KNOXVILLE — The leaves in Knoxville have begun to show the red and orange hues of fall, signifying the impending return of the Tennessee Lady Volunteer basketball season.
The Lady Vols' upcoming road game against Middle Tennessee on Friday marks the start of head coach Holly Warlick's second season.
"I think there's a standard that coach [Rick] Insell has, and I think he does a great job preparing his team," said Warlick. "Last year they hit big threes, they played good defense, and they gave us problems inside also. I would anticipate the same thing to happen this year. They're very well coached."
The Lady Vols' last season run-in with the Lady Blue Raiders required an overtime victory (88-81).
Uncertainty filled the minds of Lady Vol fans as Warlick took the head coaching reigns from their beloved basketball legend, Pat Summitt. The concern only amplified when the Lady Vols traveled to the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga for their first game and suffered their first loss to the Lady Mocs (80-71).
The Lady Vols quickly moved pass the upset and went on to a 27-8 record, an SEC championship, and a deep run in the NCAA tournament that ended with a loss to the eventual NCAA champion Louisville Cardinals in the elite eight.
"We're really excited," said junior center Isabelle Harrison. "We're really getting back into the flow of how game time is. We're going over personnel and it's just weird to get that feeling back because I feel like we were just on the court last year and I'm really excited to be playing again."
Still riding high from the somewhat surprising success of last season, the Lady Vols aim to improve and fix the mistakes of the past. Winning their season opener is at the top of the list.
"[The loss to Chattanooga is] always in the back of my mind," said Harrison. "It happened and we definitely learned from it, but I think it was a blessing in disguise. We really perfected our defense and we learned that we need to take every team seriously."
The Lady Vols easily defeated Carson Newman (115-31) in an exhibition game on Monday.
"You don't look at the score because it is an exhibition game," said Warlick. "You look at the execution. Did we play hard? Did we guard different concepts the way we wanted to? You go back and look at those. How was our help side defense? You just break it down to put it in terms of what you've been focusing on and did we do it or not?"
"I think we were able to get the jitters out for the freshman," said junior point guard Ariel Massengale. "We had a great crowd for an exhibition game, and we learned a lot about us and how we play. We thought we played well, but after we watched film, there was a lot of things that we can work on."
The Lady Vols added two freshman to their roster in the National Gatorade Player of the Year, ESPNU No. 1 overall prospect, 6'6" center Mercedes Russell and McDonald's All-American guard Jordan Reynolds.
"I talked to Mercedes and she said she was nervous for the first game, but I told her I didn't believe her after the game," said Harrison. "She really did so well and Jordan too. Their energy was so great and they were so open to any suggestions we had and talking to us as well. Saying we need to get more rebounds and be on help side and be a lot more vocal. I think it really helped to get their nerves out and be ready for the hard games we have ahead."
"Those two kids have fit in," said Warlick. "They're highly intelligent. They had great high school coaches. They understand where you want to go and what you want to do. They're multitalented kids. They can play outside. They can play in. I love their energy and I love their love for this program."