Tennessee to tackle Baylor tonight

Meighan Simmons

TEMPLE, Texas - The Lady Vols remain in the Lone Star State and will next take on Baylor before heading back to Tennessee. Go inside with Inside Tennessee to get ready for the game.

No. 10 Tennessee (7-1) will square off against No. 3 Baylor (8-1) at 8 p.m. Eastern (TV: ESPN) on Tuesday at the Ferrell Center in Waco, Texas.

The Lady Vols will depart after the game by charter flight for Knoxville and get ready to host No. 1 Stanford on Saturday.

Stanford is the team that handed Baylor its first loss since 2011 after a 40-0 run and national title last season and 2-0 start to this season, including an 85-51 demolition of Kentucky, the preseason pick to win the SEC, on Nov. 13.

Odyssey Sims wasn't available for Baylor for the bulk of the Stanford game because of injury, but she is back now and torched Tennessee for 27 points in the regional final last March.

Tennessee's best on-ball defender, freshman Andraya Carter, is back in Knoxville and out for the season after shoulder surgery. Juco sophomore guard Jasmine Phillips, who used December to catch up academically, is on the road but won't play by coach's decision. Isabelle Harrison, who sprained her right ankle against Texas on Sunday, didn't practice Monday and will be a game-day decision in terms of playing status.

That means Tennessee could face the Bears, the consensus No. 1 team in the country until the 71-69 upset by Stanford in Hawaii on Nov. 16, with just eight available players.

It remains possible that Harrison will be cleared to play.

"I wasn't (optimistic) last night," Head coach Holly Warlick said Monday. "Jenny (Moshak) worked on her all last night and this morning. It looks better today."

If Harrison can't go, senior Taber Spani would likely move into the starting lineup, and freshman Nia Moore will have to provide minutes in relief to help defend the 6-8 Brittney Griner, the reigning player of the year in women's college basketball.

With that in mind, Warlick and assistant coach Dean Lockwood, who chatted Monday with the media after practice, were realistic about the challenges. They also noted the calendar still said December, and a callow team would get a great experience to draw on later in the season.

Junior Meighan Simmons played in Waco as a freshman. She knows the 2012 youngsters will ultimately benefit from the experience, too.

"This is the perfect time for them to experience such a competition," Simmons said, who added that school being out for a month also helps since the focus is all basketball.

"I think it's going to a good test of their mind and their mentality. Stay mentally focused, practice, work hard and transfer it over to the game, and we'll see what happens."

The Lady Vols held a light practice session at Temple College in Temple, Texas, a short skip off I-35 on the way to Waco.

They went over the game plan for Baylor, with Harrison being treated on the sideline, and lofted some shots and free throws.

"We just walked through stuff," Warlick said, mindful of a physical contest against Texas and just one day between games.

The staff was upbeat, especially after the 94-75 win over Texas, though Warlick will expect much better defense on Tuesday. While the players showered before re-boarding the bus, two assistant coaches and the support staff heaved shots from half court while Lockwood and Warlick handled the media questions. Assistant Kyra Elzy swished hers.

Matters will get a lot more serious Tuesday, but the coaches will still make sure the players know they are underdogs in the game and to not feel pressure.

"I like where we at," Warlick said. "With Baylor you've got to hit shots, and you've got to hit outside shots. We're not relying on one person to do all the scoring, which I think has been great. We have had some pretty balanced scoring.

"We've been consistent. I am pretty pleased with it."

Warlick was referring to the offensive side of the ball. She wants a lot fewer whistles Tuesday as Tennessee had 19 fouls and put Texas on the line for 28 attempts. The Longhorns made 24 of them to stay in the game.

"It was ridiculous," Warlick said. "We couldn't really put them away because we kept fouling."

Tennessee moved to No. 10 in the AP poll on Monday and while rankings mean very little during the season, it is a tribute to the players, according to Lockwood, because of the personnel losses, the fact the Lady Vols opened at No. 20 in the poll and the season opening loss to Chattanooga.

The Lady Vols have the opportunity to move up with No. 3 Baylor and No. 1 Stanford up next, but they are aware of the challenges that presents.

First up is Griner, who Lockwood noted can wipe out a lot of defensive mistakes.

"You get a lot more brave when you have somebody like that, so you can pressure more," Lockwood said. "They can come out and extend."

"You have automatic help in the paint," Warlick said.

"You've got an eraser that makes every mistake look pretty good," Lockwood said. "I can go out and make three mistakes on you and you can drive past me and she can block a shot and it all looks like great defense.

"And they are pretty good defensively anyway. We have a lot of respect for their defense. It is a premium on making shots now. You know your margin of error is less."

Lockwood summoned a Nolan Ryan reference with the team in Texas, a reference to the former fireball pitcher who is now the CEO and president of the Texas Rangers. His point was the challenge of facing the senior Griner after going against younger and less-experienced post players at Texas.

