Tennessee (17-4, 8-0) steamrolled 88-45 over Mississippi State (9-12, 1-7) on Thursday before 13,011 appreciative fans whose loudest cheer might have come when sophomore Cierra Burdick walked to the scorer's table.
"Our fans are great," Burdick said. "The acknowledgement that they showed me was awesome."
Burdick last played basketball on New Year Eve's when she broke her hand while in the gym on an off day. Her projected return date was the first week of February and she beat it by one day on the last day of January.
"She loves the game," coach Holly Warlick said. "She got hurt playing and working on her game on New Year's Eve, so yeah, she's been dying to get back in and she's been chomping at the bit."
Burdick's return is critical because sophomore post Isabelle Harrison will have surgery Friday to address an injury to the lateral meniscus in her left knee. That procedure will help determine how long she is off the court, and Warlick offered that a pure guess was that she had a 50-50 shot to return this season.
That means Burdick will move inside, and she noted that was the best thing for her hand anyway.
"It actually works out for me because right now I can't shoot. But don't tell anybody, that's a secret," Burdick said to a mock aghast look from senior Kamiko Williams at the post-game press conference.
"I can't shoot outside four feet from the basket. My strength and range of motion isn't perfect right now, but playing inside works right now."
There is refreshing candor, and then there is Burdick. Of course, teams would notice her shots were all coming around the paint. And the sophomore isn't going to be roaming the perimeter when the Lady Vols need help in the post.
"I definitely think I can help with rebounding and passing the ball, and just stepping outside," Burdick said. "I'm not going to be the post presence that Izzy is, because she's phenomenal, but I can be a versatile four."
Harrison's post presence also reverberated on the defensive end because of her shot-blocking ability. That is where freshman Nia Moore can help, and she showed that Thursday with a smack-down block that the fans loved.
"Nia is extremely long; if anything, she is a shot blocker," Burdick said. "Y'all don't see her in practice, but we do. I think when she gets more comfortable on the court and has more minutes under her belt, she'll be a benefit to us."
With Harrison out indefinitely, Burdick's return and Moore's emergence are well timed.
"We need to have Izzy's back," Burdick said. "We're so big on being a family, and when one of our family members goes down, it's important for us to have each other's back.
"Nia and I were just trying to get back in the groove of things and step up for Izzy."
Moore made use of her 12 minutes and showed she could run the floor, get on the boards (she had three), shoot free throws (4-4) and score (eight points).
"It definitely gives me confidence," Moore said. "With our players going out and being injured, any time I can go out there and help my team is good."
She also followed Warlick's advice to not play to the scoreboard. Despite the lopsided score late in the second half, Moore flattened a local TV reporter in pursuit of a loose ball.
"I'm sorry about that," Moore said, speaking to the TV cameraman at the post-game press conference. "It was a hustle play. I didn't mean to hit you. I was just trying to get the ball back into play."
Tennessee has been undersized in the paint all season and will now really play without a traditional post. That actually can work well for the Lady Vols.
Bashaara Graves is a beast inside - she had 10 points and seven boards - and also has been showing that she can stick elbow and baseline jumpers.
Jasmine Jones had seven points and her two rebounds made the crowd gasp because of the elevation.
Jones, like Burdick, can play inside and out, so the post will be held down by three freshmen and a sophomore for the foreseeable future.
Mississippi State coach Vic Schaefer had an insightful take on Tennessee's youth.
"Sometimes it's not bad to be young," Schaefer said. "What you don't know sometimes doesn't hurt you. For them I think right now they're getting the experience.
"You think about it how young they are. The fact that they're young sometimes doesn't work against you and can actually work for you. Sometimes, again, what you don't know doesn't hurt you."
That addresses the future of the post but the player who was crucial in the resounding win over the Bulldogs was senior guard Kamiko Williams.
She found out she was starting before the game when fellow senior Taber Spani told her.
"Taber told me when we were shooting," Williams said. "She just told me to be ready, and I just had to get my mind right in the last 10 minutes of the warm up."
Williams, who was starting for the first time in two years - ironically her last start came against Mississippi State on Jan. 27, 2011 - didn't stray from her usual spot for introductions. She greets her teammates as they run from the tunnel and opted to stay with that routine.
"I love doing the handshakes with the team and giving my friends hugs before the game," Williams said. "That's something I enjoy doing. I'd rather be out there."
Williams would be well served to stick with the same game plan.
She scored 10 points on 4-7 shooting, grabbed 13 rebounds, tallied six assists and had six thefts.
When Warlick was asked which stat she liked the most she scanned the box score.
"I think it's steals for her," Warlick said. "She has a great presence on the defensive end, and she can be one of our best defensive players. I'm happy for her. She just had a complete game."
Warlick then noticed how the minutes played number.
"Let me back up," Warlick said to laughter. "Probably her playing 32 minutes was a huge stat. Her maintaining and her conditioning, I think her playing 32 minutes was huge for us."
