Tennessee's center Mercedes Russell, left, fights for the ball with Chattanooga's Alicia Payne in the second half Thursday night. AP photo.
KNOXVILLE — Chattanooga women's basketball coach Jim Foster warned his team about getting too comfortable against No. 4 Tennessee after a strong first half.
“We weren’t aggressive in the second half at all,” Foster said. “We didn’t step up and meet that challenge. We flat out knew they were going to (come out pressing). We talked about it at halftime. Talking about it and playing against it are two different things.”
The Lady Vols turned up the pressure in the second half en route to an 80-56 victory over the Lady Mocs on Thursday night.
Tennessee went to the paint to start the second half and drew threw quick fouls. Ariel Massengale, who sat on the bench for most of the first half with two fouls, opened the half with a quick 3-pointer and four free throws during a 12-2 run that put the Lady Vols up 44-34 with 16:59 left.
“Nobody wants to sit on the bench,” Massengale said. “It’s hard to lead your team from the bench. But sitting on the bench you’re able to watch and see what’s open and what’s not being done and get the coaches’ feel.”
A minute after that run, Meighan Simmons wrestled the ball from the hands of Taylor Hall and dished it to Bashaara Graves, whose layup pushed the lead to 48-36. Massengale, who finished with 16 points, hit another 3 and Jasmine Jones made a layup for Tennessee, and the Lady Mocs never recovered.
Mercedes Russell added 15 points for the Lady Vols (3-0), who finished with a 28-point advantage in the paint. Graves scored 11 and Simmons had 10.
Ashlen Dewart led Chattanooga (1-1) with 13 points, Hall scored 12 and Meghan Downes had 11.
Early in the game, Chattanooga appeared poised for a second-straight upset of its in-state rival. The Lady Mocs opened last season with an 80-71 victory on their home court, spoiling Holly Warlick’s first game as Tennessee head coach and ending their 19-game losing streak in the series.
Tennessee had gotten off to a slow start in its win at Middle Tennessee on Nov. 8 and was reminded of last season’s loss to Chattanooga as motivation during that halftime talk.
Warlick again issued a terse halftime message to the team.
“Yeah, I just said they don’t need to come in tomorrow if they don’t win the game because I’ll make their lives miserable,” she said. “That was the short of it.”
Though the Lady Vols outshot the Lady Mocs 43.8 percent to 40.7 percent in the first half of this game, Chattanooga set an upbeat tone with six 3-pointers in the opening 20 minutes.
A 3-pointer 11 minutes into the first half by Faith Dupree, who played her freshman year at Tennessee before transferring to Chattanooga, put the Lady Mocs up 16-9, their largest lead of the game. The Lady Vols responded with a 6-0 run, and the teams were tied at 32 at halftime.
The Lady Mocs clearly were comfortable against their opponent, helped by the return of three starters. Foster, in his first season at Chattanooga, also is no stranger to facing Tennessee, having done so as coach of Vanderbilt and Ohio State during his Hall of Fame career.
The Lady Mocs’ shooting slipped to 22.9 percent in the second half. Tennessee hit 52.9 percent of its shots in the second half and finished the game with a 50-33 rebounding advantage.
“I didn’t think that we did well getting into our offense (in the second half),” Hall said. “We didn’t get control of the game. They kind of got going, and we didn’t do anything to stop it.”