Tennessee coach Pat Summitt has been waiting for the season to start, ready to get the attention off her dementia diagnosis and back on her Lady Volunteers.
The Lady Vols are determined to bring home the program’s ninth national title in honor of their coach. First they’ve got to get through a blistering nonconference schedule, which began with an 89-57 win against a tough Pepperdine team on Sunday in both teams’ season opener.
The focus was still on Summitt briefly before the game as U.S. Sports Academy director of communications Duwayne Escobedo presented Summitt with the Mildred “Babe” Didrikson Zaharias Courage Award.
The award is presented annually in honor of an individual who demonstrates courageous action in overcoming adversity to excel in sport. Summitt disclosed her diagnosis in hopes of helping others understand they could still live their lives after being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.
“It’s a tremendous honor. Obviously, I appreciate it, and I’m humbled by it,” Summitt said.
Summitt didn’t address the media after the game and plans to rely on her longtime assistants to handle postgame news conferences among their other expanded duties this season.
Associate head coach Holly Warlick channeled Summitt easily during her interview, criticizing the Lady Vols’ defensive efforts.
“I thought today we played in spurts,” Warlick said. “We came out in the second half and shot the ball really, really well, but I’m really disappointed in our one-on-one defense. We put a lot of time in on that, and we just weren’t very good.”
Like Summitt and Warlick, Pepperdine coach Julie Rousseau stresses defense to her team, which returned 10 letter-winners and all five starters from last year’s team, which reached the WNIT tournament. The Waves, who finished fourth in the nation last year in turnover margin and fourth in steals per game, smothered the Lady Vols, keeping them uncomfortable on every single shot and forcing 22 turnovers.
“We leave here with a great experience that I think sets the table for us for the rest of the season,” Rousseau said.
It took over two minutes for the first shot to finally fall. Pepperdine never led, but kept within two baskets until an 8-0 run capped by Meighan Simmons’ jumper with 10:32 left in the first half gave Tennessee a 20-9 lead.
The Waves got a pair of free throws followed by a layup from Skye Barnett to get the margin within seven points with 7:23 before halftime, but it was as close as they would get. Tennessee went on another 8-0 run before the break and scored 18 unanswered points early in the second half to put the game out of reach.
“Something we talked about at halftime was having that constant high energy at all times, and we just got committed to that. We came out and fired,” point guard Briana Bass said.
Summitt played her entire bench in the first half, including freshmen Cierra Burdick and Isabelle Harrison, and the Tennessee reserves scored 20 points.
Glory Johnson led the Lady Vols with 17 points and 13 rebounds. Shekinna Stricklen and Simmons each had 13 points, Taber Spani contributed 11 points and Briana Bass had 10.
Pepperdine’s tough defense came at a cost. The Waves had 14 personal fouls in the first half, though the Lady Vols were uncharacteristically sloppy at the charity stripe, making just two of six foul shots before halftime.
Still, it forced Rousseau to go deep into her bench, which was responsible for just four points in the first half and 19 total. Jazmine Jackson had 17 points for the Waves, who shot 28.4 percent to the Lady Vols’ 49.2 percent shooting.
“I feel like we attacked them fairly well, but I also think that we settled for a lot of outside shots,” Jackson said.
Tennessee outrebounded Pepperdine 54-34, but couldn’t turn them into points. The Lady Vols gained control of the game with their 20 fast-break points and by sinking eight of their 10 3-point baskets in the second half.
Summitt gave a starting nod to point guard Ariel Massengale, making her just the 14th Lady Vol to start her very first career game. The coach was so convinced of Massengale’s talent and frustrated by a lack of a bona fide point guard last season that she dubbed Massengale a starter back in March.
Massengale sat for more than 13 minutes in the first half after picking up two fouls and finished with just one field goal, but had five assists to just one turnover and came up with two steals and three rebounds in 20 minutes.
The Lady Vols, who were visited by former standouts Chamique Holdsclaw and Kara Lawson, have a quick turnaround with a Tuesday game scheduled against No. 7 Miami.
“We’ve got to get a whole heck of a lot better before Tuesday,” Warlick said.