Lady Vols square off against Vandy

Taber Spani

The Lady Vols next two opponents both crushed them on the road last season. One matters in the SEC pecking order, the other offers a chance to earn national respect. Go inside with InsideTennessee to get ready for the game.

No. 9 Tennessee (15-3, 6-0) takes on Vanderbilt (13-5, 3-2) at 9 p.m. Eastern (TV: SportSouth) Thursday at Memorial Gym in Nashville.

The Lady Vols will put their perfect SEC mark on the line against the Commodores, whose two conference losses were on the road and who are 8-0 this season at home.

Tennessee has stopped three home-court win streaks this season – 11 games by Auburn on Jan. 17; 15 games by Florida on Jan. 13 and 41 games by Miami on Nov. 18.

But halting the Commodores in Nashville will be a challenge, because Vandy plays very well at home, and the Lady Vols have struggled there of late – losing 74-58 in 2009, surviving in 2010 and 2011 with 69-60 and 68-56 wins, respectively, and losing 93-79 in 2012.

Tennessee's next two games are measuring stick ones – the returning players remember well the outcome a year ago in Nashville and the upcoming opponent, Notre Dame, crushed the Lady Vols a year ago in South Bend, 72-44. The Irish will be in Knoxville on Monday.

"We got embarrassed in both of these games," senior Taber Spani said. "We didn't play Tennessee basketball. That bus ride back from Nashville was awful."

Spani acknowledged the importance of both games, but the focus has to be on Thursday in an SEC matchup before the players entertain any notion of visiting leprechauns.

"When you see Vanderbilt at Vanderbilt on your schedule, that is always a circle game for us," senior Taber Spani said. "Holly is not going to let us forget that rivalry, what that means to this program."

Holly Warlick lived the rivalry as a player and assistant coach for a total of 31 years, and she will be on the baseline bench Thursday night for the first time against the Commodores as a head coach.

She always handled the scouting report for the game and it was joked that assistant coach Dean Lockwood likely had to pry it out of her hands.

"She hates Vanderbilt," Spani said with a smile. "In a nice way. And I think it's mutual. You don't hate the people. You hate the rivalry.

"We understand that. This is crucial. I don't care if Vandy is not ranked. It doesn't matter. At Vandy is always a circled game for Tennessee."

Vanderbilt-Tennessee in women's basketball can rise to the level of Tennessee-Alabama in football.

"Exactly," Spani said.

That made the eyes of freshman Jasmine Jones widen. Her eyes got even wider when the configuration of Memorial Gym was explained with the baseline benches. The scorer's table remains at center court so players coming off the bench who are used to turning left when they stand up need to remember to turn right to check into the game.

"Oh, gosh," Jones said. "I've watched a few games but to play on it is going to be different. I will just go into it and figure it out."

Tennessee has overcome slow starts in its last two games against Auburn and Alabama, but a similar opening stanza at Vanderbilt would be much more problematic.

"Crucial. We can't," Spani said. "It's not an option for us to get down by double digits at Vandy. We have all the confidence in our team that we'll play to the final buzzer, but we can't put ourselves in that hole.

"We've got to start our dictating on the defensive end, and it would be great to get some offense off of our defense in the first four minutes."

Tennessee has the capability to play shutdown defense, but a the Lady Vols are young and the toughest part of the adjustment to college basketball is grasping multiple defensive concepts.

"I think anyone out on the floor is capable of guarding," Spani said. "I think it is just getting down and doing it. I don't think it's a lack of ability. I think it's the mentality more than anything."

Tennessee will rely on sophomore point guard Ariel Massengale to make the calls at times on both offense and defense. With the benches on the baseline, the players spend half the game not being able to hear the head coach.

"Ariel has grown, and I think she's capable of calling offenses and defenses as she sees fit," Warlick said. "I'm comfortable with her doing that.

"She's done that progressively each game, and I think we'll need to rely on her quite a bit to control what we want to run, both offensively and defensively."

Spani noted, "I think Rel has grown a lot and matured a lot and knows that if she can't see Holly or get a play, she can call a play and she has that knowledge and wisdom of what needs to happen in what situation.

"I think she has grown a lot from her freshman year to now and that will show."

PROBABLE STARTERS

Tennessee coach Holly Warlick is expected to start: Ariel Massengale, 5-6 sophomore guard, No. 5, hails from Bolingbrook, Ill. (8.7 points per game, 2.7 rebounds per game, 4.2 assists per game); Meighan Simmons, 5-9 junior guard, No. 10, hails from Cibolo, Texas (17.3 ppg, 3.3 rpg); Taber Spani, 6-1 senior forward, No. 13, hails from Lee's Summit, Mo. (8.8 ppg, 3.9 rpg); Bashaara Graves, 6-2 freshman forward, No. 12, hails from Clarksville, Tenn. (14.4 ppg, 8.9 rpg); and Isabelle Harrison, 6-3 sophomore forward, No. 20, hails from Nashville, Tenn. (10.4 ppg, 8.5 rpg, 2.3 blocks per game).

