Austin, Texas — Although exams in the classroom are finished for another semester, tests await Tennessee on the court.
A date with No. 18 Texas (6-1) today at the Erwin Center (TV: SportSouth, 2 p.m.) begins a two-game swing through the state and a stretch of three women's basketball games that's arguably the toughest of the season. Defending national champion Baylor looms on Tuesday in Waco, Texas. Tennessee then returns home to face top-ranked Stanford on Dec. 22.
While the calendar still says December, the schedule suddenly looks more like an NCAA bracket in late March.
"These next three games are huge statement games for us," senior Taber Spani said. "Kind of show us where we are, and at this point in the season where we stack up with some of the best teams in the country. This is a crucial three-game stretch for us."
No. 13 Tennessee (6-1) hasn't played any opponent since a 102-57 rout of then-No. 22 North Carolina on Dec. 2. Reconnecting with that dominant performance remains a priority. But in the wake of freshman point guard Andraya Carter's season-ending shoulder surgery on Thursday, reassessing responsibilities and possibly style of play demand equal time.
Along with losing Carter, Tennessee will miss fellow guard Jasmine Phillips for at least the next two games. Her ongoing absence is head coach Holly Warlick's call. Phillips missed the last two games while getting her academics in order. With Carter out and Phillips still sidelined, the Lady Vols will have nine players available for the Texas trip.
"It's going to hurt us as far as our depth," Warlick said. "We might not be able to run as much as we have been because we could sub people in and out."
Warlick is particularly concerned about how Carter's absence might impact starting point guard Ariel Massengale. Carter started the first five games while Massengale recovered from tendinitis in her left achilles tendon. Even
after assuming backup duties, Carter still was averaging 20.6 minutes per game.
"I think Andraya kind of helped Ariel relax and think, 'I don't have to do this all by myself,' '' Warlick said.
The Lady Vols do have veteran guards Meighan Simmons and Kamiko Williams available to assist with the situation.
Texas, on the other hand, has played the last two games without any guards with at least one full season's worth of Division I experience.
"That's a scary thought," Texas first-year head coach Karen Aston said.
The Longhorns' most experienced guard — junior Chassidy Fussell — missed those games with a head injury. Aston said on Thursday that Fussell's status was uncertain for Sunday's game.
Aston thought Texas' inexperience showed in a 62-42 loss to then-No.17 UCLA on Dec. 8. Without Fussell, who's also the team's second-leading scorer at 17.6 points per game, the Longhorns tied a school record for fewest points in a first half (15) and committed 29 turnovers.
"You never want to lose but (sometimes) you need a reality check," Aston said.
For Tennessee, the reality is that the Lady Vols have had plenty of time to prepare the last two weeks — perhaps too much for their own good. Either way, today's test will tell.
"Practice is great," Warlick said. "(But) you can only measure game situations, getting out and playing a real game."