The Lady Vols step out of conference play to host the Irish – now of the ACC since the Big East was dismantled – and then reenter the SEC against Florida on Thursday for a peculiar 6:30 p.m. tipoff in Knoxville and Texas A&M on the road next Sunday for a 4 p.m. start.
That means three games in seven days for Tennessee and a chance to make some national noise and get a solid foothold in the topsy-turvy SEC.
The Lady Vols had a spirited practice Saturday after a day off Friday following the hard-fought win over Mississippi State in Starkville.
"I thought we played hard. Mississippi State, they battled," Assistant coach Kyra Elzy said. "That's the SEC. On any given night, from top to bottom, everybody is going to give their best shots to get a win. Winning is the most important, and we've got to keep grinding them out.
"If we win by a point, we win by a point. But we need to get wins."
The Lady Vols will take the practice court again Sunday to prepare for the Fighting Irish.
"We had great effort, great energy in practice," Elzy said. "We've got to keep them uplifted. We have been holding them very accountable. We are trying to stay disciplined. Obviously, we are focused on the defensive end and trying to take care of the ball.
"Today, we worked on our defensive game plan for Notre Dame."
Head coach Holly Warlick wore a red heart pin on her lapel at Mississippi State, while newcomer Jannah Tucker, who is likely to take a redshirt and play next fall as she adjusts to college and rehabs fully from knee surgery, wore one on her shooting shirt.
"They said they can bring the energy and then the players had to earn a heart pin by laying their heart out on the floor," Elzy said. "They can do both. They can give emotional energy, as well as playing well on the court."
" … What we are trying to focus on is laying our heart out there … playing with intensity and energy. This team is so focused on, ‘If I make a mistake' … they just get so down on themselves. Just play as hard as we can – you're not going to play to perfection – but we can get the intensity that we want."
It is a reminder to prepare and play with determination, and each player earned a pin Thursday. They can affix the hearts to their shooting shirts for the next game, but Elzy said a few are superstitious and may not wear them.
"Coach Warlick came up with it," Elzy said. "She thought if they could see it and it's something that they could earn, that they would enjoy it. They are a competitive, driven team. It's earned game to game.
"When they win them, they can wear them on their shooting shirts. We are very superstitious, so some players might like it and some players might not. But they will earn them game to game."
Warlick will determine whose play warrants a pin, and that was team-wide on Thursday.
"That was a big road game coming off a loss," Elzy said. "Whether they played or didn't play, the energy was there and the kids that were on the court laid it out."
It's a busy and a big week ahead for Tennessee, starting with the undefeated Fighting Irish on "Big Monday."
"The next game on our schedule is the most important," Elzy said. "We have to focus on the next team. Now, the girls are very excited. It is Notre Dame. It is Big Monday. We're back home. So, they will be excited to play."
Elzy has the scout for the Notre Dame game, and she was clear about what she wanted to see.
"That we box out. We get the ball stopped in transition," Elzy said. "And attack offensively."
It remains a process, especially on defense. It has been too long since Tennessee intimidated teams on defense – the last squad to really do so was 2007-08 with defensive stalwarts Alexis Hornbuckle, Nicky Anosike and Alberta Auguste – and Warlick and crew are working to restore that mind-set.
Tennessee's youngest players, freshman Andraya Carter and sophomores Jasmine James and Bashaara Graves, are already among the best defenders on the team, so the drive is headed in the right direction.
"It is a process and it's a journey," Elzy said. "We told the kids sometimes the wheels are going to fall off the bus, and we've got to put everybody back on board. You will have your ups and downs. That is part of it.
"Some people peak early, some people peak at the correct times, and some people never peak.
"And we are just trying to get our team focused game by game. If we continue to do these things in practice and then we transfer them to games, I think we are talented enough, when it counts, we're going to come on.
"Maybe to the outside world we're not just where we used to be right now, but that does not mean that we cannot get there. Because if we look back from where we started at the summer to now, it might be baby steps, but we have taken steps forward.
"You have to crawl before you can walk. You have to walk before you can run. It's a process, and we will continue to work. But I think we have the heart and the talent, and when it all comes together we are going to be pretty darn good.
"They believe in the system. Take a deep breath. There are going to be ups and downs, but I think this team, their mind and heart is in the right place. They have one goal in mind, so we will continue to work."
Kyra Elzy via utsportstv