So far, the Tennessee women’s basketball game is playing up to positive expectations, as they have posted an unblemished 3-0 record thus far and have climbed to the No. 12 spot nationally.
However, the team has yet to leave the comforts of home in Knoxville, and the competition they have stacked up against haven't exactly been the most stern of opponents.
That will change Thursday, when the Lady Vols will travel to Puerto Aventuras, Mexico, to face their first true road challenge, and the toughest gauntlet of opponents they have had to face yet, in the form of the Cancun Challenge.
“We’re going to have a tough week, obviously coming up, playing three games in a row,” senior center Mercedes Russell said. “It’s definitely our first road test.”
This is the 16th year of the Cancun Challenge, and all games are set to be played at the Hard Rock Hotel Riviera Maya near Cancun. Tennessee will compete in a six-team division, the Riviera Division, and will play three other teams from the same division.
The three games will be played back to back from Nov. 22 through Nov. 25. It is not a traditional tournament or challenge, as the goal is to just win as many games as possible.
Game action will kick off on Thursday as Tennessee faces the No. 20 Marquette Golden Eagles. Marquette is 1-1 so far on the season, coming off of a home win against Loyola Montana. Last season, Marquette won its conference tournament, claiming a Big East championship.
Marquette earned a tournament bid last season but fell in the first round to Quinnipiac University. The Golden Eagles have possibly one of the most talented rosters Tennessee has faced yet.
Three current Golden Eagles were named to preseason award watch lists for their respective positions. Guards Allazia Blockton and Natisha Hiedeman were named to the Ann Meyers Drysdale Award list, which is awarded to the top shooting guards in women’s college basketball.
Junior forward Erika Davenport was named to the Cheryl Miller Award Watchlist, an award that honors women’s basketball’s top small forwards. As a sophomore, Davenport was just shy of averaging a double-double, recording 13.4 points per game and 9.2 rebounds per game.
“Marquette will penetrate,” head coach Holly Warlick said. “They’ll shoot the three. They’ll mix up their defense. They’ll play hard.”
Tennessee’s second opponent, whom they are set to play at 4:00 p.m. on Friday, is the Oklahoma State Cowgirls. Though not ranked in the Associated Press Top 25, the Cowgirls are 4-0 on the season and did receive four votes in the most recent poll.
Last season, Oklahoma State posted a 16-13 regular season record, which was good enough to net them a post-season bid in the Women’s NIT. There, they lost 66-56 in the first round to Abilene Christian University.
The Cowgirls return one of the nation’s top post players in sophomore Kaylee Jensen. During her junior season, she led the Big 12 in scoring (18.7 ppg) rebounding (10.5 rpg) and double-doubles (17), while averaging a double-double.
In the offseason, she was named to the Preseason All Big-12 Team and was added to the Lisa Leslie Award Watchlist, a list devoted to the nation’s premier centers.
“Oklahoma State has two big kids that are power kids, but they can also step out and shoot the three, so that’ll be a little bit difficult for us.” Warlick said.
Tennessee’s third and final opponent of the tournament is the South Dakota Coyotes. Tip-off for that match-up is slated for Saturday afternoon at 4:00 PM.
The Coyotes are 2-1 on the season, with their only loss coming off of a tough road contest against Iowa State. South Dakota is coached by Dawn Plitzuweit. In her first season at South Dakota, Plitzuweit led the Coyotes to a 23-9 record, which earned them a bid in the Women’s NIT.
In the NIT, South Dakota pushed past North Dakota in the first round but fell in the second round to the Iowa Hawkeyes.
South Dakota has a very talented and versatile backcourt, with two of their guards earning preseason All-Conference honors. Allison Arens earned first team honors on the back of a strong NIT performance, including 24 points against Iowa, while sophomore Ciara Duffy made the second team.
“South Dakota spreads it out,” Warlick said. “They’re five out. They run a pure motion, so it’ll be difficult for us to defend.”
All three teams will present a tough and unique challenge for this Lady Vols team that still has a lot of unknowns attached to it.
“We will be tested down there. It’ll be hard, three games in a row.” Warlick said.
All three games will be streamed online on the CBS College Sports Live streaming service.