First, the good news: with the significant win over a very, very good Miami team, Tennessee easily has the biggest pelt in the opening week of women's college basketball. This Miami squad is very likely destined for a #2 seed in the NCAA tournament and could bump up to the #1 line if one of the usual suspects falters. It wasn't an easy victory by any measure, but was certainly a victory that can be counted as meaningful and valuable, no matter how the game played out.
As predicted by basically everybody, the game was as exciting as it gets for the early parts of the season. Two top 10 teams that love to run and press are destined for a high-energy matchup, and some early season jitters on both sides added in some uncontrolled chaos throughout the contest. Both teams can walk away with some things to be proud about, and both teams can learn a lot going forward.
Now, the bad news (and great news will follow, I promise):Miami outrebounded Tennessee 25-14 in the first half and 45-38 overall. Tennessee has five days until they travel to Virginia, and they can expect to spend all of them getting acquainted with the glass. You could tell that Miami really wanted the win, as they went for rebounds with abandon and outhustled Tennessee for much of the game. But, as is often the case, a bit of halftime paint-peeling and The Stare helped provide a little motivation.
Also, Shekinna Stricklen absolutely disappeared in the first half. She's had that potential throughout her career, owing largely to a more passive personality, but this is a team that needs her immense talents as they break in the new freshmen and find their identity this year. She had a very nice second half, which will save her bacon in practice this week, but when the returning SEC POY is relegated to the bench to start the half, it can only mean a disappointing first 20 minutes.
Alright, now for the great news: Ariel Massengale.
The girl is a fearless baller. She is easily the best point guard since Bobbitt and had moments in the game where she absolutely took over. There were still freshmen moments, for sure; especially her belief that she can pass through any tiny opening, but her passing is overall outstanding and her awareness is well ahead of her experience. She doesn't just pass; she leads the recipient toward the point of best motion (e.g. into the open space for a drive, around a defender, or in position for another pass to an open player). She was also key in turning the rebounding edge back to Tennessee, as she spent much of the second half pulling in the boards and starting the fast breaks.
All in all, this is a very fast, athletic team that needs some more focus. If they can corral their energy and consistently play with the intensity they've shown in bursts, they'll be very difficult for anybody to stop. The early season is the time to find out who you are, where you are strong, and where you are weak. They Lady Vols have that knowledge, and they have a huge win. It's tough to complain with the result.
Sweet Mother of Breadsticks!
We had a discussion as to who should get this and even felt good about a dual award. But in retrospect, it's too early to go all "seventeen players on the first team all SEC" like the media does, so I'm going to award this to: Taber Spani. Spani shot lights-out and was instrumental in the back-breaking run in the second half that sealed the deal. With 39 minutes of game time, she tallied 20 points, 5 rebounds, 3 assists, only 2 turnovers, and only 1 foul and was the only steady influence on the court for either team. Ariel does get honorable mention for her near double-double, but this one's Spani.
Sweet Mother of Breadsticks, Spani!