"We're going from a Single A guy to Nolan Ryan," Lockwood said. "It's a whole different deal. The magnitude of each possession, of making shots, is pretty important.

"It's also one of those situations that you like because it's one of those games where you have everything to gain and nothing to lose. Who expects us to go in there and win that game? We haven't been in that role in awhile."

PROBABLE STARTERS

Tennessee coach Holly Warlick is expected to start: Ariel Massengale, 5-6 sophomore guard, No. 5 (9.1 points per game, 2.1 rebounds per game, 4.2 assists per game), hails from Bolingbrook, Ill.; Meighan Simmons, 5-9 junior guard, No. 10 (17.9 ppg, 3.8 rpg), hails from Cibolo, Texas; Taber Spani, 6-1 senior forward, No. 13 (7.4 ppg, 3.5 rpg), hails from Lee's Summit, Mo.; Cierra Burdick, 6-2 sophomore forward, No. 11 (9.3 ppg, 6.6 rpg), hails from Charlotte, N.C.; and Bashaara Graves, 6-2 freshman forward, No. 12 (15.0 ppg, 8.1 rpg), hails from Clarksville, Tenn.

If the 6-3 Isabelle Harrison is cleared to play, she is likely to start in place of Spani because her size will be needed inside. Spani also has been battling lower back pain - she is treated by a trainer on the sideline during games - and she logged 31 minutes Sunday because of foul trouble by the posts.

Baylor coach Kim Mulkey is expected to start: Odyssey Sims, 5-8 junior guard, No. 00 (15.0 ppg, 2.4 rpg, 5.2 apg), hails from Irving, Texas, missed four games with a hamstring injury, put up 28 points in last outing against Oral Roberts; Kimetria Hayden, 6-0 senior guard, No. 1 (6.9 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 3.1 apg), hails from Dallas, Texas, tallied 18 points in last meeting with Tennessee; Jordan Madden, 6-0 senior guard, No. 3 (8.9 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 4.3 apg), hails from Lepanto, Ark., only starter not from the state of Texas, her 39 assists lead the team; Brooklyn Pope, 6-1 senior forward, No. 32 (11.1 ppg, 4.9 rpg), hails from Fort Worth, Texas, has started two games this season, including last one against Oral Roberts and tallied 19 points, averaging 15.8 points over last four games, is a graduate student at Baylor; and Brittney Griner, 6-8 senior post, No. 42 (21.4 ppg, 7.3 rpg), hails from Houston, Texas, is connecting on 63.7 percent of her shots, has reached double figures in 89 consecutive games, has 2,618 points and 1,032 rebounds in her career.

Destiny Williams, a 6-1 redshirt senior post from Benton Harbor, Mich., has started seven games this season and averages 22.8 minutes a game with 9.3 points and 7.2 boards a game.

FAMILIAR FOE: Tennessee has faced Baylor five times in the Brittney Griner era and after winning the first game, 74-65, on Nov. 15, 2009, the Lady Vols have gone 0-4 with two regular season losses and two in the postseason.

Junior guard Meighan Simmons has played in three of those games without much to show for it offensively but with a boatload of experience about the challenges of Baylor.

Simmons' numbers in those three matchups are 9-44 overall (20.5 percent) from the field and 2-15 (13.3 percent) from the arc.

Simmons managed a smile when shown the numbers. She knows the solution is simple and time-tested in basketball - make shots. But how is that to be done against Baylor?

"Be more patient," Simmons said. "Going for the easy baskets before I hit the three and trying to get to the free throw line. Also, make sure I get everybody else involved and let the game come to me."

Composure will be important because the Ferrell Center, capacity 10,284, is a raucous environment, and Baylor is averaging 8,221 fans over four home games this season. The low ceiling traps noise, and the Bears feed off the energy of the crowd. Tennessee draws its share of fans at road games, but the orange will be merely dotted among waves of green at Baylor on Tuesday.

Simmons is one of just three players on Tennessee's roster - seniors Taber Spani and Kamiko Williams are the others - who have been in the venue already as they played there two years ago, a 65-54 win for the Bears. Tennessee got down early in the first half but stayed within striking distance in the second half.

"That was my freshman year," Simmons said. "I remember coming out in the second half and trying to help the team come back. I remember we were getting within seven points and they kept scoring and Brittney Griner kept hitting everything.

"I remember playing hard and my defense wasn't as good as it should have been. This time it's going to be a lot better. I have to make sure I play on both ends of the floor."

Simmons has improved on that side of the ball since her first year and will be expected to help guard Odyssey Sims, an All-American point guard.

Simmons also should expect to be guarded by Sims. She watched the Baylor-Notre Dame game on television Dec. 5 and saw how Sims completely disrupted Irish point guard Skylar Diggins.

"She is going to try to take you out of your game," Simmons said. "You can't allow your defender to do that because when you do that, it makes it easy for them to guard you.

"You have to work twice as hard to get to the ball. You have to work twice as hard to get to the free throw line."

Simmons has plenty of firsthand experience now.

