Lady Vols ready for toughest stretch of season

Tennessee's Meighan Simmons, left, is congratulated by head coach Holly Warlick as she comes to the bench after scoring a career high 33 points against North Carolina at Thompson-Boling Arena in Knoxville, Sunday, Dec. 2, 2012. Tennessee won the game 102-57. (AMY SMOTHERMAN BURGESS/NEWS SENTINEL)

Photo by Amy Smotherman Burgess

Tennessee's Meighan Simmons, left, is congratulated by head coach Holly Warlick as she comes to the bench after scoring a career high 33 points against North Carolina at Thompson-Boling Arena in Knoxville, Sunday, Dec. 2, 2012. Tennessee won the game 102-57. (AMY SMOTHERMAN BURGESS/NEWS SENTINEL)

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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Comments » 8

SummittsCourt writes:

Let's go Lady Vols! I believe!

Theo writes:

Win, lose or draw these three games are great for this young team. Go Lady Vols!
One last thing - thinking of Mike from Conn. Hope all his little ones are at home and safe.
I know lots of folks don't like Pres. O. but I thought he said it for all of us - "Our hearts are broken". Peace and comfort to all UConn fans at this time.

orangecountyvols writes:

Theo,

Well said. Go Lady Vols. We're behind you.
Actually anything this year is a bonus.........since next year the big guy at Baylor will be gone and 2013-2014 should be a banner year for the Vols. Not many 6:08 people around and just being that big is a decided advantage no matter who it is.

movol53 writes:

I agree with Theo and orange county. This is a young team and they need to learn just how much they need to improve in order for them to become what they wish to be - - Champions. Every game will be a learning experience for them this year. There will be some bumps in the road this year; like injuries, but it will make us stronger. Next year they will have a years worth of experience and will play at a higher level. And look at what we have coming in!!!! Next years recruits will get some valuable minutes as they are "plugged into" the games throughout the season - - making the team even stronger. I see a very bright future during the next three or for years for the Lady Vols!!! Go VOLS!!!

volfan2002 writes:

I think we win two of these games and get to 8 and 2.

tonyvick#213307 writes:

I see a lot of talk about next year. I just believe you ladies have what it take to make the final four this year. Remember you are the Lady Vols, Champions and the toughest out in the country.

golfman1975 writes:

in response to Theo:

Win, lose or draw these three games are great for this young team. Go Lady Vols!
One last thing - thinking of Mike from Conn. Hope all his little ones are at home and safe.
I know lots of folks don't like Pres. O. but I thought he said it for all of us - "Our hearts are broken". Peace and comfort to all UConn fans at this time.

Lady Vols will be back at the top sooner than later. I love the husle...

Agree totally...I support and pray for the families in Conn. I also support whoever is elected to be president. The country needs to be supportive of more jobs and more tax payers (which is created by more jobs). I saw the president speak and he said the right things. Question is, when will we learn that being a conservative or liberal is not important...communicating is. To much blaming and not enough problem solving.

jt45 writes:

Going to miss carter, but im sure they will be fine. I hope they go after Texas the way they did NC, if they can keep that momentum going anything is possible. I think they are getting better every game.

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