Amid that backdrop, No. 8/8 Tennessee (23-5, 14-1) must get focused for No. 10/10 Kentucky (24-4, 12-3) at Memorial Coliseum at 3:30 p.m. Eastern (TV: ESPNU).
The degree of difficulty is enhanced by the fact that Tennessee is 1-2 in Lexington recently with losses in 2009 and 2012 and a win in 2011.
"Their environment is one of the hardest I think to play in, that I have played in," senior Taber Spani said. "The gym is going to be packed. It has been sold out for weeks.
"They are on top of you, and I think it just lends itself to their style of play. They try to make you so chaotic and so fast and play out of your comfort zone. And then they are always going to shoot better in their home gym.
"It is a combination of those factors. Hopefully, we'll be able to change that."
That is certainly the mind-set of Lady Vol assistant coach Kyra Elzy, who returned to her alma mater this season after four years at Kentucky. Elzy, a native of the Bluegrass State, will be facing a team of players she recruited to Kentucky.
"I am going to approach it just like when I was sitting on Kentucky's bench playing my alma mater and I am playing against coach (Pat) Summitt and Mickie (DeMoss) and Holly (Warlick), who recruited me," Elzy said.
"For those 40 minutes it has to be business. There is a job that we have to get done, and I have to approach it like any other game."
Holly Warlick, who guided a young and experienced team to an SEC title in her debut season as head coach, has pounded the one-game-at-a-time mantra into her team. It was especially effective with the season-long attrition as Warlick and her staff have had to juggle the lineup and rotation because of the injuries.
Ariel Massengale is sidelined for the second time after missing the exhibition games with tendonitis in her Achilles tendon and being limited to start the season. She injured her right knee against Texas A&M and needed crutches to walk. No additional info has been made available about her status for Sunday.
Isabelle Harrison missed nearly the entire month of February after surgery to repair the meniscus in her left knee. She injured her right knee in her second game back Thursday after taking a tumble trying to gather a high pass while off balance. Her status for Sunday also isn't yet known.
No additional information has been released yet about their injuries – they were to have MRIs on Friday – and their availability for Sunday is in question to say the least. However, Tennessee's game notes didn't list either player on the injured portion of the roster. Instead, they are listed as off the bench.
"We're just going to treat it like we have all the games and prepare for it," said Warlick, who is used to preparing for games with uncertainty about who is available.
The suspense of the regular season was settled Thursday when Tennessee clinched the championship and secured the top seed in the conference tourney in Duluth, Ga.
The Lady Vols commemorated the title by trimming a net, a celebration that Warlick was initially cool about – she knew the season wasn't done then – but warmed up to later.
"To do it at home in front of our crowd and for our players and for our seniors, I thought we needed to do it," Warlick said.
Elzy will be motivated for the game in Lexington. She was a primary architect of the Wildcats' withering defense and has tried to instill that same mind-set in the Lady Vols, a task made even more difficult by the revolving door of injuries.
Regardless of who is available and what has already been won, Elzy knows that Sunday matters.
"It's still an SEC game," Elzy said. "We have a job. We have a mission. There is pride on the line, and we have to be ready to battle in any SEC game."
Tennessee coach Holly Warlick is expected to start: Kamiko Williams, 5-11 senior guard, No. 4, hails from Clarksville, Tenn. (6.5 points per game, 4.0 rebounds per game); Meighan Simmons, 5-9 junior guard, No. 10, hails from Cibolo, Texas (17.8 ppg, 3.8 rpg); Taber Spani, 6-1 senior forward, No. 13, hails from Lee's Summit, Mo. (10.2 ppg, 4.3 rpg); Cierra Burdick, 6-2 sophomore forward, No. 11, hails from Charlotte, N.C. (8.3 ppg, 7.0 rpg);; and Bashaara Graves, 6-2 freshman forward, No. 12, hails from Clarksville, Tenn. (14.4 ppg, 8.6 rpg).
Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell is expected to start: Jennifer O'Neill, 5-6 redshirt sophomore guard, No. 0 (10.2 ppg, 2.3 rpg), hails from Bronx, N.Y., averages 3.7 assists per game in SEC play; A'dia Mathies, 5-9 senior guard, No. 1 (16.0 ppg, 4.5 rpg), hails from Louisville, Ky., averages 18.3 points in SEC play, has scored in double figures in 19 straight games, has 1,883 career points; Kastine Evans, 5-8 junior guard, No. 32 (4.6 ppg, 2.0 rpg), hails from Salem, Conn., averaging 8.2 points in last five starts; Samarie Walker, 6-1 junior forward, No. 23 (9.5 ppg, 8.8 rpg), hails from West Carrollton, Ohio, leads the Wildcats in rebounds at 246, steals at 56 and blocks at 46; and DeNesha Stallworth, 6-3 junior center, No. 11 (12.6 ppg, 6.0 rpg), hails from Richmond, Calif., missed last game with flu-like symptoms, second-leading scorer and rebounder for Wildcats.
Brittany Henderson, a 6-2 senior forward from Pasadena, Calif., started in Stallworth's place in the last game and could do so again since it is senior day.
Mathies, the reigning SEC player of the year, will be a primary focus of the defense.
"She makes them go," Warlick said. "She can get a shot anytime she wants. She plays hard on the defensive end. She's athletic. She's a great scorer.
"We just hope we can contain her and not let her get hot."
Stallworth, a 2009 WBCA and McDonald's All-American, is a transfer from California. She played two years for Cal and was named to the All-Freshman team and then All-Pac-10 as a sophomore.
"She's solid inside. She has experience, and she has fit in very well," Warlick said.
GO SPEED RACER: Meighan Simmons' speed is well chronicled and much lauded, especially in the open floor with the basketball.
"Sometimes she passes our bench and I go, ‘Whoop! There went Speedy,' " assistant coach Kyra Elzy said.
But it was her speed on the other side of the ball that really had Elzy's defensive-oriented heart racing.
On Thursday, Texas A&M made a routine long pass from the in-bound deep into the backcourt. It is a safe play when the defense is too tight to pass the ball closer to the basket area.
But Simmons saw the long pass and went into pursuit mode, splitting two A&M players, snaring the basketball and taking off for Tennessee's basket. The layup brought a raucous roar of approval from the crowd.
"Meighan is extremely quick," Elzy said. "We call her Speedy for a reason. But I am very proud of Meighan for buying in defensively and how that can elevate her game, and I think that showed (Thursday) night. I love it."
Elzy has had a lot of influence on Simmons and has helped steer her from just being a scorer to being a complete basketball player.
"I just like that she is playing team basketball, and everyone wants to play together and everyone made plays," Elzy said of the SEC-title clinching game.
"Kamiko Williams played unbelievable. Cierra Burdick was rebounding with the best of them. Everyone did things to help us be successful."
ON TAP: All 14 SEC teams are in action Sunday to end the regular season. The other matchups are: Missouri at Alabama; Ole Miss at Arkansas; Mississippi State at Auburn; Florida at South Carolina; Vanderbilt at Georgia; and LSU at Texas A&M.
Tennessee leads the series with Kentucky, 49-8. The Lady Vols are 19-6 on the road with recent losses in Lexington in 2009 and 2012. …. Tennessee has already secured the No. 1 seed in the SEC Tournament, which begins next week in Duluth, Ga. The Lady Vols first game will be Friday at noon. Kentucky can finish no worse than the No. 3 seed regardless of the outcome of Sunday's game, so the Wildcats have already secured a bye.
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