CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) — Fourth-ranked Tennessee played tough defense early to take control on the road, then did enough to turn away every charge from No. 12 North Carolina.
And yet, to listen to junior Cierra Burdick, starting the season with two road wins just wasn’t good enough.
“We’re striving for greatness,” Burdick said after Monday night’s 81-65 victory over the Tar Heels. “We want to get to the Final Four and that display was not going to get us there.”
True, the Lady Vols weren’t always sharp. The defense that shut down the Tar Heels early faded a bit after Tennessee (2-0) built a big lead. They committed 24 turnovers and gave up 20 offensive rebounds.
But they always had an answer for the Tar Heels (1-1), following a comeback from 12 points down at halftime to win at Middle Tennessee on Friday night.
“I didn’t know if we’d be ready for the environment we’ve been in,” Tennessee coach Holly Warlick said. “But both games, we stepped it up when we needed to.”
Ariel Massengale scored a career-high 20 points while Isabelle Harrison added 14 for the Lady Vols, who led by 12 at halftime then scored the first seven points of the second half to blow the game open. Tennessee shot 40 percent but knocked down eight 3-pointers, while its defense harassed the Tar Heels into 23 turnovers.
The Tar Heels were again without coach Sylvia Hatchell, as the recently inducted Naismith Hall of Famer focuses on treatment for leukemia.
Hatchell, who was released from the hospital last week, addressed the team during their pregame meal and longtime assistant Andrew Calder led the team from the sideline.
In the end, it was a learning experience for North Carolina’s youngsters, including a freshman class ranked No. 1 nationally by ESPN.
“We’re talented and we’re going to be very, very good at the end when it all clicks and we learn to play together as a team,” Calder said. “But we battled hard.”
Freshman Allisha Gray had 15 points and 10 rebounds to lead UNC, while top recruit Diamond DeShields finished with eight points on 3-for-15 shooting before fouling out with 2:10 left.
North Carolina shot just 9 for 37 in the first half (24 percent) and finished the game at 30 percent, struggling to string together enough baskets to cut into the Lady Vols’ lead.
“They’re aggressive, fast and they were in passing lanes a lot,” said freshman Stephanie Mavunga, who had 11 points and 12 rebounds before fouling out late. “… I don’t think it was anything we couldn’t get through. We have amazing guards and people who can handle the ball and we work on dribbling every single day in practice. But we just had to take a step back and really think about exactly what it is, and make good passes.”
The Tar Heels beat Air Force 87-26 in Friday night’s opener, with DeShields and Mavunga saying afterward that they were focused on taking advantage of those 40 minutes to get ready for the Lady Vols.
But the Lady Vols’ physical defense locked down on the Tar Heels early, frustrating the youngsters to the point that UNC’s offense began devolving into a lot of 1-on-1 play. UNC went 5½ minutes without a field goal in the first half, and at one point Calder wandered out onto the court during a stoppage and screamed at his team to “Run the offense!”
Massengale, a 5-foot-7 junior, finished 5 of 12 from the field with all of her baskets coming from 3-point range. She matched her career-high with six rebounds to go with seven assists and three steals in 40 minutes.
Harrison went 4 of 5, including a key jumper at the 5-minute mark after the Tar Heels had cut a 21-point lead down to 11.
Sophomore Xylina McDaniel added 12 points and 10 rebounds for UNC.