Vanderbilt coach Melanie Balcomb is expected to start: Jasmine Lister, 5-4 junior guard, No. 11 (11.8 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 6.2 apg), hails from Corona, Calif., went over 1,000 career points versus LSU; Kady Schrann, 5-9 sophomore guard, No. 5 (7.4 ppg, 2.4 rpg), hails from York, Pa., shooting 53.6 percent from the field; Christina Foggie, 5-9 junior guard, No. 10 (15.2 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 3.1 apg), hails from Mount Laurel, N.J., averages 2.9 threes per game, hit four treys against Tennessee last season in Nashville; Elan Brown, 6-0 senior guard, No. 30 (6.4 ppg, 6.4 rpg), hails from Atlanta, Ga., has 115 points and 115 boards this season; and Tiffany Clarke, 6-0 senior forward, No. 34 (15.8 ppg, 8.1 rpg), hails from Atlanta, Ga., shooting 56.5 percent from the field, tallied 23 points, 12 boards in last season's game against Tennessee in Nashville, had 17 points, 13 boards in loss Sunday to LSU.

REDEMPTION ROW: Tennessee does have the chance to take its measure over the next two games because it is facing teams that took it to the Lady Vols a year ago.

"They are not redemption games, but in a way they are," Taber Spani said. "Because we are a whole new team, so you can't really put it in those terms."

Spani was referring to the departure of five seniors and the arrival of five newcomers. With nine players available Thursday – Cierra Burdick has progressed well with her broken right hand and is on track for an early February return – more than half of the team didn't log a minute in the Vanderbilt or Notre Dame games last season.

The staff made sure Tennessee didn't forget the score of the Notre Dame game, a humiliating defeat on national television.

The managers taped sheets of paper with the final score inside the locker room "literally on every inch of wall space in our locker room last year," Spani said.

"That is something you are never going to forget," Spani said. "They literally covered our entire locker room with the score, probably a million pieces of paper with the score on it taped everywhere."

Assistant coach Dean Lockwood said the idea was a "collective thing that we told people to do."

The decorative messages stayed up for several days, until the tape started to give way, and the paper fluttered to the floor.

"It stayed up there until we won and got back on track," Spani said. "It started to fall off basically.

"These two games are huge and for the returners I think that really sent a statement," Spani said.

SEC FAMILY: Jasmine Jones put up 14 points in last Sunday's win over Alabama, a significant stat because it was a career high. It also came against her mother's alma mater.

LaTrish Jones, who played for the Crimson Tide in the 1990s, watched from the stands as her daughter took it to her former school.

"We were talking about it earlier and she told me better if it had happened at the Auburn game but it happened against her alma mater," Jasmine Jones said.

Jones delivered her words with a huge smile, and it should be noted that LaTrish Jones waved an orange pompom and cheered for the Lady Vols during the game.

Jones is being inserted into games for her ability to apply ball pressure, but she has a well-honed offensive game when she relaxes on the court.

"I am not holding back so much," Jones said.

Jones dropped in a picture-perfect left-handed floater shot against Alabama in the first half of the game. LaTrish Jones had attended practice and worked with her daughter afterwards. Jones has spent countless hours either on a basketball court with Jasmine or watching her play, and she knows her daughter's game as well as anyone.

"The day before when she came to practice she was telling me how off my shot was so we were over there after practice and she would rebound with me and she made me work on my floaters," Jasmine said. "It was actually going to my left side."

LaTrish Jones primarily takes a supportive role and respects the coach-player boundary.

"She stays in a mom's place, because I do have a coach I have to listen to. She understands," Jasmine Jones said.

Jones is earning more minutes with her ability to pick up the ball on the perimeter, an impressive feat for a 6-2 forward. The success on defense has flowed into her offense.

"Just to know that I am doing something right so it falls over to offense," Jones said.

The freshman remains shy with the media but delivers her answers with a smile and succinctness. When asked why she already moves her feet on defense, instead of reaching with her hands, as most first-year players do, Jones said, "I don't want to foul."

Such is her athleticism and versatility that Holly Warlick doesn't hesitate to put Jones on the perimeter or in the paint.

"I like Jasmine Jones anywhere on defense - she plays aggressively, she plays hard, she loves to play, she plays with passion and it shows," Warlick said.

Jones' emerging confidence has spilled over on both ends of the court as she had experienced some success.

"You said it. It's confidence. It's straight confidence," Taber Spani said. "And understanding her value on the defensive end. That we value it.

"We don't care if she scores – but then she has been scoring, too, which has been great – we value what she does on the defensive end, and we need that. She has provided a spark for us in games. She understands that is important, and she is really starting to embrace it."

The left-handed floater in the first half was impressive, but a missed shot by Jones in the second half may have been even more so because of what happened afterwards.

Jones lofted a short jumper but left it short. Alabama scooted down court with the defensive board, but the first player down the floor for Tennessee was Jones. She blocked Celiscia Farmer's shot from behind off the glass - timing it perfectly and avoiding body contact. Farmer looked behind her after the play ended - Meighan Simmons was fouled getting the rebound - with a bewildered expression.

"That was impressive," Spani said. "That is just honest play and we see that day in and day out in practice. That is an expression of what she can do. She is very, very athletic."

ON TAP: Ten other SEC teams are in action Thursday in the following matchups: Auburn at Alabama; Arkansas at Missouri; Ole Miss at Florida; Kentucky at South Carolina; and Texas A&M at Mississippi State. Georgia and LSU are idle.

GAME NOTES

Tennessee leads the series with Vanderbilt, 60-8. The Lady Vols are 23-6 in Nashville, with two of those road losses coming in 2009 and 2012. … Tennessee's five starters are averaging double figures in scoring in SEC games. Junior Meighan Simmons leads at 19.3 points per game, followed by freshman Bashaara Graves at 15.2, senior Taber Spani at 12.5, Isabelle Harrison at 10.8 and Ariel Massengale at 10.0.

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