Commentary

Normal in Knoxville? Even better

Tennessee, Texas A&M win top-10 clashes; both improve to 2-0

Originally Published: November 15, 2011
By Mechelle Voepel | ESPN.com

Pat Summitt has been determined to make sure nothing seems all that different in regard to her Tennessee program this season, despite the health issues she is bravely and publicly facing.

And you know what? Everything looked pretty normal -- on the "better" side of normal, in fact -- Tuesday as Tennessee took on its first serious challenger of the 2011-12 season. The Orange Crush did what it has typically done for the last three-plus decades: Rise to the occasion.

The Lady Vols' 92-76 victory on a hoops-filled day displayed all the things that Tennessee hopes to do well this season. Such as:

• Shoot 50 percent from 3-point range. (OK, not even Summitt expects the bar to be that high from behind the arc.)

• Play the kind of defense that took the game from a 42-42 tie at the break to putting Tennessee in control in the second half.

• Adjust to the quickness and physicality of Miami's defense with good offensive execution and toughness.

• Respond to the always-able-to-bring-the-heat-at-halftime Summitt's high-decibel request to hit the boards like Lady Vols, not baby dolls. Down by 13 in rebounding margin at the break, Tennessee at least got that to a more respectable 45-38 deficit by game's end. (And Tuesday notwithstanding, this almost certainly is going to be a very good rebounding team, even by classic Tennessee standards.)

[+] EnlargeAriel Massengale
AP Photo/Wade PayneFreshman point guard Ariel Massengale was effective in her debut, tallying 11 points and nine assists.

Summitt said afterward it felt like a March game in November. And for the most part, if Tennessee performs like this in March, it's going to be good news in Knoxville. Because the Hurricanes are not an easy team to beat by 16 points, even in Thompson-Boling Arena.

Miami is going to chew up and spit out a lot of its foes this season, especially as reserve post players Maria Brown and Shawnice Wilson become stronger contributors. We already know how consistently effective the senior guard tandem of Riquna Williams (24 points, six assists) and Shenise Johnson (17 points, nine rebounds) will be.

But what we saw Tuesday was how Tennessee clamped down defensively to make Williams and Johnson have to work harder and harder as the game went on -- statistically indicated by their combined 16-of-47 shooting from the field. And the Hurricanes wore out as the game went on -- admittedly, Tennessee will do that to the best of teams -- and saw their defense wane while their turnovers waxed (21 total).

Some of the primary things observers were watching for from Tennessee were the effectiveness of freshman point guard Ariel Massengale against the speed of Miami's perimeter, and how sophomore Meighan Simmons responded to coming off the bench.

Both were positives. Massengale had 11 points and nine assists, and her five turnovers -- considering her youth, the opponent and the pace of the game -- were not alarming. Simmons, who started every game but the opener her freshman season, provide a lot of positive energy, some big defensive plays and 18 points.

Seniors Glory Johnson and Shekinna Stricklen combined for 31 points and 16 rebounds. About the only gripe Summitt and her staff might have had in that regard is that it took awhile for Stricklen to make her presence felt.

It did not take Taber Spani very long to do that, though. A 6-foot-1 junior who has battled some nagging and painful foot issues in her first two seasons, Spani this season could really show the full range of her contributions. She had a team-high 20 points -- hitting four of Tennessee's 11 3-pointers -- with five rebounds and three assists. She also logged 39 minutes, the most of any Tennessee player.

There are some specific junctures in this game that Tennessee will want to highlight in review. Because even experienced players need reminders that it takes a brief loss of focus/slightly sloppy play to let a team like Miami suddenly be huge in your rearview mirror again when you think you've left it behind.

Texas A&MAP Photo/David J. PhillipPrior to its win over Louisville, Texas A&M hoisted its NCAA championship banner at Reed Arena.

Aggies pick up right where they left off

Earlier Tuesday, defending champion Texas A&M got to celebrate on ring day and show off a few newcomers who'd like to earn some jewelry of their own.

With former center Danielle Adams, last season's Final Four MVP, in attendance, the Aggies pretty well clobbered the shadow of Louisville, 76-58. Which is not to take anything away from Texas A&M. It's just to say this is not the Cardinals squad that has garnered a No. 10 ranking.

With Shoni Schimmel out because of her NCAA suspension -- she played in a non-sanctioned 3-on-3 summer tournament -- and Tia Gibbs and Monique Reid injured, the Cardinals were riding into Reed Arena without the necessary ammo to battle the Aggies.

Really, the only bad news, if you will, for A&M was that part of the game's first half was knocked off ESPNU because of stormy weather in the College Station, Texas, area.

[+] EnlargeTexas A&M's Kelsey Bone
AP Photo/David J. PhillipTexas A&M's Kelsey Bone, who sat out a transfer year last season after leaving South Carolina, led A&M with 15 points and nine rebounds.

Actually, it was worse news for the Cardinals that the interruption of the broadcast didn't happen during the second half -- specifically, the nearly 8-minute stretch when they hit just two shots from the field. Louisville coach Jeff Walz would just as soon not have that be seen by a national audience.

However, he will now get Schimmel back, and depending on the severity of the injuries, the Cardinals should look better soon. It's not as if they are going to face a Texas A&M-style defense again right away, although trips to Florida State (Nov. 25) and Kentucky (Dec. 4) are coming up.

With Adams now in the WNBA, the Aggies' starting center spot belongs to Kelsey Bone, who had to sit out a transfer year last season after leaving South Carolina. She had team highs of 15 points and nine rebounds Tuesday -- the latter a particularly important contribution in coach Gary Blair's estimation.

Tyra White had 13 points and seven boards, while fellow returning starter Sydney Carter had 14 and five. Adrienne Pratcher, a junior stepping into the point-guard role left by graduated Sydney Colson, had seven points and eight assists.

Afterward, White joked that she was relieved to finally get her national championship ring because so many people have been asking her why she didn't have it yet. Now she can show it off.

The hardware brought back to her and the rest of the team the fabulous memories of last April in Indy. But it was clear, from the full-speed-ahead way the Aggies played Tuesday, that Texas A&M is not living in the past.

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at mechellevoepelblog.com.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.

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