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Lady Vols ready for toughest stretch of season

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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP)

Now that Tennessee has made a case that it won't go backward in the post-Pat Summitt era, the 13th-ranked Lady Vols have a chance to deliver an even bigger statement.

Tennessee (6-1) carries a six-game winning streak into the toughest portion of its schedule. The Lady Vols play at No. 18 Texas on Sunday, visit No. 3 Baylor on Tuesday and return home to face top-ranked Stanford on Dec. 22.

''We've been saying how it can get us back in the national championship talk again, which we haven't been in for a while,'' sophomore guard Ariel Massengale said. ''It's good for the program.''

Tennessee hasn't reached the Final Four since its 2008 national championship season, which represents this storied program's longest drought since the NCAA began running the tournament in 1982.

Skepticism surrounded this team before the season as Tennessee replaced Summitt, who led the Lady Vols to eight national titles before stepping down in April with early-onset dementia. Tennessee was 20th in the preseason Top 25 - its lowest ranking since 1985 - and raised more doubts with a season-opening 80-71 loss at Chattanooga in Holly Warlick's head coaching debut.

The Lady Vols haven't lost since. Their winning streak includes double-digit victories over Georgia Tech, Miami and North Carolina, who all were ranked at the time.

They're ready to test themselves against the nation's best.

''I think beating three Top 25 teams has somewhat given us a head start at proving our point, but at Tennessee, we always have a point to prove because we're Tennessee and there are a lot of expectations for us,'' junior guard Meighan Simmons said.

Tennessee also must worry about showing signs of rust. The Lady Vols haven't played since a 102-57 blowout of North Carolina on Dec. 2. That 13-day layoff represents the Lady Vols' longest break during a season since 2008-09, when they had 14 days off between the Southeastern Conference tournament and the NCAA tournament.

''The way we played against Carolina, I would have wanted to start (playing again) a couple of days afterward, but we don't have that benefit,'' Warlick said. ''We've tried to shorten practice and focus on certain things each day.''

Tennessee's players say the practices have remained grueling enough to prepare them for what they'll face over the next week.

''That's what our coaches try to do, they try to prepare us and make us so physically exhausted and mentally fatigued in practice that the games seem a little bit easier,'' senior guard/forward Taber Spani said.

Tennessee has focused primarily on improving its rebounding and transition defense. The Lady Vols have been at their best this season when they've forced a flurry of turnovers that lead to easy baskets.

The Lady Vols are entering this difficult stretch shorthanded. Freshman guard Andraya Carter underwent season-ending surgery to repair a torn labrum in her right shoulder Thursday after averaging 5.3 points and 20.6 minutes in the Lady Vols' first seven games.

''It's going to hurt us as far as our depth,'' Warlick said.

Carter's injury presents one more obstacle to a team beginning the biggest test of its season thus far.

The Lady Vols look forward to the challenge.

''We all come to Tennessee to play against the best,'' Massengale said. ''This is a great opportunity for us.''

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