Lady Vols to open SEC road play

The best thing about the regular season for a basketball team – not to mention its restless fans – is the next game on the schedule. Tennessee will try to bounce back on the road Sunday against Georgia after a loss in the SEC opener. Go inside for the latest on the Lady Vols.

Both No. 5/5 Tennessee (11-2, 0-1) and No. 19/18 Georgia (12-2, 0-1) will be seeking their first conference win when they square off Sunday at 4 p.m. Eastern (TV: SportSouth) on Sunday at Stegeman Coliseum in Athens.

The Lady Vols opened league play with a furious comeback against LSU that just fell short, while Georgia lost in Nashville to Vanderbilt.

The Lady Bulldogs tend to play much better at home, so Tennessee, which is seeking its own redemption, will face an inspired team trying to do the same.

Before a scheduled media interview this week, Cierra Burdick was already on the court lofting her out-of-practice additional 250 shots a day. The junior forward can shoot the ball – and Tennessee needs her to do in SEC play.

Redshirt freshman Andraya Carter, who will be playing Sunday some 40 miles from her hometown of Flowery Branch, also needs to loft shots in game action. She and Burdick are gym rats – repetition isn't the issue with either of them – and they both need to shoot when it counts and get into the offensive flow of a game.

Their passing ability has been solidified – Burdick has 34 assists, while Carter has notched 24 – and that remains a critical part of their overall game, but both players need to assume a more offensive mind-set in terms of points.

Carter is a defensive stopper, so the process may take a little longer for the freshman – Sunday will be the second SEC game of her career and first on the road – but Burdick has already established that she can score.

Carter and the other freshmen and sophomores will be playing at Stegeman Coliseum for the first time in an SEC game, and conference road contests can be rugged for visitors.

"We've just got to be mentally tough," Burdick said. "On-the-road games are always interesting, especially in the SEC. It is just a matter of staying within ourselves.

"We are 11 strong now, and we've got to stay 11 strong despite the runs of the game. It is going to be a game of runs. Every SEC game is. So it is just a matter of staying focused, staying mentally tough and sticking to our system."

Being "11 strong" refers to the arrival of freshman Jannah Tucker. She is likely to redshirt this season because she returned last week to the basketball court for the first time in 16 months. She also had ACL surgery in the summer of 2012. Tucker isn't able to practice all the time, and she had the knee wrapped while out for warm-ups before Thursday's game.

Her teammates, however, are happy to see her in orange. Tucker didn't arrive last summer for personal reasons, which turned out to be allegations of abuse by her former boyfriend. The resilient teenager is now at Tennessee.

"Something about it just gives me a sense of security that she's here," Burdick said. "I love Jannah, and I think that she's a tremendous player, and she works hard. She wants to be great.

"As far as off the court, she's an awesome person, and I think that's the biggest compliment that you can give somebody to say they're a great player but an even better person, and I think she really is.

"She is a true Lady Vol and I am excited to have her here with us, because I missed her while she was gone. I really did, and I didn't have the opportunity to play with her like 'Cedes and Jordan did when they were younger before they got here. Just visiting with her and sitting down and talking with her, I am happy to have her on board."

Mercedes Russell and Jordan Reynolds were 2013 signees with Tucker, and the trio is now together at Tennessee. Tucker has displayed a tough attitude at practice. When coaches pull her from drills – the layoff and knee mean she needs to ease in to basketball – she tries to get back on the court.

"Heck, yeah! She fights through it," Burdick said. "She's tough. She's mentally tough. She is relentless. I love it. You can just tell that she's got that hunger about her, and she just wants to do well."

The same can be said of Burdick – she is a team player with an inner drive to succeed. She has started and come off the bench this season, and while all players want to start, Burdick's approach has been to try to make a difference when on the court.

"I just want to be impactful for this team," she said. "I feel like I can bring a lot to the floor just by playmaking, whether it's putting the ball in the basket or creating for my teammates. I just want to help my team win.

"Whether I am coming off the bench or starting, it doesn't matter. I just want to have the opportunity to help this team and help win a national championship. That is why I came here. I want to be the best I can be and reach my fullest potential and win a national championship while I'm doing it.

"I have talked to Holly (Warlick) several times, and we are continuing to find my role and I need to continue to be aggressive on the offensive end and work on my defensive skills and hopefully just be impactful for this team."

Burdick has displayed the ability to be resilient – she came back from a broken hand last season after missing a month of SEC play – and that maturity will be needed on the road Sunday.

Russell, who was tossed into the proverbial fire against LSU with extended series of minutes because of the calf injury to Bashaara Graves – Graves is expected to play Sunday – will be on the road for the first time in league play. For a freshman, everything is a first this season.

"It is kind of hard just because you've never been there before," Russell said. "You don't know what's going to come up. You've just got to fight through whatever comes at you and play through everything. There might be bad calls, and things might not go your way, but you've just got to play through it.

"I have heard every game is going to be tough, but you can't really experience it until it's actually game time."


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