No. 7 Lady Vols focused on conference play, not 12-0 start

After dominating non-conference play, the seventh-ranked Lady Vols now turn their attention to conference play and Kentucky.

When No. 7 Tennessee (12-0) and Kentucky (8-6) square off on Sunday afternoon, it’ll feature a matchup of two teams headed in two separate directions.

The Lady Vols are trending up, while the Wildcats are trending down.

Holly Warlick’s squad enters Sunday’s contest with her team in the midst of their longest winning streak since 2010-11. As one of just six undefeated teams remaining in the country, the Lady Vols now turn their attention to SEC play following an impressive run through non-conference play to start the season.

Warlick credits the 12-0 start to the camaraderie and togetherness the Lady Vols possess, something they struggled to obtain last season.

“We’ve been playing hard, playing with a passion and buying into the defense,” Warlick said in her media availability on Friday morning. “Everybody gets an opportunity on offense, and we’ve got better players. When you have great players and they’re coachable, I think great things happen.”

As the Lady Vols turn their attention to conference play, they’re focused on playing the next game and not the 12-0 start in order to not become complacent. You won’t hear anybody associated with the program talking about the historic start.

“We talk about our next opponent,” Warlick said. “This group is really good at focusing in, and not just building on what we’ve done, but really focusing in on our next game. Now we’re in SEC mode, and we want to go through and position ourselves to play for a championship.”

To this point in the season, Tennessee had relied on the senior duo of Jaime Nared and Mercedes Russell to carry a young, but talented trio of freshmen that includes Anastasia Hayes, Rennia Davis and Evina Westbrook.

Four of the five are averaging double figures in scoring while the other – Westbrook – is leading the team in assists per game with 4.8.

While Westbrook is leading the team in assists, she’s also stepped up on the offensive end, scoring in double figures in four of the last five games. In her last game out against No. 18 Stanford, the former No. 2 overall player in the country scored a season-high 17 points.

Warlick credits Westbrook’s increased scoring to the fact that she’s looking for her shot more. “She’s getting the opportunity to get good looks and attack the basket,” Warlick said. “She sees the success of Jaime (Nared) attacking the basket and getting jumpers.”

Russell is averaging a near double-double, scoring 16.4 points per game and hauling in 8.8 rebounds, but it has been Nared who has emerged as the leader on-and-off the court. Warlick saw the potential in the Oregon native from the moment she stepped foot on campus.

“It takes someone who is dedicated and wanting to get better, and Jaime did,” Warlick said of her senior forward who is averaging 17.9 points per game. “She developed her range. She developed playing inside and pulling up, so I give her a lot of credit for getting in the gym on her own and working with coaches as well.”

Kentucky usually plays its regular-season games at Memorial Coliseum on campus, but the Wildcats will square off with the Lady Vols in the first of three Kentucky women’s games being played at Rupp Arena this season. The last time the Lady Vols played in Rupp Arena was in 2006 when an unranked Kentucky team upset No. 1 Tennessee, 66-63.

Warlick knows how difficult it is to play at Kentucky, citing the fact that they’ve been closed before and haven’t finished the deal. “We’re playing in Rupp, so maybe that will help us,” Warlick said. “They’ve always had great teams, and it’s always been a really good matchup.”

The Wildcats started off the season 6-0, but have since dropped six of their last eight and five straight. In its last time out, Kentucky lost to Middle Tennessee State 62-57.

During their five-game losing streak, the Wildcats haven’t scored more than 64 points. In the past, Kentucky has been known as a defensive juggernaut under head coach Matthew Mitchell and that theme has continued this season. The Cats are allowing just 62.1 points per game and have only allowed opponents to score more than 70 points twice this season.

On offense, junior guard Maci Morris leads the way for Kentucky. Morris is averaging 16.0 points per game and is shooting 49 percent from three. Junior guard Taylor Murray (10.9) and freshman forward Tatyana Wyatt (10.4) are the only other Cats who average double figures in scoring.

“They run the ball, and they’re very well coached,” Warlick said. “They’re young, but they’re developing. You can’t overlook them.”

No. 7 Tennessee and Kentucky will tipoff from Rupp Arena at 12 p.m. ET on Sunday afternoon. The game will be aired on the SEC Network.

Edited by Seth Raborn

Feature image courtesy of Tennessee Athletics