrison said. "He explained it to the fullest, and he put it in perspective."

Harrison could look around the locker room that unseasonably warm day in Des Moines and understand that she had to log minutes this season. Sometimes a player who realizes that playing time will not come by default won't work as hard. But Harrison decided to work harder.

"I really did," said Harrison, who added the workouts with her brothers – she is one of 12 children so she had sibling options for playing partners – and sought Heather Mason for extra conditioning sessions. "We went to the gym a lot over the summer.

"You can't be like, ‘I am going to play anyway.' You have to improve. I feel like that maturity this summer is really going to help me. I just had to step it up."

The extra conditioning was especially beneficial because the coaches expect the posts to be able to run the floor and handle the ball, at least on a limited basis, to initiate the fast break.

"We have to be able to run in transition, whoever has the ball," Harrison said. "I like how they're telling us to go and having an outlet ready for us."

In the exhibition game against Coker, Harrison got a defensive rebound in the second half, dribbled quickly out of the paint area and found freshman guard Andraya Carter, who had stayed back – but farther up court than is typical – to receive the ball. Carter dribbled across center court and fired the ball to Meighan Simmons for a layup. The play took nine seconds end to end.

That is the pace of play that Warlick wants for Tennessee this season, and the posts are ready for it.

"I feel more confident and that is definitely my team and my coaches," Harrison said. "I feel like this staff is so supportive."

The coaches, in turn, are relying on Harrison, who, while just a sophomore, has already come a long way from that locker room in Iowa.

"Those seniors aren't there to direct us anymore," Harrison said. "I have to come in as a sophomore ready to be vocal and be a leader and be a backbone like they were for me last year."

PROBABLE STARTERS

Tennessee Coach Holly Warlick is likely to start: Andraya Carter, 5-9 freshman guard, No. 14, hails from Flowery Branch, Ga.; Meighan Simmons, 5-9 junior guard, No. 10, hails from Cibolo, Texas; Taber Spani, 6-1 senior forward, No. 13, hails from Lee's Summit, Mo.; Cierra Burdick, 6-2 sophomore forward, No. 11, hails from Charlotte, N.C.; and Isabelle Harrison, 6-3 sophomore center, No. 20, hails from Nashville, Tenn.

Sophomore point guard Ariel Massengale is available for the game – she rested a sore left Achilles tendon last week – and could move into the starting slot, but Warlick expressed confidence this week in Carter, who started both exhibition games in Knoxville and has already shown that she can be one of the team's best on-ball defenders.

If Massengale starts, that is an all-returning player lineup. With Carter inserted for tipoff – she would join current teammates Spani and Massengale as freshmen who started their first official collegiate game – that would place just one newcomer on the court for a road game.

Juco sophomore Jasmine Phillips remains out with a left quad injury and is listed as doubtful for Friday's game.

Chattanooga Coach Wes Moore is expected to start: Kayla Christopher, 5-9 senior guard, No. 3, hails from Oliver Springs, Tenn.; Alex Black, 5-8 junior guard, No. 21, hails from Memphis, Tenn.; Kylie Lambert, 5-11 senior guard, No. 22, hails from Etowah, Tenn.; Taylor Hall, 6-1 junior forward, No. 31, hails from New Tazewell, Tenn.; and Faith Dupree, 6-3 junior forward, No. 34, hails from Knoxville, Tenn.

Dupree is a transfer from Tennessee, who sat out her freshman year because of back issues, and then opted to relocate to Chattanooga. She has continued to deal with back issues but scored 14 points in the Lady Mocs last exhibition game against Lee University. She was 7-12 from the field with four rebounds, two assists and a steal.

CHATTANOOGA INFO: While Pat Summitt won't be on the bench – she will, however, be with the team in Chattanooga – Wes Moore won't see an unfamiliar face on the Tennessee bench. He has known Holly Warlick for years.

"I know her pretty well, as long as I've known Pat," said Moore, who graduated from Tennessee in 1986. "I used to work their camps back in the early '80s and '90s. I've been around them quite a while. She has paid her dues and invested a lot into that program so it's good that she gets the opportunity to be their head coach."

Chattanooga has struggled in Knoxville – the margin of victory in the last two games was 51.3 points for Tennessee – but the Lady Mocs nearly upset the Lady Vols in 2008. Then-freshman Alicia Manning hit a late three to secure a 66-63 win in Chattanooga.

"Our experiences the last couple of years have not been good over in Knoxville," Moore said. "We do have some kids that were freshmen the last time they came to us when we had a lead with a minute and a half to go and let that one get away from us.

"So hopefully our kids that have been here have a short memory and can focus on us not them. We can't get caught up on the name on the front of their jersey or we're going to be in a lot of trouble."

Moore's press conference remarks can be read by CLICKING HERE.

HOW TO WATCH/LISTEN: Chattanooga is offering a webcast for a fee of $8.95. It can be accessed by CLICKING HERE.

Voice of the Lady Vols Mickey Dearstone can be listened to online by CLICKING HERE.

Also, Tennessee's website has its Gameday Central page with access to a live blog and Gametracker stats. That can be accessed by CLICKING HERE and it also includes full game notes.

ODDS AND ENDS

Tennessee leads the series with Chattanooga, 25-6, and has won the last 19 games. The Lady Mocs last won, 58-55, on Jan. 26, 1973 – Pat Summitt wasn't on the sideline – in a game played at Alumni Gym. These will be the seventh time Tennessee opens a season against Chattanooga with the most recent being in 2007. … Chattanooga plays in the Southern Conference, known as SoCon, and was picked to finish third. Davidson, which comes to Knoxville on Dec. 28, was predicted to win the league with Appalachian State picked second. Both the media and coaches' polls selected the Lady Mocs at the third spot. … Chattanooga is tough at home, known officially as McKenzie Arena, but more popularly as the Roundhouse because of its shape. The Lady Mocs were 13-0 at home last season and, according to RPIRatings.com, they have compiled a 115-22 (.8394) record in McKenzie Arena since the 2001-02 season. That ranks ninth among Division I women's teams with Tennessee holding the top spot with a 341-20 mark (.9446) at Thompson-Boling Arena.

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