Knoxville, Tenn. (WVLT/Submitted) -- With five practice days since its last game, #3/3 Tennessee resumes its schedule with a Saturday afternoon matinee facing Troy at Thompson-Boling Arena. The Lady Vols are coming off a 75-61 triumph over Texas last Sunday, keeping their record unblemished this season and winning at home for the 11th-straight time.
'TIS THE SEASON TO BE STUDYING
As the academic semester winds down, the Lady Vols' season is just heating up. But as finals pop up for the players, Tennessee is hitting the books and taking on a lighter load in the gym.
"School comes first and coaches know that, and they're definitely going to get us in the gym no matter what," sophomore Isabelle Harrison said. "After practice they recommend to us to go study, so I think that's why they're taking it lighter on us. They're being considerate of what we have to do, but now that exams are done, it's full-time basketball. I don't think there are any more excuses."
With the Lady Vols' shining academic tradition in a 100-percent graduation rate for those who complete their eligibility donning the Orange & White, the coaching staff knows the importance of the "student" in student-athlete.
"They're in exams so we're just trying to get them focused on their academics," head coach Holly Warlick said. "We've been going about two hours a day kind of mixing up what we do. Keeping them in shape, but keeping them sharp on our offense and defense. So it's a little bit different. It's hard for them to practice for five straight days and have a game. They always like the games and coaches like practice. It's been good and a good learning experience, and I think we're getting better."
Junior Cierra Burdick echoed Coach Warlick's comments on practice.
"I think it has definitely been a great week," Burdick said. "I think with us having exams and still coming in to practice, focused with an intensity, I think that speaks a lot for the types of players that we have and the expectations that our coaches have for us. It's been a great week of practice, and we've got to continue to do some good things."
SIXTH MAN EFFECT
In UT's eight games this season, the Lady Vols have utilized three different starting line-ups.
Burdick, who has started six contests in 2013-14, knows she plays a vital role for the squad regardless if she starts out on the hardwood or is first off the bench.
"If I'm coming off the bench I want to bring that sixth man effect," Burdick said. "I want to come in and make an immediate impact, and I think that coaches trust me to do that. I'm just going to try and come out and play my role as best as I can no matter if I'm starting or coming off the bench in that sixth man spot. I'm just trying to make an impact for this team."
Despite the noise surrounding the line-up mixtures, Harrison said it gives the players a chance to get comfortable with different groups playing, stimulating game action.
"Our starting five was Cierra, Meighan, Bashaara, Ariel, and myself. We've gotten comfortable with one another, but I honestly haven't seen that a lot in practice. I think Holly is doing it for a reason because you never know who we're going to have in the game. With these teams we're facing right now, you never know what they're going to throw at us. It's going to be good that she can just throw up her hand, and we just play."
Coach Warlick says the starting five is based off of the upcoming competition and a reward for the people who are putting in the time and effort to get ready for the games.
"Starting for us is not a big deal," Warlick said. "Everybody is going to play and everybody contributes. Honestly, I don't think our kids are concerned about who starts and who doesn't. They're part of our success and everybody is going to have their hands in that success."
Coach Warlick will determine Saturday's lineup this Friday following practice.
40 MINUTES OF BASKETBALL
Despite an unblemished record this season, Tennessee knows the team isn't at its full potential yet. The main goal for the team is to compete the full 40 minutes out on the court.
"We talk about how we're good right now, but that's not good enough," Burdick said. "We want to be great. You've got play a full 40 minutes of basketball. Those teams that play a full 40 minutes until the final buzzer, those are the teams that are going to win. We've just got to come out strong and we've got to finish strong and that plays a part of being mentally tough."
Harrison believes the 87-47 triumph over SMU in the championship game of the Junkanoo Jam has been the Lady Vols' best outing thus far. The junior says distractions can affect the game plan and not going all out for the full 40 minutes.
"We just have to pay a lot more attention to the game plan before the game so we can play a full 40 minutes," Harrison said. "When we played in the Bahamas against SMU, we were just psyched and ready. We had that night and were ready the next day to start going over personnel and everything. I think we were really focused that last game."
Warlick stresses simulating practices to what the Lady Vols will face in competition each week to help prepare the team for the upcoming games.
"We try to simulate the people who we're playing and their style and how they're going to play offensively and defensively," Warlick said. "We kind of are getting away from our principles of what we're doing offensively and defensively. Now we've got to do a little bit more of a scouting report on how to attack somebody or how to defend them, so it's a little different. I think we've got a great base and now we just go back to how that team is playing and we've got to respond a little different. Don't have just a throw-the-ball-up, we-don't-know-what-they're-doing kind of offense defense."
TAKING ON THE TROJANS
The Big Orange welcomes Troy to Thompson-Boling Arena for the first-ever matchup between the two programs. The Trojans are led by junior Joanna Harden, who ranks third in the nation in points per game with a 26.6 average, and Warlick says the key will be to shut her down.
"Anytime somebody leads (a conference in scoring), they're doing something good," Warlick said. "I think that she needs to become a no-touch player for us and just limit her touches. We have a tendency if someone is good offensively, they tend to go off. We need to make sure she doesn't reach her average. We're going to defend her by committee."
ROUNDING OUT DECEMBER
Following Troy on Saturday, the Lady Vols round out 2013 playing Tennessee State on Tuesday, Dec. 17, at Stanford on Dec. 21, and Lipscomb back in Knoxville on Dec. 29. Harrison says the early-season games help prepare the team for what's to come.
"It definitely shows us the competition that's out there, what we're going to face, and what we're going to continue facing being as good as we are," Harrison said. "The teams we're going to face are not going to take it easy on us. Texas was a great team even though they weren't ranked, they came at us and were ready to play hard. I was glad to play against a team like that going into these Christmas games."
Burdick knows in order to reach the optimum level, UT will have to take on the challenges ahead at full speed.
"We've got a great test ahead but, not to look too far ahead, Stanford will be a tremendous test for us," Burdick said. "That's going to definitely be a pedestal where we can take a step and become that great team that we want to be."