AP Sports Writer
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The fourth-ranked Tennessee Lady Vols don't have to be reminded of how the post-Pat Summitt era began.
Tennessee was stunned by Chattanooga in its opener and the Lady Vols are once again preparing open to the season against an in-state opponent on the road.
"That's always in the back of our mind," Tennessee center Isabelle Harrison said of the loss to Chattanooga.
Tennessee visits Middle Tennessee on Friday before playing at No. 12 North Carolina on Monday to open the season. Last year, Tennessee fell 80-71 to Chattanooga in the first game of Holly Warlick's coaching tenure and won 71-54 at Georgia Tech two days later.
The Lady Vols haven't forgotten about the way they started last season. They're eager to avoid a repeat performance.
"Probably I didn't have them prepared for that environment," Warlick said. "Hopefully we have gotten them to that point. I just think we played against a veteran (Chattanooga) team. We started off inexperienced. We dug ourselves in a hole and we couldn't get out of it. We weren't ready. We weren't ready mentally. We weren't ready physically. I just don't think we anticipated that (Chattanooga) would give us that kind of fight."
Tennessee has come a long way since that night. The Lady Vols return five of their top six scorers from a team that went 27-8, won a Southeastern Conference regular-season title and reached a third straight regional final last season.
The Lady Vols believe they can do better this year.
"This is a completely different team," Tennessee guard Ariel Massengale said. "I know you see a lot of the same people, but the mindset is different. The team chemistry is different."
Middle Tennessee also has reason for optimism.
The Blue Raiders return three starters from a team that went 25-8 and earned a fifth straight NCAA tournament bid last season. Middle Tennessee enters its first year in Conference USA as the preseason favorite to win the league title. Middle Tennessee lost 88-81 in overtime to the Lady Vols last season in Knoxville after leading for most of the game.
Middle Tennessee forward Ebony Rowe had 19 points and 12 rebounds against the Lady Vols last season. Middle Tennessee's Laken Leonard scored 17 points in that game.
"Transition is what we have to stop," said Middle Tennessee coach Rick Insell, who will be seeking his 200th career win Friday. "If we slow them down, we're going to have a shot. We have to shoot the ball well, too. We have some great shooters. In games like this before, we've stepped up and shot the ball well. Last year, Laken Leonard made five 3's against Tennessee. I'd like to say she can make five 3's on Friday night, and if she does, we've got a shot."
Although Middle Tennessee has never beaten the Lady Vols, the Blue Raiders are 4-3 in home games against SEC teams since Insell took over the program in 2005.
"The atmosphere here will be great," Insell said. "When 10-12,000 people are in the Murphy Center, strange things happen. We've seen that before. Don't be surprised if you see some strange things happen on Friday night."
The Lady Vols have seen enough strange things happen in recent season openers.
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