No. 12 Lady Vols encountering midseason struggles

Tennessee coach Holly Warlick whistles to her team during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Mississippi State in Starkville, Miss., Thursday, Jan. 16, 2014. Tennessee won 67-63. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

Tennessee coach Holly Warlick whistles to her team during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Mississippi State in Starkville, Miss., Thursday, Jan. 16, 2014. Tennessee won 67-63. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

Tennessee guard Ariel Massengale (5) attempts to pass around the defense of Mississippi State guard Katia May (11) in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Starkville, Miss., Thursday, Jan. 16, 2014. No. 12 Tennessee won 67-63. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

Tennessee guard Ariel Massengale (5) attempts to pass around the defense of Mississippi State guard Katia May (11) in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Starkville, Miss., Thursday, Jan. 16, 2014. No. 12 Tennessee won 67-63. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

Notre Dame's Kayla McBride (21) shoots over Pittsburgh's Brianna Kiesel (3) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Thursday, Jan. 16, 2014, in Pittsburgh. Notre Dame won 109-66. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

Notre Dame's Kayla McBride (21) shoots over Pittsburgh's Brianna Kiesel (3) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Thursday, Jan. 16, 2014, in Pittsburgh. Notre Dame won 109-66. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw calls out to her team during the second half of Notre Dame's NCAA college basketball game against Pittsburgh on Thursday, Jan. 16, 2014, in Pittsburgh. Notre Dame won 109-66. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw calls out to her team during the second half of Notre Dame's NCAA college basketball game against Pittsburgh on Thursday, Jan. 16, 2014, in Pittsburgh. Notre Dame won 109-66. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

Tennessee women's basketball coach Holly Warlick, front left, and her players cheer their teammates as they pull away from Mississippi State in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Starkville, Miss., Thursday, Jan. 16, 2014. No. 12 Tennessee won 67-63. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

Tennessee women's basketball coach Holly Warlick, front left, and her players cheer their teammates as they pull away from Mississippi State in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Starkville, Miss., Thursday, Jan. 16, 2014. No. 12 Tennessee won 67-63. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

Tennessee coach Holly Warlick calls out a play to her team during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Mississippi State in Starkville, Miss., Thursday, Jan. 16, 2014. Tennessee won 67-63. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

Tennessee coach Holly Warlick calls out a play to her team during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Mississippi State in Starkville, Miss., Thursday, Jan. 16, 2014. Tennessee won 67-63. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee is fighting through a midseason slump as it prepares for one of its toughest tests of the year.

After racing to a 10-0 start, the 12th-ranked Lady Vols (14-3) have won just four of their last seven games as they prepare to host No. 2 Notre Dame (16-0) on Monday. Tennessee already has dropped two Southeastern Conference games, matching its total number of regular-season conference losses from last year.

One year ago, Tennessee outperformed expectations to win an SEC regular-season title and reach a third consecutive regional final. The Lady Vols returned to their customary role as the SEC preseason favorite this year, and they're struggling to adjust.

"It is a different feel," Tennessee guard Andraya Carter said. "Last year we were the attackers. This year we have the target on our back, which means everyone is coming at us. Everybody is going to play their best against us, so we have to play hard and we know that."

Tennessee coach Holly Warlick has called this group one of her best practice teams, but those solid practice performances haven't always translated to the games. Warlick constantly preaches defense, but that part of the game has been an issue in Tennessee's three losses.

They gave up 32 points and 20 rebounds to Chiney Ogwumike in a 76-70 loss at Stanford. Danielle Ballard matched a career high with 25 points and LSU shot 6 of 12 from 3-point range in the Lady Tigers' 80-77 win at Tennessee. Tennessee lost at Vanderbilt by allowing the Commodores to shoot 62.5 percent (15 of 24) in the second half.

Warlick is hoping the Lady Vols turned a corner Thursday when they withstood 22 turnovers and gutted out a 67-63 victory at Mississippi State. Although Mississippi State stayed close throughout the second half, Tennessee never allowed the Bulldogs to take the lead after the first two minutes of the game.

"We dug down deep and got stops when we needed to, and we hadn't been able to do that," Warlick said after the game.

The Lady Vols also have struggled with some health issues.

Senior guard Meighan Simmons, the SEC preseason player of the year, scored just three points against Mississippi State in her second game since a car accident. Sophomore forward Bashaara Graves, last season's SEC newcomer of the year, has played through a leg injury and also hurt her back falling to the floor in a victory at Georgia this month.

Tennessee now seems to be feeling better. Graves had 13 points at Mississippi State after being held to single-digit scoring for four straight games. Tennessee assistant coach Kyra Elzy said after Saturday's practice that "everyone is healthy."

But the Lady Vols will have to step up their game to beat Notre Dame, which has won a school-record 39 consecutive regular-season games over the last two years. The Irish have 28 straight regular-season road wins. After losing its first 20 meetings in this series, Notre Dame has beaten Tennessee each of the last three years.

Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw noted that Tennessee has plenty of talent and likely sees this game as an opportunity to earn a big win and get back on track.

"For us, it's a chance to step outside the conference," McGraw said. "It's kind of a 'nothing to lose' game. We don't lose any standing in the ACC, get great preparation for a Final Four team. I think it's only positives."

___

AP Sports Writer David Brandt in Starkville, Miss., and freelance writer Nate Barnes in Pittsburgh contributed to this report.

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Comments » 3

wn#1414709 (Inactive) writes:

I was and still am intrigued by this version of the Lady Vols. On paper this one of the most talented teams since Parkers last year. They have the ability to play several different ways because of their roster, but on the downside they have not seemed to be able to find a consistent identity. We can't seem to find consistent scoring from the perimeter and we seem to lack the foot speed to cover many of opponents 2 and 3 position players. Best example is the inability to cover the dribble drive for those positions. The Irish are going to wear us out with this. Unfortunately Holly's options are limited at this point to counter. Jones has the foot Speed to defend but is a poor perimeter shooter. Simmons is hot and cold and get's burned too often on defense. Burdic seems better as a 4 on defense and rebounding than out on the perimeter playing defense and shooting perimeter shots. Lady Vols will have to Dominate at the post, get double digit rebound advantage, and Harrison will need to get a double double for the Lady Vols to win. Will be in building rooting for them. Holly is a class act!

oldster writes:

This version of the LVs lack a good outside shooter and an enforcer. They lack a coaching staff which can find a way to stop traditional issues of waaaay too many turnovers, blown wide open lay ups and put backs, and the inability to stop dribble penetration into the lane.

That all being said, I expect them to have their best game of the season tomorrow night. It may not be sufficient to beat ND, but a good game in any event (i.e. playing to the level of the competition).

johnlg00 writes:

I think the LVs may be onto something with the press and the zone. They can put a team on the floor with the quickness and ball-handling to move the ball quickly up the court, but they might have trouble defending one-on-one. When a team gets a sense of how to play an "organic" zone, then they can deploy against any opponent threat. Your players don't get overworked or exposed for lack of speed. But lack of speed won't hinder well-executed half-court traps. When the back-side defenders get a better sense of where to be to challenge the passes out of the double-team, the defense will be a turnover-generating machine, but also one that lets the best offensive players play.

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