KNOXVILLE — The Tennessee women’s basketball team will enjoy one more game against a struggling opponent.
After that comes the real test.
Tennessee (14-7, 3-5) will play at Vanderbilt (6-15, 1-7) at 3 p.m. today (Sunday, Feb. 2) with a promising opportunity to extend its winning streak to three games. Vanderbilt has dropped 10 of its last 12, with its only SEC victory coming over Ole Miss (8-14, 2-6).
“We cannot overlook anybody, and we will not overlook anybody,” Tennessee coach Holly Warlick said. “We do not have that luxury.”
She’s right. It’s a must-win game for Tennessee given the competition that follows it. The Lady Vols’ next five-game stretch involves facing the SEC’s top three teams and begins next Sunday at Mississippi State (20-1, 8-0) who sits atop the SEC standings.
That game against the Bulldogs will likely serve as more of a measuring stick for how far the Lady Vols have to go rather than how far they have come. In the meantime, a few bright spots have emerged for Tennessee in its last three games.
“I feel like we’re starting to get back to where we started,” Tennessee’s Rennia Davis said after the LSU game. “If this is the result we get from losing those six games, then I don’t, at this point, I don’t really mind.”
The Lady Vols ended their first six-game losing streak in 49 years with a win over LSU last Sunday. They won their second straight against Florida on Thursday and are favored against Vanderbilt.
It doesn’t offer much confidence in the Lady Vols given those three opponents are among the bottom five in the SEC. However, Davis’ performances in the last two games suggests Tennessee’s top returning scorer is finally out of her funk.
Davis led the team in scoring in both games with 24 points against LSU and 19 points against Florida. She hadn’t reached double digits in the four games prior, including a zero-point contribution in the Lady Vols’ 86-65 loss at Alabama.
“I think, for the most part, just trying to play a little more free,” Davis said of the reasoning behind her improvement. “Before these past two games, I think I was kind of stuck on missed shots, more bad stuff than good stuff. I’m just trying to continue to move forward.”
Tennessee has also boasted a stronger inside presence in the past two games thanks largely to Kasiyahna Kushkituah, who is returning to form after suffering a knee injury that sidelined her for three games in December. After 11 straight single-digit performances, she scored a career-high 14 points while grabbing eight rebounds against LSU.
Cheridene Green has pulled down double-digit rebounds in seven of the last eight games and had a double-double (15 points and 10 rebounds) against Florida.
“Rebounding is effort and heart — Cheridene is committed to that,” Warlick said. “She gets positioned before the shot goes up. That is her game. ... When she sticks with that, we generally win basketball games.”
Tennessee has shown signs that it can compete among the nation’s top teams — at least for two quarters. Despite being a 20.5-point underdogs against No. 1 Notre Dame, the Lady Vols entered halftime with a one-possession lead before the Fighting Irish pulled away.
Tennessee turned the ball over three times and held Norte Dame to 0-for-6 shooting from behind the arc in the first half before squandering the lead by allowing 12 points on seven third-quarter turnovers.
“Our defense was on point,” Evina Westbrook said of Tennessee’s first-half performance. “I think we were just clicking from all cylinders from the beginning. When it starts with our defense, our offense will flow and respond with everything that we had.”
These are baby steps for a program in the midst of its worst season in recent memory. But improvement on these fronts could end up making all the difference considering four of Tennessee’s five SEC losses were decided by a combined nine points.
“I do not want to play them again,” Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said on Jan. 24. “They are a dangerous team. … They are not quitting, so there is a lot to build on there.”