The No. 10 Tennessee Lady Vols basketball team may be 12 games into their most recent campaign, but the season begins anew at Auburn Arena on Thursday.
The Lady Vols are set to venture into SEC action with their first conference contest of the season against the Auburn Tigers, and despite the league having 50-plus non-conference losses, head coach Holly Warlick knows teams play different once they get into SEC play.
“I don’t even look at the records of SEC teams,” Warlick told the media on Wednesday. “Every team ramps of up their game, their team. It’s a different ball game and you know what you’re going to get in the SEC. It’s a tough league to play in.”
That toughness only elevates when you’re the road team, and that’s the role Tennessee will be playing on Thursday.
For Warlick, road games at Texas and Oklahoma State back in late November and early December have her Lady Vols battle tested for life on the road in the unforgiving SEC.
“I’d love to start at home,” Warlick said. “It is difficult, but we’ve played some tough games on the road. We played at Texas. We played at Oklahoma State. It’s going to help us.”
A good attribute to have in this game is maintaining focus in tough environments, something Warlick believes her team has proven this season. In the two road games they’ve played thus far, Tennessee had to overcome second-half deficits to win. In both situations, focus paid off.
“It’ll be a tough environment,” Warlick said. “We seem to be a little more focused on the road, so we’ll take that. We’ve struggled down there at times and we’ve played really well down there at times. I hope the team that plays really well shows up.”
Atmosphere aside, playing in an arena without the 8,000 fans who are instead rooting against you, there is the 12-1 Auburn team that present the Lady Vols’ biggest challenge.
The Tigers’ lone hiccup came on the road to No. 25 Iowa State all the way back on Nov. 13, just three games into their season. Since that loss, Auburn has rattled off nine-straight wins, including victories over North Carolina and Oklahoma.
“I think we’re two very similar teams,” Warlick said. “They’re very athletic, rely on defensive pressure, full court pressure, rebounding. They play hard. It’s always interesting when we play Auburn. They’re having a great year.”
Starting on the offensive end, the Tigers rank third in the conference in points per game with 82, just one spot behind Tennessee, which averaged 82.8 in non-conference play.
According to Warlick, shooting the ball is something Auburn has improved on since last meeting each other in the 2018 SEC Tournament.
“They’re shooting the ball so much better this year,” Warlick said. “It makes it difficult because not only are they three-point shooters, they penetrate. It makes it really, really difficult to defend. They’re playing with a lot of confidence.”
It should come as no surprise that Warlick finds Auburn’s success from beyond the arc concerning. In their only loss of the season, an 85-95 decision versus Stanford, the Lady Vols surrendered 14 three-pointers, which went a long way in deciding their fate in that game.
For Tennessee to get off to SEC play on the right foot, defending the three will have to continue to improve.
“We’ve got to get better guarding threes,” Warlick said. “We’re progressively getting better, but we’ve guarded that all year. It seems like all year we’ve guarded teams that can shoot the three. Defense is difficult; it’s hard.
It takes a lot of heart and a lot of energy, and we’ve got to get back to understanding the importance on the defensive end.”
While Tennessee is concerned on offense, the Lady Vols have seen improvement throughout the season.
The Lady Vols are averaging five more points a game than they were last season, and in their three games since the Stanford loss, have made 25 from deep while having three different players rank in the top 20 of the league in scoring. Those players are sophomore guard Evina Westbrook, sophomore guard Rennia Davis and senior guard Meme Jackson.
All three have scored in double figures in Tennessee’s last two games.
Warlick credits that trend to practice and extra hours in the gym, and hopes to see it continue into the conference opener, where it will be needed to be successful.
“I think the kids have gotten in the gym and worked on it,” Warlick said. “They worked on it this summer. I think you’re seeing it pay dividends on the floor. When you get in and shoot reps, it gives you confidence to shoot in the game.”
The Tigers and the Lady Vols are set to do battle on Thursday, with tip-off scheduled for 7:00 p.m. before returning home on Sunday to face Missouri.