- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- The freshman "showcase" didn't materialize as well as was hoped for. But the cohesiveness of Tennessee showed up in ways that made coach Holly Warlick feel not so bad about her team.
We say "not so bad" because "good" probably would not be a term used for Monday's 81-65 Tennessee victory over No. 12 North Carolina. As Tennessee junior forward Cierra Burdick put it, "I think it says a lot about this team that we were disappointed with this win. We want greatness, and we know we didn't display it tonight.
"It was a sloppy win. We want to get to the Final Four, and that display is not going to get us there."
True, but it's also not even midway through November. The season just started. The fourth-ranked Lady Vols, who've been stopped at the Elite Eight the past three seasons, choose to be this self-critical this early, though, because they know the time will come when they really won't have any margin for error.
As opposed to Monday at Carmichael Arena, when errors were plentiful on both sides. Tennessee had 24 turnovers, North Carolina had 23. The Lady Vols shot 40.3 percent from the field, the Tar Heels 30.4.
Both teams have highly ranked rookie classes, but the experienced players ended up making the biggest impact in this game. Particularly Tennessee junior point guard Ariel Massengale, who scored a career-high 20 points and tied her career best in rebounds, with six. She also had seven assists and five turnovers, and was the only player on either squad who was on the floor all 40 minutes.
Massengale made 5 of 9 3-pointers, and also hit five free throws. Both squads' offense at times looked chaotic, but Tennessee's was less so. And the Lady Vols were able to hit some big shots right at moments when it seemed the momentum might have started to slide away.
"Coach Warlick said in the locker room that it wasn't a pretty win, but when we needed key stops, we got stops," Massengale said. "When we needed rebounds, we got rebounds. I think that's where experience comes in."
North Carolina has the top-ranked freshman class in the country, and two of its members had double-doubles: guard Allisha Gray (15 points, 10 rebounds) and forward Stephanie Mavunga (11 points, 12 rebounds.) Sophomore post player Xylina McDaniel also had a double-double (12, 10).
But the player whose nickname is "Double-D" didn't fare as well. The top prospect of the rookie class, Diamond DeShields, showed flashes of how gifted she is, but struggled mightily getting into any kind of offensive flow. She had eight points on 3-of-15 shooting, and committed six turnovers.
Before the game, the Tar Heels heard from their leader, coach Sylvia Hatchell, who is being treated for leukemia and is on leave from the sidelines. She gave her mostly young team a pep talk, and then handed over the reins to her longtime assistant Andrew Calder, who is in charge this season.
Several of the Tar Heels were emotional in the locker room after the game, feeling they'd put on a disappointing performance. Calder says he's not using the "freshmen excuse," but the reality is you could call this UNC team the "baby blues" for how little court time they've had in college.
The Tar Heels have a point guard on the bench who could have really helped them Monday … but she happens to be 29 and out of college eligibility. Ivory Latta, in her first year as an assistant coach for her alma mater, has matured into a very good WNBA point guard, and helped the Washington Mystics to the playoffs this season.
But she is just in mentor mode now, and knows -- from her own experience as a UNC freshman of whom much was expected -- how unavoidable growing pains are. As does Calder, who -- of course -- helped guide Latta through those pains a decade ago when she was a freshman.
"In the end, it's my responsibility to make sure they take good shots," Calder said of his Tar Heels, who, in fact, did seem to have plenty of decent looks at the basket, mixed in with some ill-advised heaves. "We're talented, and we're going to be very, very good at the end, when it all clicks and we learn to play together as a team."
So there were some hard lessons for the Tar Heel youngsters Monday. But the Lady Vols have something to learn from this, for sure. They had some eye-rolling moments, too.
Such as when senior Meighan Simmons -- that would be SENIOR -- had a seemingly clear path to the basket in transition and then inexplicably opted for some behind-the-back-pass nonsense that resulted in a turnover.
You could almost see the thought bubble above Warlick's head: "Did my senior guard really just do that? Lord, give me strength."
But ultimately, Warlick can't be too displeased by what she has seen so far. Simmons, Massengale and Carter -- plus freshman Jordan Reynolds -- are going to be a formidable backcourt.
Another freshman, center Mercedes Russell, had just two points, off free throws. But she will figure out how to be more comfortable in such a fast-paced game and find her place in the offense better.
The Lady Vols opened the season on the road Friday at Middle Tennessee, a team that is used to playing Tennessee and is not intimidated by the power of Orange. The Blue Raiders forced the Lady Vols into comeback mode, and Tennessee was able to get a 67-57 victory.
Then on the road again Monday, Tennessee played far, far from its best but still controlled the game against a team that -- for all its youthful flaws -- is loaded with ability.
"You saw two very good basketball teams playing hard," Warlick said. "We've got to get a little tougher and more disciplined. That comes with time. We've spent a lot of time doing team-building. This team had a huge bond, and if you're around it, you can really tell the chemistry. I think it's what we've missed the last couple of years. It's fun to coach a team that has such togetherness."
16dBonnie D. Ford