Ariel Massengale knows her playing history and dresses accordingly.
Tennessee's point guard wears padded spandex as if she were donning armor. The 5-foot-6 sophomore realizes that, sooner or later, she's hitting the deck.
"A lot of talk about me is I'm always on the ground and I might as well be on the janitorial service because I just fall so much during the game," she said. "I think that's kind of just a habit. I try my best to stay on my feet but sometimes it just doesn't work that way."
Massengale dislocated the middle finger of her left hand last season while diving for a loose ball in practice. Her drives to the basket often send her barrel rolling across the court. She literally laid out in threading a pass around two taller defenders to teammate Bashaara Graves for a basket during UT's desperate rally against LSU on Feb. 7
The tumbling routine continues Sunday (TV: ESPN2, 5 p.m.) when No. 12 Tennessee (19-5, 10-1 SEC) faces Vanderbilt (16-8. 6-5) at Thompson-Boling Arena. The game will be UT's "Think Pink, Bleed Orange" game — part of a women's basketball initiative to support the Kay Yow Cancer Fund.
No amount of experience or attire could prepare Massengale for her hardest fall this season. Head coach Holly Warlick floored her after Christmas break. She told the player who essentially was named a starter before arriving on campus that she "couldn't rely" on Massengale to lead the team. Massengale was yanked from the starting lineup for Tennessee's game against Davidson on Dec. 28.
"I try to look at it as motivation," said Massengale, who was bothered by the demotion. "Having coach say that, it makes you want to go out there and work that much harder. In a sense not prove her wrong, but prove her wrong."
Apparently, she's made her point. Based on Warlick's review this week, Massengale has scrambled to her feet and is standing on solid ground.
"I think she's done a good job of running the team, pushing the ball, attacking in transition," said Warlick, a former All-American point guard at UT. "That was one of our biggest concerns. She wasn't running enough. Now she's running and getting our team in their transition and getting into our offense quicker."
Massengale is running an offense that ranks among the nation's best in productivity at 79 points per game. Given the changes in personnel — not to mention the offense itself — the coaches readily concede that the points add up to a pleasant surprise.
Before recovering from Warlick's stinging rebuke, Massengale had to recover from tendinitis in her left Achilles' tendon at the season's start. Freshman Andraya Carter started the first five games before undergoing season-ending shoulder surgery in December.
Since Carter's been sidelined, Massengale has played 35 or more minutes six times. She played 42 minutes of an overtime victory at Florida on Jan. 13. Senior Kamiko Williams has evolved into an efficient backup with 65 assists and just 21 turnovers. But Williams also is helping at two other positions, and she isn't thinking solely as a point guard.
Massengale bears that responsibility. Her per-game average for assists (4.6) is slightly down from last season (4.9) while her 8.2 scoring average is up from 7.4. At 36.8, her field goal percentage is down from last season's 38.7.
In SEC play, she's averaging 8.8 points and nearly five assists per game while shooting 40 percent from the floor (41.2 percent on 3-pointers).
Massengale is most concerned with turnovers. She's averaging 2.6 per game this season, slightly more than last season's average of 2.3. There's some correlation between this statistic and her shot selection.
"I have to stop predetermining things," she said. "I know a lot of teams are now playing me for the pass. Coach (Kyra) Elzy and Coach (Jolette) Law are constantly reminding me that I have to be aggressive. If I go and get one or two layups then that opens up the passing lanes for me. Ultimately that's what I want to do."
Toward that end, Massengale nailed a jumper with about two minutes left against LSU. The Lady Tigers were playing her to shoot on the aforementioned drive, enabling her to assist Graves on an important basket with 15 seconds left.
Warlick seems more preoccupied with Massengale's leadership. The coach has become confident enough in her point guard to give her options and some freedom to call plays.
"It's remarkable what a point guard can see on the floor and not a coach," Warlick said. "Because you're in it. You're involved."
Massengale definitely is on the floor — sometimes literally.