The Lady Vols must recover from a costly loss at Missouri that left them in a tie for first in the SEC rather than alone at the top and the temporary loss of Kamiko Williams, who suffered a right ankle sprain and is questionable to play against LSU.
"Just bouncing back has kind of been our motto this year," Cierra Burdick said. "In a way this will be a blessing for us. As long as we learn from it, it's not a total loss."
The sophomore forward is likely to move into the starting lineup against LSU despite the fact she is barely back from a broken right hand and is still adjusting to how she catches and handles the ball.
That speaks to the depleted depth after a series of injuries that now includes Williams, who joined Andraya Carter (shoulder, out for season) and Isabelle Harrison (knee, possible to return) on the sideline.
Williams was on her way to a career game against Missouri, which could do nothing to stop the athletic guard from getting to the paint. The senior also was dialed in defensively. When Williams left the game after landing on an opponent's foot early in the second half and suffering a severely sprained ankle, Tennessee's swagger seemed to exit with her.
"She was in the zone, and she helps so much on the defensive end," fellow senior Taber Spani said. "And she was an experienced player in a hostile environment."
Spani was upset about the outcome in from of about 60 family and friends in her home state – "It was tough. You want to play well in front of your family and friends," she said – but she was also frustrated beyond the final score.
"I've just got to find a way to get this team to win," Spani said. And being the leader of this team I think I was just more frustrated with myself than anything.
"Because you can't expect to put heavy expectations on these freshmen, and they've done amazing jobs carrying huge loads. It's time for the upperclassmen to carry them and that's what I told them in our meeting."
That meeting took place Tuesday before practice and based on the chatter and smiles when the players arrived on the court, it was an effective one.
Spani is one of only three upperclassmen on the team – the others are Williams and junior Meighan Simmons – and often finds herself on the court with a bunch of youngsters. They can look to the fact that Spani is out there with them. She is dealing with serious back issues but will log 35-38 minutes a game.
"I was physically struggling and at that point you just have to battle," Spani said.
It speaks to the extent of Tennessee's injuries that even a player logging beaucoup minutes is not particularly healthy. But Spani is a senior like Williams, and they both want a successful end to their careers.
"Kamiko is someone that I have seen mature so much in four years," Spani said. "All she cares about is winning right now and doing what she can to be a part of that.
"She was very frustrated (by the injury). But she has been living in the training room. She is very diligent that way. Her whole goal is to get back on the court, and she knows that there is a lot of basketball left to play."
Leadership also will have to come from the sophomores. While Ariel Massengale and Burdick are second-year players, they are both two of the more experienced ones on the team, especially Massengale, a regular starter over two seasons at the point.
"Rel is the point guard so she's making sure everyone is in the right position, keeping the mood up, the pace fast," Burdick said. "I have to keep positive energy and reflect nothing but positive emotion and take the underclassmen under my wing even though I am an underclassman."
That includes freshman Bashaara Graves, who is playing well beyond her age, moved into the starting lineup in her second game as a Lady Vol and has been a fixture there ever since.
Graves shot just five times against Missouri despite being the only low-post presence, and she was clearly frustrated during the game. That is when an older teammate needs to intervene and settle down a first-year player in a tense game.
"Like (Kyra) Elzy and (Jolette) Law have been saying, ‘You're not a freshman anymore.' She is, but we can't afford for her to be a freshman," Burdick said. She is a big part of this team being the beast that she is.
"I know she feels like she has a lot of weight on her shoulders with Izzy being out, but we tried to let her know she doesn't have to do it by herself and this is a team effort. We've got her back, and we're going to get her the ball, but she can't get frustrated."
Burdick is not yet logging a lot of minutes – if she starts tonight freshman forward Jasmine Jones needs to be ready to check in relatively soon – and she had a clear view from the sideline and huddles of what went wrong against Missouri, a team that Tennessee played so disciplined against on defense in the wipeout win in Knoxville.
"We just lost our defensive principles," Burdick said. "You think we would have learned our lessons. And that's what is going to happen if we don't make defense our priority."
A team can lose its way in February from fatigue, and Burdick noted complacency and overconfidence were factors, too, against the Tigers in Missouri. The latter two shouldn't be an issue against the Tigers in Louisiana. LSU coach Nikki Caldwell, a former player and assistant at Tennessee, knows the program as well as she knows her own.
"Just make defense a priority," Burdick said. "We've got to play D and we've got to board the basketball. That is something Pat Summitt has instilled in this program and that is why we have won championships."
