Injuries to sophomore forward Cierra Burdick and freshman guard Andraya Carter have left the ninth-ranked Lady Vols with only nine healthy players, yet they head into Thursday's game at Auburn unbeaten in Southeastern Conference competition.
Tennessee (13-3, 4-0) survived 78-75 at Florida in overtime Sunday without getting any baskets from its bench. Florida's bench outscored UT's reserves 33-3.
"It's come down to a mental thing," sophomore guard Ariel Massengale said. "We know the numbers are slight and the bench is slim, so if you're out there playing, you've got to give it your all."
Massengale is averaging 32.8 minutes per game in SEC play, and three of her teammates have been on the floor even more often. Junior guard Meighan Simmons plays 35.5 minutes per game against SEC opponents. Freshman forward/center Bashaara Graves and senior guard/forward Taber Spani each average 33.8 minutes.
Last season, no Tennessee player averaged as many as 32 minutes in SEC games.
"Before I got here, I probably only took two ice baths in my whole life," Graves said. "Since I've been here, I've probably taken 12 or 15."
Tennessee's lack of depth hasn't hurt its record so far. The Lady Vols are on a six-game winning streak.
Burdick broke her right hand during a personal workout just before Tennessee headed to South Carolina for its SEC opener. The Lady Vols haven't lost since.
Tennessee hasn't shown signs of wearing down. In four SEC games, the Lady Vols are outscoring opponents by 29 points before halftime and by 52 points afterward. Massengale credits associate strength and conditioning coach Heather Mason's offseason training program.
"Everyone's been in great condition and looking good on the court," Massengale said. "It doesn't look like we're ever tired. That helps. And of course, those media timeouts are the best. We try to play in four-minute intervals."
Tennessee began the season with 11 players on its roster, but Carter underwent season-ending arthroscopic surgery for a torn labrum on her right shoulder Dec. 13. Burdick broke a bone in her right hand less than three weeks later, but the Lady Vols are optimistic she can return by early February.
Carter started five of Tennessee's first seven games and had averaged 20.6 minutes before her injury. Burdick ranked third on the team in rebounding (6.5) and fourth in scoring (8.8) when she got hurt.
That has left Tennessee with a nine-player roster for the time being, though senior guard Kamiko Williams and freshman forward Jasmine Jones are the only reserves getting steady minutes every game. Sophomore center Isabelle Harrrison's tendency to get into foul trouble makes Tennessee's lack of depth particularly concerning.
Harrison, the lone starter averaging fewer than 32 minutes per game in SEC play, missed much of the first half against Georgia and Florida after picking up a couple of early fouls in each of those wins.
That puts extra pressure on Graves and Jones to pick up the slack.
Jones has produced mixed results thus far in her freshman season. She averaged 9.5 points and 6.5 rebounds off the bench in victories over Georgia and Missouri last week but missed all seven of her field-goal attempts and had just two rebounds in 19 minutes against Florida.
Graves ranks seventh in the SEC in scoring (14.6), third in rebounding (8.8) and sixth in field-goal percentage (.506). She leads all SEC freshmen in each of those categories and has been named the league's freshman of the week four times.
"I already knew I had to come in and step up," Graves said. "Getting the minutes I've been getting, I've been happy with it. The conditioning has helped me out."
Graves' rapid development has helped this tight rotation work out in the short term, but the Lady Vols aren't taking anything for granted. They anticipate Auburn's style of play will test their depth. Tennessee coach Holly Warlick said she expects Auburn (13-4, 2-2) to press for 30-35 minutes.
Depth "becomes a big issue because we want to press as well," Warlick said. "Our bench is going to have to be key. We're probably going to have to go a little deeper in our bench and make sure we're obviously physically ready but have to be mentally ready as well."
They've been ready for this workload so far. In some cases, they've even surprised themselves.
"I actually felt better (after) playing 40-plus minutes than I do waking up when I only played 30-something minutes," Massengale said. "I was shocked. I woke up saying, 'I feel good. I don't feel like I just played 40-plus minutes.' "