Lady Vols ready for toughest stretch of season

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.”