Lady Vols ready to open SEC play

The Lady Vols will open the SEC season on Thursday evening with a matchup with LSU, a game that usually turns into a catfight, so it's the perfect way to start conference play. Go inside with InsideTennessee to get ready for the game.

No. 5/5 Tennessee (11-1) squares off against No. 16/16 LSU (10-2) at 7:05 p.m. Eastern (TV: CSS; web stream on at Thompson-Boling Arena.

LSU is coached by former Lady Vol Nikki Caldwell, an assistant coach at Tennessee when Candace Parker won two national titles in 2007 and 2008, so it is appropriate that she will be in the house when the No. 3 jersey is raised to the rafters in a pre-game ceremony beginning at 6:45 p.m. Gates will open at 5:30 p.m. to accommodate what is expected to be a large crowd.

"Just to be able to witness Candace, it's great," junior forward Cierra Burdick said. "She is a great player, obviously one of the best to ever play the game. It's awesome to be able to witness history. This banner is going to be hanging here until this arena goes down."

After the banner event, the Lady Vols will have to refocus on the conference opener in what typically turns into a brawl with LSU. The returning players have had experience with pre-game ceremonies, such as the banner-raising for Pat Summitt last season.

Mercedes Russell idolizes Parker – as does top 2014 recruit A'ja Wilson, who will be in attendance on an official visit – and Burdick laughed when asked if the freshman post might hyperventilate.

"I think 'Cedes is a real calm, cool and collected girl," Burdick said. "So, I don't think she'll have any problem. When she was at the ESPYs (for being named Gatorade Player of the Year), she was right next to Paul George (Indiana Pacers All-Star), and she didn't hyperventilate then, so I think she'll be able to handle it."

Russell also laughed when asked about her reaction to seeing Parker's jersey go to the rafters and noted it helped that she has met Parker already.

"I think I will be more calm just because I've met her before," Russell said. "If it was my first time, I think I would be a little nervous."

Parker will be courtside for the game, so it isn't possible for the team not to notice her, and Russell wants to play well.

"It is going to be hard to block her out, especially when she is right there in front, and you can see her," Russell said. "I just want to go out and play as hard as I can."

Parker said in an earlier interview with InsideTennessee that the part of the ceremony she was most looking forward to was having another chance to walk into "The Summitt" court – head coach Holly Warlick joked that "before we retire her jersey, let's put it on her first and then we'll retire it afterwards" – and see the fan support at Tennessee.

"This is a huge gift," Burdick said. "I wake up every day and I thank the man above, because this is a gift. It is a gift to be able to step between these lines and play the game that you love. For Candace to say that, it is just a reminder. So many people may take this for granted, having the fans in the stadium cheering you on.

"You've got to remind yourself to stay humble and hungry, because any day this could be taken from you. I am glad Candace gets another opportunity to walk onto this court because she deserves it."

The foe will be very familiar for Warlick and her team because of Caldwell being on the opponent's bench and vice versa.

"Nikki knows us, and we know her," Warlick said.

Matchups between Tennessee and LSU tend to be close and physical, as both coaches were tutored by Pat Summitt for years.

"I think Nikki has done a great job," Warlick said. "I think she has had some freshmen step up. I think they're running a little bit of a matchup zone, sagging man.

"She'll come in and do some things that we have not seen as well. She'll press us, we'll run the ball. It's a little bit of what we do, but we play more man-to-man than she does."

Tennessee's goal, as always, is to go undefeated in the league, a tough task in the SEC.

"It's very competitive, it's very athletic," Warlick said. "I think our play before the SEC is going to help us, because we've played different types of team. We've played athletic teams. We've played shooting teams. That's the variety we have in the SEC and hopefully they'll prepare us for conference play."

During media interviews before practice Tuesday, Warlick was asked what her New Year's resolutions were, and she laughed and said she had been too busy to think about. What Warlick didn't say is that she has been on the road to recruit Wilson.

"I am just very blessed to get up in the morning and do something like I love and get to coach a great group," Warlick said. "I just hope we can continue to do what we're doing."

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