The last time the Tennessee women’s basketball team was on its home floor, it dropped its second game of the season to Missouri in a contest that had its fair share of emotion and intensity.
Four days later, the Lady Vols host the No. 16 Kentucky Wildcats (14-2, 1-1 SEC) on that same court. And so is life in the rugged SEC.
Both the Lady Vols and the Wildcats are coming into the game looking to bounce back from conference losses. Kentucky fell to No. 7 Mississippi State 86-71 on Sunday.
For Tennessee, it was a loss to Missouri, a game that came down to the final shot, missing at the buzzer. But what conference play affords is a quick turnaround. There is no time for sulking for these Lady Vols, who welcome a surprising Kentucky team to Thompson-Boling Arena on Thursday.
“We had a great practice (Tuesday), big energy,” head coach Holly Warlick said. “Our energy level has been really good. They are kids, they bounce back. We watched the tape, we learned, we came in here and had a good practice.”
Kentucky, who is led by 11th-year head coach Matthew Mitchell, began the season unranked before shooting up into the polls after a 14-2 start. The only blemishes for the Wildcats are two top-10 losses against Louisville and Mississippi State.
Among the areas where Kentucky has improved, Warlick believes it is on the defensive side of the ball, particularly the press, where they have improved the most.
“They’re very much improved from last year,” Warlick said. “They press, they are a really strong defensive team. They are very athletic. They are playing really good right now.”
Two different Kentucky players, guards Taylor Murray and Rhyne Howard, currently rank among the top five in the conference in steals per game with 3.7 and 2.4, respectively.
“I think Howard has added a really big dimension for them,” Warlick said. “But I think all of their players have gotten better. Maci (Morris) is really good and so is (Taylor) Murray. So, they complement each other really well.”
Defense isn’t the only area where the Wildcats will cause Tennessee fits. As a team, Kentucky ranks second in the SEC in three point shooting percentage at over 79-percent. Ahead of them at No. 1? Missouri, who the Lady Vols struggled mightily to defend beyond the arc on Sunday.
“We just have to continue to work on it and be mindful of what we are doing at the time,” Warlick said of her team defending the three. “Our awareness, we have mental lapses. We are still young in spots and still learning. We just have to continue to work on it.”
One positive that Tennessee was able to take away in their loss to Missouri was the play they received from senior forward Cheridene Green. Green finished with a season-high 13 points and 14 rebounds against the Tigers.
Lady Vols coaches hope to see that type of production carry over, not only versus Kentucky, but into the rest of league play. According to Warlick, that starts with challenging Green.
“We are going to continue to challenge her,” Warlick said. “We have high expectations for her. We have talked to her about trying to get back to being a workhouse inside, and that is what we expect of her.”
The expectations aren’t limited to Green, however. With four freshmen on the roster, Tennessee has already relied on its bench and will continue to have to rely on its bench. Warlick hopes Kentucky provides more opportunities for them to see the floor.
“We would love for them to contribute a lot more,” Warlick said of the freshmen. “We are giving them opportunities. We are playing really hard, we just have to play a little smarter.”
Tipoff is slated for 7:00 p.m. and the game will be broadcasted on the SEC Network.