Tennessee coach Holly Warlick, left, and her players cheer their teammates during Thursday night's win over Mississippi State in Starkville, Miss. (AP Photo)
KNOXVILLE — The Tennessee women's basketball team is fighting through a midseason slump as it prepares for one of its toughest tests of the year: No. 2 Notre Dame.
After racing to a 10-0 start, the 12th-ranked Lady Vols (14-3) have won just four of their last seven games entering Monday night's game at Thompson-Boling Arena. Tennessee already has dropped two Southeastern Conference games, matching its total number of regular-season conference losses from last year.
One year ago, Tennessee outperformed expectations to win an SEC regular-season title and reach a third consecutive regional final. The Lady Vols returned to their customary role as the SEC preseason favorite this year, and they're struggling to adjust.
"It is a different feel," Tennessee guard Andraya Carter said. "Last year we were the attackers. This year we have the target on our back, which means everyone is coming at us. Everybody is going to play their best against us, so we have to play hard and we know that."
Tennessee coach Holly Warlick has called this group one of her best practice teams, but those solid practice performances haven't always translated to the games. Warlick constantly preaches defense, but that part of the game has been an issue in Tennessee's three losses.
They gave up 32 points and 20 rebounds to Chiney Ogwumike in a 76-70 loss at Stanford. Danielle Ballard matched a career high with 25 points and LSU shot 6-for-12 from 3-point range in the Lady Tigers' 80-77 win at Tennessee. Tennessee lost at Vanderbilt by allowing the Commodores to shoot 62.5 percent (15-of-24) in the second half.
Warlick is hoping the Lady Vols turned a corner Thursday when they withstood 22 turnovers and gutted out a 67-63 victory at Mississippi State. Although Mississippi State stayed close throughout the second half, Tennessee never allowed the Bulldogs to take the lead after the first two minutes of the game.
"We dug down deep and got stops when we needed to, and we hadn't been able to do that," Warlick said after the game.
The Lady Vols also have struggled with some health issues.
Senior guard Meighan Simmons, the SEC preseason player of the year, scored just three points against Mississippi State in her second game since a car accident. Sophomore forward Bashaara Graves, last season's SEC newcomer of the year, has played through a leg injury and also hurt her back falling to the floor in a victory at Georgia this month.
Tennessee now seems to be feeling better. Graves had 13 points at Mississippi State after being held to single-digit scoring for four straight games. UT assistant coach Kyra Elzy said after Saturday's practice that "everyone is healthy."
But the Lady Vols will have to step up their game to beat Notre Dame, which has won a school-record 39 consecutive regular-season games over the past two years. The Irish have 28 straight regular-season road wins. After losing its first 20 meetings in this series, Notre Dame has beaten Tennessee each of the last three years.
Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw noted that Tennessee has plenty of talent and likely sees this game as an opportunity to earn a big win and get back on track.
"For us, it's a chance to step outside the conference," McGraw said. "It's kind of a 'nothing to lose' game. We don't lose any standing in the ACC, get great preparation for a Final Four team. I think it's only positives."
AP Sports Writer David Brandt in Starkville, Miss., and freelance writer Nate Barnes in Pittsburgh contributed to this report.comments powered by Disqus