"It's an amazing experience because Odyssey is a very good defender," she said. "You want to be patient and make sure you're not rushing anything. You want to be smart with the ball and make sure you're not throwing it into her hands because she will get it and go.

"I have the utmost respect for her because I know the defender that she is."

If Sims is hounding Simmons, somebody else could get loose.

"That is one thing I have learned about playing against Baylor is making sure I do get my teammates the ball," Simmons said. "It leaves the floor open for everybody else. I have got to be patient."

Simmons is happy to be back in her home state. She had a section full of support at Texas, family and friends who made the trip from the San Antonio area and the group included her elementary school teacher. Simmons' family will also make the trip to Waco.

Besides seeing family and familiar sites, Simmons cited one more advantage of being closer to home.

"A little bit warmer," Simmons said, referring to the recent frigid temperatures in East Tennessee.

For Tennessee to have a shot against Baylor, the cold shooting team-wide against Baylor will have to warm up Tuesday.

"My shots just were not falling," Simmons said. "I have to be more patient. We will be in a hostile environment. We have to make the easy shots."

MIKO MOMENTS: Kamiko Williams helped the team off the bench in a big way Sunday against Texas.

The Longhorns had sliced Tennessee's 22-point second half lead in half to 11 points, 70-59, with 9:38 left to play. Williams was left unguarded on the wing - the defense found Meighan Simmons and Taber Spani who had missed a layup and three, respectively, on the last two possessions - and Ariel Massengale got her the ball. Williams drained the long ball to boost the lead to 14 points, 73-59.

Texas followed with back-to-back baskets by Nneka Enemkpali to cut the lead to 10 points, 73-63, with 8:15 to play, and Williams answered with a driving stop-and-pop jumper to boost it to 12 points, 75-63, to once again provide some breathing room with 7:57 left.

"Those were very big shots," Dean Lockwood said.

BATTLE SCARS: Meighan Simmons is sporting some new scars on her upper right arm.

One is rather long in length and looks like she tangled with a bear before facing the Bears.

"That's from me falling against Alcorn State trying to dive after the ball," Simmons said. "I got up and I got mad because I didn't get the steal because it went out of bounds."

Another scar is smaller but equally noticeable, and Simmons can't remember its origin.

"Somebody did claw me," Simmons said. "I've got one right there and I have two or three over here. They are like war wounds. I've got marks everywhere."

Simmons smiled when asked if there should be a rule about trimmed fingernails.

"That should be a rule," Simmons said. "Some people can come out with gashes on their faces. It is just with certain tough teams. The tougher teams have the longer nails. That is what I believe."

BEAST MODE: It says a lot that freshman Bashaara Graves can put up a box score of 14 points, 10 boards and two blocks against Texas and not even be a topic at the post-game press conference.

That is because the performance is no longer a surprise but expected.

"She's spoiling you right now," Dean Lockwood said. "She is doing a great job."

Graves was a top talent out of high school in Clarksville, Tenn., but she became an immediate difference maker in college and that wasn't necessarily on anyone's radar.

"I don't think she's tapped her full potential," Holly Warlick said. "She keeps everything simple. She knows where she is supposed to be. She values the basketball. And then she keeps pursuing it.

"She doesn't get overly upset that she gets it blocked. She gets it back. She is strong. That's a God-given body because she didn't lift a lot of weights in high school."

Graves' mentality has been compared to the storied Corn-fed Chicks who led Tennessee to a national title in 1987.

She also now shares something with Bridgette Gordon, who played from 1985 to 1989. Pat Summitt's rule was that a player should go hard and then tug on her jersey when she needed a breather. Gordon used to do so, and Summitt would just wave at her because she needed Gordon on the court.

Graves, who has said "fatigue is an option," has shown as a freshman the ability to push on when her body wants to stop.

"She doesn't give in," Warlick said.

Warlick has noticed Graves tiring at times but has also chosen at times to leave her on the court.

"I just kind of ignore her," Warlick said with a laugh.

GAME NOTES

Tennessee trails in the series with Baylor, 2-4. The Lady Vols won the first two matchups, a postseason game in 2004 and a home game in 2006 but has lost the last four. Baylor has won 61 consecutive games at home in non-conference play. The last time the Bears lost at home out of league play was in 2006 to Purdue. The loss to Stanford this season was at a tournament in Hawaii. … Both Tennessee and Baylor have some impressive rankings in national statistics. Tennessee is ranked No. 2 in the country in scoring at 87.0 points per game, its scoring margin of +24.6 is at No. 11 and a field goal percentage of 46.5 percent is good for the No. 12 slot. Its 17 assists per game earns Tennessee a No. 20 ranking. Baylor is No. 2 in field goal percentage at 52.1, No. 3 in assists at 20.0, No. 4 in scoring at 82.3 points and No. 5 in scoring margin at +27.8.

INSIDE TENNESSEE VIDEO COVERAGE

Dean Lockwood talks after practice Monday in Temple, Texas.

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