As far as fatigue the players are looking forward to a bye next week. Tennessee will host Ole Miss on Sunday and then enjoy a week between games before Vanderbilt arrives on Feb. 17 for the "Live Pink, Bleed Orange" game.
"We need it bad," Spani said. "But we really have to focus and take care of business. The coaches have done a great job of breaking down we've got 80 minutes this week and then we've got basically a week to get ourselves rejuvenated, people get their legs back and hopefully for some people to heal.
"If we can take that mentality for these freshmen and these young players to break it into chunks that really helps."
Burdick added, "I definitely think it will be good for our bodies and for our injured list. Hopefully we can use the time wisely and work on ourselves and get healthy."
Tennessee coach Holly Warlick is expected to start: Ariel Massengale, 5-6 sophomore guard, No. 5, hails from Bolingbrook, Ill. (8.2 points per game, 2.8 rebounds per game, 4.4 assists per game); Meighan Simmons, 5-9 junior guard, No. 10, hails from Cibolo, Texas (17.2 ppg, 3.4 rpg); Taber Spani, 6-1 senior forward, No. 13, hails from Lee's Summit, Mo. (10.0 ppg, 4.3 rpg); Cierra Burdick 6-2 sophomore forward, hails from Charlotte, N.C. (8.0 ppg, 6.2 rpg); and Bashaara Graves, 6-2 freshman forward, No. 12, hails from Clarksville, Tenn. (14.3 ppg, 8.8 rpg).
LSU Coach Nikki Caldwell is expected to start: Danielle Ballard, 5-9 freshman guard, No. 32 (12.8 ppg, 6.1 rpg, 2.7 apg, 3.1 steals per game), hails from Memphis, Tenn., three-time SEC Freshman of the Week, has 68 steals on the season, the most by an LSU player since Erica White nabbed 69 in 2007-08; Adrienne Webb, 5-9 senior guard, No. 10 (14.1 ppg, 3.5 rpg), hails from Madison, Ala., averaging 18.0 points in last six games; Bianca Lutley, 5-11 senior guard, No. 3 (9.9 ppg, 4.3 rpg), hails from Pensacola, Fla., tallied 16 points against South Carolina, averaging 10.0 ppg in SEC matchups; Anne Pedersen, 6-1 redshirt freshman forward, No. 4 (1.6 ppg, 1.1 rpg), hails from Copenhagen, Denmark, started two games this season, would make first SEC start of career; and Theresa Plaisance, 6-5 junior forward, No. 55 (17.9 ppg, 7.9 rpg, 2.7 blocks per game), hails from New Orleans, La., leads SEC in scoring and blocks, has reached double figures in 21 straight games, only player in SEC this season to have made 100 free throws.
Starting guard Jeanne Kenney injured her left knee in Monday's loss to Texas A&M, was limited in practice Wednesday and will be a game-day decision in terms of the extent of her availability against Tennessee. Kenney, a 5-8 junior guard from Baton Rouge, has started 20 games this season and leads the team with 94 assists.
"We have to play 40 minutes of basketball," Caldwell said. "Not 36, not 38, but 40 (minutes). We have to continue to answer runs and make our own runs. I saw a team that fought, but in the last few minutes of the (Texas A&M) game, we can really learn from that and be better."
ON TAP: Only six other SEC teams are in action Thursday. The matchups are: South Carolina at Alabama; Kentucky at Arkansas; and Auburn at Georgia.
Florida, Mississippi State, Missouri, Ole Miss, Texas A&M and Vanderbilt are idle.
Tennessee leads the series with LSU, 43-12. The Lady Vols are 13-6 in Baton Rouge, and the last three games there went to the wire with the Lady Vols winning by an average of 7.6 points. … Holly Warlick and Nikki Caldwell are both head coaches who were former Lady Vol players and have been longtime friends who co-founded a foundation, Champions for a Cause, to raise awareness about breast cancer. The ties between the two programs extend deep on the LSU bench. Assistant coach Tasha Butts also was a former Lady Vol player. Assistant coach Tony Perotti and Michael Scruggs, the director of video operations, were both practice players for Tennessee. Some of the SEC's best players will be on the court Thursday. Tennessee's Meighan Simmons and LSU's Theresa Plaisance are two of the leading scorers in the league. Tennessee's Bashaara Graves and LSU's Danielle Ballard, who are both from the Volunteer State, are two of the league's best freshmen.