KNOXVILLE — Mississippi coach Matt Insell believes the eight-ranked Tennessee Lady Vols will go as far as Ariel Massengale takes them.
Massengale seems more than ready for that kind of responsibility.
The 5-foot-7 guard continued arguably the best stretch of her career Thursday by scoring 23 points Thursday in the eighth-ranked Lady Vols’ 94-70 victory over Mississippi. Massengale’s big game came four days after she scored a career-high 28 points in an 85-70 triumph at Georgia. That’s the first time Massengale has scored at least 20 points in consecutive games.
“Whatever it takes for this team to win, I’m willing to do it,” Massengale said.
Massengale did a little bit of everything for Tennessee on a night when the Lady Vols (13-2, 2-1 SEC) crossed the 5 million mark in all-time home attendance. She shot 5 of 8 from 3-point range and pulled down a career-high seven rebounds.
“As long as Ariel’s playing at a high level, Tennessee’s got a chance to push on through and maybe even get to Nashville,” said Insell, referring to the site of this year’s Final Four.
Isabelle Harrison added 16 points and 10 rebounds to set a school record with her seventh straight double-double. Andraya Carter had 14 points and Meighan Simmons added 12 points. Diara Moore, Shequila Joseph, Gracie Frizzell and Amber Singletary scored nine points each for Mississippi.
Although she was happy with the win, Tennessee coach Holly Warlick didn’t like the Lady Vols’ energy level at times and said they would need to step up their performance.
“This is a team right now that is very talented, but we’re underachieving,” Warlick said. “I’ve gotten mad at them. I’ve raised my voice. I’ve threatened them. I’ve been nice. I don’t know. When our backs are against the wall, we generally play pretty hard. But I don’t have an answer. We play in spurts and at times we don’t look like we really care if there’s a game going on or not anything going on.”
The Lady Vols were still good enough to beat Mississippi (9-7, 0-2) for the 25th consecutive time in front of an announced crowd of 10,382, which increased Tennessee’s all-time home attendance to 5,006,586.
NCAA spokesman Rick Nixon said earlier in the week it’s a “safe assumption” that Tennessee is the first women’s program to reach the 5 million mark based on the Lady Vols’ attendance history, but there isn’t a way to officially verify that because the NCAA doesn’t measure each school’s all-time cumulative attendance.
Amanda Humphrey, a 29-year-old kindergarten teacher from Hampton, Tenn., was the 5-millionth fan and won a prize package that included two 2014-15 season tickets, courtside seats to Thursday’s game, a cake and a basketball autographed by Warlick.
Humphrey had earned the tickets to Thursday’s game earlier in the day by winning a trivia contest. On its official Twitter account, the Tennessee women’s basketball team offered two free tickets to the first person who correctly answered which Lady Vol was on Ole Miss’ coaching staff and how many national titles she won in her college playing career. Humphrey knew that Ole Miss assistant Alex Simmons had played on two national championship teams at Tennessee.
Humphrey’s lucky day continued when she coincidentally entered the arena at the exact time to be named the milestone fan.
“I think we’re going to go buy lottery tickets when we leave here,” Humphrey quipped.
Mississippi wasn’t nearly as fortunate.
The Rebels had shown they could challenge a Final Four contender last month when they led by 10 points in the first half of an 87-80 loss at Baylor, which was ranked ninth at the time of their Dec. 18 meeting. But Mississippi couldn’t sustain an early advantage Thursday. After Mississippi took an early 4-3 lead, Tennessee pulled ahead for good with a 16-4 run.
“Baylor’s a little bit better of a matchup for us,” Insell said. “Tennessee, good gracious, [they’re] so big. We’re in there battling, but we’re a little bit short. Obviously we’re a lot shorter [than the Lady Vols].”