Warlick also was able to find minutes for sophomore Jasmine Phillips, who has been in catch-up mode since missing most of November and nearly all of December because of injuries and then extra attention to academics.
Phillips responded with eight points in nine minutes and two steals in what had to a confidence boost for the juco transfer.
"Anytime one of the players gets the time out there, it's good to see that," Moore said.
Warlick could have started Jasmine Jones, but she made the decision to insert Williams into the lineup.
"I think Jasmine is more comfortable with coming off the bench," Warlick said. "She and I talked about it, and I talked to Kamiko as well and came to the conclusion that it would be good to get Kamiko to start because she has experience.
"Jasmine likes to sit and watch and see how the game progresses before coming in, so we went with Kamiko."
It was a decision that worked out well because of Williams' ability to handle the ball, especially in traffic, make decisions - she is patient when in-bounding - and get on the glass.
Williams also used her quickness and hands to generate steals - she stripped one ball handler with a flurry of hand movement that disconcerted the opponent - and she can push the ball in the open floor. She made a pinpoint timing pass over the defense to Spani, who had broken free in the open court.
"It was a great game, one of her best games since she's been here," Warlick said. "That's our expectation for her. Six steals was huge, then her assists and rebounding.
"She was at the point a lot. She needs to put those numbers up every night for us to maintain and be consistent."
Tennessee got production early from Williams and the other four starters and quickly opened a 10-0 lead over Mississippi State. The Lady Vols got their running game in gear early and while Schaefer tried some timeouts, the Bulldogs couldn't slow down the offensive attack.
"You've got a great staff over there, veteran staff, they do their homework," Schaefer said. "They're going to know that's an issue for us. Everybody's attacking us in that area.
"We have a very young, immature team, and we play a lot better at home than we do on the road. That's been the case all year long."
When Tennessee lost to Baylor, its next game was against Stanford, and the Lady Vols played so poorly that for the first time this season Warlick questioned their effort.
She didn't want to see a repeat after Monday's loss to Notre Dame, and she didn't.
"We talked about it, we addressed that," Warlick said. "Obviously, it was disappointing with the Notre Dame game, but we really wanted them to focus in on the SEC is the most important thing right now.
"And Mississippi State is the most important thing for us and how we play, how were going to come out, how we were going to bounce back from the loss."
Tennessee led 42-18 at halftime and then didn't let up to start the second half. Within five minutes the lead was 30 points, 57-27, and at 40 points, 76-36, with less than seven minutes to play despite the fact Warlick was moving players in and out.
"We really emphasized not playing the scoreboards," Warlick said. "We have to get better and we talked about against Notre Dame having lulls, and we can't.
"We've got to make sure we maintain our intensity and how we're playing and just continue, no matter what the score. We're behind, we're ahead, we've got to get better and focus on us and understand the importance of how hard we're playing, the game takes care of itself."
Tennessee also got Meighan Simmons back on track with 21 points, and she added six boards and three assists. Spani had 15 points and seven boards. Ariel Massengale added five points and two assists and went just 26 minutes after a month of extended play.
The Lady Vols continue to shoot well from the line - 85 percent in this game at 17-20 - and dominated every stat from points in the paint (40-18) to fast break (22-2) to bench scoring (27-6).
Schaefer's workhorse is Martha Alwal and she tallied 16 points and nine boards, but guards Kendra Grant and Katia May went 6-32 from the field and combined for 15 points.
"We got plenty of good looks," Schaefer said. "I thought we got good shots the first half. Kendra's 4-for-19. Katia's 2-for-13. When we beat Ole Miss on Sunday, Kendra's 8-for-12, and Katia's 6-for-13.
"We got plenty of looks early; we just couldn't make shots. I'm supposed to be a defensive guy, and we gave up 88 points again tonight. It's not the first time in the league that we've done that."
Schaefer was very complimentary of Warlick in his opening remarks and noted how she had adjusted after dealing with injuries to key players. Harrison is the third starter lost to significant injury. Burdick just got back. Andraya Carter is out for the season.
"Holly's doing a great job," he said. "Her and her staff are doing a great job. I know right now she's band-aiding it, holding it together with some injuries, and that's an awfully hard thing to do.
"They're doing a great job. Those kids play extremely hard. Their motors run at a very high level."
Tennessee is halfway through the SEC season and unscathed with eight games to play. The next two are on the road - at Missouri on Sunday and then at LSU next Thursday.
Schaefer noted the Lady Vols should be even better next season.
"You give them another year, and by the time two years from now, this is going to be a veteran, salty team with salty leadership starting with their head coach," Schaefer said.
"They're going to be hard to deal with, and they're leading the SEC by the way. They are undefeated in our league. They're awfully talented."
Game highlights from utsportstv
Kamiko Williams, Cierra Burdick, Nia Moore
Coach Vic Schaefer, Martha Alwal