'A lot of basketball to be played'

Cierra Burdick is a better basketball player when she gets out of her own way, an observation that brought a smile to her face. She knows it's true, but there is no harsher critic on the junior forward than herself. Burdick's turnaround at midseason jump-started the Lady Vols and with just four games left in the regular season, Tennessee needs her boost before the contests really count.

No. 10/10 Tennessee (20-5, 9-3) takes on Auburn (14-11, 5-7) on Thursday at 7 p.m. Eastern (TV: CSS) at Thompson-Boling Arena.

It is the penultimate home game of the regular season with South Carolina the final one on March 2. In between are two road games at Missouri and LSU.

The Lady Vols stumbled in the SEC last Sunday against Kentucky, but no blows in February are fatal. Tennessee does, however, want to close strong before heading to Duluth, Ga., for the SEC tourney, which will be held March 5-9.

"There is still a lot of basketball to be played without a doubt and obviously we want to have the best record we can so we can get the best seed in the tournament," Cierra Burdick said.

"But I am confident that no matter who we match up against, we can win if we play to our fullest potential and how we are capable of playing."

Tennessee has shown it can win when clicking as a team. Despite the loss of Ariel Massengale in the first half against Florida on Jan. 23, the Lady Vols won that game and five more before 22 turnovers were their undoing against Kentucky.

Massengale has participated in some drills in practice since last week but hasn't been cleared yet for contact.

When Burdick can get out of her own way, as it were, and just relax and play, she performs at a very high level for Tennessee. Her jumper is silky smooth – she retains the lost art of the midrange game – and she will battle inside for rebounds. Her downfall is overthinking and berating herself for mistakes.

"Just stepping outside of myself and doing what's best for the team," Burdick replied when asked how she can accomplish that serene mind-set. "I can't say that I am fully out of my own head, but I am trying to stay positive and encouraging and focusing on why I love this game.

"It's a blessing to be able to put on this jersey, and I try to practice gratitude every day. I am trying to have fun, do what is best for my team and get these wins."

Holly Warlick has been able to accurately read her team's mood this season – the players' eagerness to do well is not ever in question – and she eased up a tad on running for turnovers. That was good news for Burdick, Isabelle Harrison and Meighan Simmons, who each had five miscues in the loss against Kentucky. Monday was the team's scheduled – and NCAA mandatory – off day, so the players were anticipating Tuesday's practice.

"We came in here thinking they were going to kill us," Burdick said. "I think because of how disappointed we were and how upset, Holly realized that the morale of the team was down a bit. We ran within our drills. Everything was up and down, and a lot of contact – rebounding and boxing out."

Monday could have been mentally brutal for Burdick, but she had family members in town who were able to talk to her Sunday evening.

"My family helped me out," Burdick said. "One of my best friends and her mom were in town. It definitely helps. Because if I am by myself, I will beat myself up to death, no doubt about it. I was able to spend that night with them. I am glad it was an afternoon game, and I got that time."

Burdick certainly can keep her composure. Prior to her interview with InsideTennessee, the junior handled television and other press. Irrepressible freshman Jordan Reynolds tried to throw off Burdick with facial gestures and hand signals, but Burdick never lost focus. Reynolds is, basically, a pest, albeit one adored by her teammates, as is Mercedes Reynolds.

"She is," Burdick said. "Jordan is such a clown for that. I barely kept my composure. Miko and Draya (Kamiko Williams and Andraya Carter) did it last year in the tournament, and I held my composure pretty well. But Jordan almost got me.

"She is a scrub. I love it. I call her and 'Cedes, Scrub and Scrub-a-Dub."

A scrub in sports can be a bench player, but Burdick doesn't use it for Reynolds in that context.

"She is just a scrub in life," Burdick said with a peal of laughter. "I love Jordan and Mercedes both so much. They are so hilarious. They are funny people, and they love life, and I love that about them. They are happy every single day. They are fun to be around."

Right on cue, the freshmen and their teammates erupted in laughter. They were nearby filming spots that will be played at the SEC tourney – one segment included a trio singing, including Jannah Tucker – and cheered so loud that Burdick just shook her head and smiled.

The press interviews during the season are done right before practice begins, so Burdick was getting prepared to warm up, a process that included a monitor that all of the players wear.

"They measure how many calories we are burning, how fast we are recovering, our heart rate," Burdick said. "So if you look at the computer after we are done you can see where we are peaking at, where our lowest points are at and how fast you recover. It literally looks like a heart rate type thing.

"Some of us don't have enough body fat. Some of us are at 5, 6 percent and so you can check how many calories you are burning a day and how many more calories you need to intake. We are staying healthy and preserving our bodies."

That bodes well with postseason approaching, though Burdick agreed the regular season scooted past quickly once SEC play began.

"It's surreal how close we are to the end," Burdick said. "I think there's a lot of basketball to be played. I plan on playing until the beginning of April. That's what my mind is set on."

Tennessee should gain a player in Massengale and that will help guard depth. While Andraya Carter and Jordan Reynolds have filled in very well at point guard – they have a combined 103 assists on the season – the junior Massengale has been through two postseasons already. The Lady Vols will benefit from her experience.

"She was in the weight room with us and I said, ‘Amass, good to see you. Good to have you back,' " Burdick said. "I will be glad when she's on the court really going with us."

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