Massengale steps up at Tennessee

Tennessee's Ariel Massengale doesn't remember herself as being quite the guarded, insular city girl that her friend and teammate Cierra Burdick recalls.

"I had to teach her how to smile and wave to strangers our freshman year," Burdick said. "I said, 'Hey, in the South, when someone smiles at you, it's reciprocal.' She wasn't used to being in the South."

Burdick, a native of Charlotte, North Carolina, was an expert in such etiquette. But Massengale, who is from greater Chicago, says Burdick is exaggerating just a little bit.

"It wasn't a complete shock for me, because my parents are from the middle Tennessee area, and I'd visited over the years growing up," said Massengale, who has several family members living in the Volunteer state. "It was in my blood, and it wasn't that hard for me to pull it out.

"But » it was still an adjustment. Cierra would have to remind me a few times to smile more, so I would get used to it."

Now, on the verge of her final NCAA tournament, Massengale regularly brings sunlight to the Lady Vols, who are the No. 2 seed in the Spokane Regional.

"I think it's a matter of getting older," Massengale said of showing leadership and staying positive. "Each year, my coaches have put an emphasis on getting it out of me, because it's always been in there.

"The coaching staff would say I used to pout a lot and had an up-and-down attitude emotionally. Now, they would say that every day I'm upbeat, I usually have a smile on my face, and I bring energy to the team. That's how I've grown."

She has been a crucial part of a Tennessee team that -- despite losing senior starting center Isabelle Harrison in mid-February -- tied for the SEC regular-season title and made the league tournament final. And Massengale is half of the Lady Vols' "Chicago connection," along with her former Bolingbrook High School teammate, junior center Nia Moore.

"I've known Ariel for quite a long time," Moore said. "I think it's a strong bond, and she was part of the reason I chose to come here."

This Saturday (ESPN2/WatchESPN, 1:30 p.m. ET), Massengale, Moore and the Lady Vols will open the NCAA tournament at home in Knoxville, Tennessee, against No. 15 Boise State.

Massengale is Tennessee's top threat from behind the arc, making 64 treys, and she's also the team's best free throw shooter (87.5 percent, 63 of 72). She has averaged 10.9 points and has adjusted well to both coming off the bench and starting. Moore, mostly in a reserve role, has averaged 5.0 points and 3.1 rebounds.

Massengale was a player Tennessee had targeted for quite a while. Moore really came into the picture for the Vols when Jolette Law was let go as head coach at Illinois and became an assistant at Tennessee.

"So we got in on Nia late, but we loved the kid," Tennessee coach Holly Warlick said. "Both of them come from a great high school program. Nia is someone who gets better every day in practice, and she's able to come in and make big things happen for us. She's been in the shadows of Izzy and Bashaara [Graves], and now she's able to step out and come into her own.

"With Ariel -- that kid's handled so much pressure, because she was named a starting guard by people before she even got here. She's really evolved. And this year, I think, she's having fun."

Massengale would agree with all of that, and is happy about how she has adapted.

"I think my teammates respect me and listen to me," she said. "They call me 'Mama Massengale' now, for taking care of them on and off the court."

Her first season, though, she might have been referred to as "Melancholy Massengale" because she struggled so much with being far from home and the challenges that presented.

In fact, Massengale, Burdick, and Harrison were all tested by their freshman season in 2011-12. That was Pat Summitt's final year as head coach, coming in the wake of her announcement that she had early onset dementia, Alzheimer's type.

The highest peak that season was a joyous and emotional SEC tournament title won in Harrison's hometown of Nashville, Tennessee. The saddest scene was the Lady Vols' tear-soaked locker room in Des Moines, Iowa, after an Elite Eight loss to Baylor.

But all that season, Massengale was dealing with not just the adjustment to college, the poignancy of knowing Summitt's situation, and the demands of needing to play a lot as a freshman. She was also really, really homesick.

"It was terrible; I'm still not sure how I made it through," Massengale said. "But my teammates were great; they always called and checked on me. And it helped having my grandmother and aunts and uncles being close, so if I had a little time off, I could go visit them.

"But I missed my parents, most of all, and the familiarity of my surroundings. And also just being comfortable in my own space. I have an older brother, but we're 10 years apart, so it was a lot like being an only child. At home, everything was mine, and if I wanted to be by myself, I'd just go in my room."

Yes, she had her teammates and friends like Moore at Bolingbrook High, obviously, but Massengale has that introverted quality of needing alone time to think and recharge her batteries. It was hard for her to get used to the constant closeness with others in college. There were times that first year when you could almost see Massengale retreating inward, just to go to a quieter space.

But, let's face it, things are never going to be quiet when you play for a program in the spotlight like Tennessee. Massengale felt better adjusted her sophomore season, especially with a fellow Windy City native on the team with her.

"That kid's handled so much pressure, because she was named a starting guard by people before she even got here. She's really evolved." Tennessee coach Holly Warlick on Ariel Massengale

Moore and her twin sister, Annaya, had combined with Massengale to help Bolingbrook win an Illinois state title in 2011. (Annaya, who played collegiately at Troy, is now a manager for the Lady Vols.)

"That was great, just to have someone from home that I was used to seeing," Massengale said of Nia Moore. "She was someone who understood me and who I could relate to. And her freshman year, she was also homesick. So I was able to help her with that."

Tennessee fell to Louisville in the 2013 Elite Eight, and then to Maryland in the Sweet 16 last year. But Massengale didn't get to play in the 2014 Big Dance, missing the final 16 games of last season with a facial injury.

Massengale was having the best season of her career, averaging 12.5 points through 19 games, before she was hurt in late January of 2014.

"It was very frustrating, but I'm a firm believer that everything happens for a reason," Massengale said. "Looking back now, as much as I wanted to play last year when I was out, I think I matured a lot.

"One, in not taking the game for granted. Learning more about my teammates, and the game from a point guard's standpoint. And just seeing things more from the coaches' perspective."

Moore has had her moments this season, including a 25-point, 11-rebound performance against Tennessee State in November, and a game-high 14 points in the Lady Vols' SEC tournament quarterfinal win over Georgia.

Massengale's signature game came in the regular-season finale on March 1, when she lit up Vanderbilt on senior day for her, Burdick and Harrison. Massengale scored 26 points, making 8 of 11 3-pointers.

Now for Massengale, these NCAA early rounds loom as her final chance to play at Thompson-Boling Arena. Knoxville has become her second home, and she loves it -- even if it doesn't have her favorite restaurant.

"Ooooh, there's a place back home called Portillo's," Massengale said. "I get the charbroiled chicken sandwich, and they have this famous chocolate cake where the special ingredient is mayonnaise. Plus, they have the best cheese fries. It's about 5 minutes from where I live. Every time I go home, I get off the plane and go straight there."

Massengale hopes to get a shot at the WNBA, so maybe she'll wind up playing back in Chicago after all. But, like Moore, she's very glad she got through the tough times and made Tennessee her home in college.

"I feel I've grown as a person and a basketball player," Massengale said. "Everything I've seen with the transition of this program -- being one of the last to play for Coach Summitt and one of the first to start Holly's era -- it's something I'll always remember."