A championship won’t be at stake Sunday when the SEC’s top two women’s basketball teams meet.
Drama remains in play, though, when Tennessee and Kentucky conclude the regular season before a sold-out crowd at Memorial Coliseum in Lexington, Ky. (TV: ESPNU, 3:30 p.m.).
The plot will begin to unfold with the health of Lady Vols point guard Ariel Massengale and center Isabelle Harrison. They were helped off the floor after suffering right knee injuries during the second half of Thursday night’s 82-72 victory over Texas A&M, which clinched the regular-season conference title for No. 8 Tennessee (23-5, 14-1 SEC).
Coach Holly Warlick said Friday afternoon that both players were to undergo MRI exams later that day. But there was no media availability on Saturday and, therefore, no official update from UT on their status. Massengale’s injury appeared to be more serious. Although the 5-foot-6 sophomore typically starts, she was listed as coming off the bench in Tennessee’s pregame release for the Kentucky game.
If Massengale’s out, Kamiko Williams will start at point guard. She’s been an efficient accomplice this season, as evidenced by 71 assists and just 27 turnovers. Guard Meighan Simmons will be asked to help, too. She has piled up 73 turnovers as a part-time ball-handler.
The Lady Vols have been without backup point guard Andraya Carter since December, when she underwent season-ending shoulder surgery.
“We just have to be smart,” Warlick said. “We’re going to have to do it by committee like we’ve done in the past.”
Any backcourt attrition increases the challenge of facing No. 10 Kentucky (24-4, 12-3) and its ravenous defense. The Wildcats lead the SEC in steals (11.9 per game) and are a plus-8.5 in turnovers.
“They’re aggressive, they’re athletic,” Warlick said. “They play so hard. They try to speed up the game. I think people get caught up in the tempo.”
No Wildcat plays harder than guard A’dia Mathies, last season’s SEC player of the year. She’s among the conference leaders in scoring (16 points per game) and is one steal short of becoming the third player in school history to record 300 for her career.
“I certainly haven’t been around anybody that’s been more meaningful to a program than she has here at Kentucky,” said Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell, who’s one victory shy of becoming the program’s leader in coaching victories. “She’s really helped us get to a different spot than where we were when she entered the program.”
Mathies will be honored beforehand Sunday as a senior playing in her final home game. Tennessee senior Taber Spani thinks all the Wildcats will benefit from the atmosphere. UT lost in its last visit to Kentucky, 61-60, on Jan. 12, 2012.
“The gym is going to be packed,” Spani said. “They’re on top of you. I think it lends itself to their style of play.”
The day’s other storyline involves UT assistant Kyra Elzy’s return to Kentucky, where she spent four years on Mitchell’s staff and rose to associate head coach. Elzy, a former Lady Vol, left Kentucky in April to join Warlick’s staff.
Last October, Mitchell was diplomatic in addressing Elzy’s departure at SEC Media Day in Birmingham, Ala.
“I know it was a difficult time for me personally because we’re so close,” he said. “I know it was a difficult time for Kyra. But I don’t think you’ll ever be very happy in life or very successful if you let bitterness be any part of your life. While I was sad to see her go, I certainly will always love Kyra Elzy and be appreciative of what she contributed to the Kentucky program.”
During Friday’s press conference, Mitchell didn’t address Elzy at all. When asked whether it will be strange to see her on the other bench, he replied: “I don’t have any focus whatsoever on anything other than Tennessee’s players. They’ll be the people that we’ll need to pay attention to and that we’ll need to work to see if we can stop, slow down and see if we can score more points than their players.”
Elzy spoke highly of Kentucky on Friday, but already was considering her view from Tennessee’s bench.
“In my mind,” she said, “I’m going to approach it just like when I was sitting on Kentucky’s bench, coaching against my alma mater.”