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MURFREESBORO, Tenn. – The Tennessee Lady Vols made sure they didn't repeat themselves with a second straight season-opening loss on the road.
Isabelle Harrison scored 13 points as fourth-ranked Tennessee rallied from a 12-point halftime deficit to beat Middle Tennessee 67-57 on Friday night in the season opener. Harrison said the Lady Vols talked at halftime and one topic was learning from their opening loss at Chattanooga last season.
"We don't want to go on that long bus ride with all those coaches like we did last year," Harrison said. "We put in the effort, and we just played hard."
The Lady Vols were pretty sloppy in trailing 34-22 at halftime. They scored the first 14 of the second half, and Mercedes Russell, the Gatorade national girls player of the year from Springfield, Ore., scored nine of her 11 in the second half for Tennessee. The Lady Vols also turned the ball over only four times after doing so 10 times in the first half.
Ariel Massengale had 12 points for the Lady Vols, and Andraya Carter had 10.
Tennessee coach Holly Warlick was happy to escape with the victory with the Lady Vols visiting No. 12 North Carolina on Monday night. The coach wasn't happy with her Lady Vols being called for 33 fouls. Middle Tennessee had 25 for a combined 58 in the game. Warlick didn't point the finger at the officials.
"That's how it is so we've got to adjust and we've got to do a better job as coaches to get our kids to where we need to be defensively," Warlick said. "I don't know what else to say. I mean ... we just got to do a better job as coaches if it's going to continue to be the way that it's called and it's up to us to change it."
Ebony Rowe led Middle Tennessee with 21 points and 16 rebounds. Olivia Jones had 10, and Shanice Cason had 10 points and 10 rebounds.
After Middle Tennessee lost 88-81 in overtime to the Lady Vols in Knoxville last year, the Blue Raiders drew 11,227 — the second-largest crowd in the program's history only to 11,802 who came to watch Tennessee on Nov. 25, 2009.
"One of the things that the WBCA chartered all of our programs to do across the country was to grow the game," Middle Tennessee coach Rick Insell said. "Well, you looked at two programs out there tonight that's concerned about growing the game."
The Lady Vols went 27-8 last season and lost to Louisville in a regional final, while Middle Tennessee is the preseason favorite to win its new league in Conference USA after five straight NCAA tournament berths of its own.
Tennessee has enough experience returning that Warlick brought Russell off the bench.
Insell has some talented freshmen too. Jones helped local Riverdale High finish first nationally last season in several polls, and the forward had all her 10 points by halftime.
But Insell credited Tennessee's quickness with getting his Blue Raiders a little rattled and out of their offense in the second half. They went 17 of 31 at the free throw line and shot only 6 of 29 from the floor in the second half.
Russell's layup with 13:59 left capped the 14-point spurt to open the second half and gave the Lady Vols their first lead since 10-9 at 36-34. But they scored eight straight to grab their biggest lead of the night at 48-42 on a 3-pointer by Carter with 8:18 to go and hit five of their last six at the free throw line to clinch the win.