Tennessee (11-1) begins conference play at home on Jan. 2 against No. 16/16 LSU (10-2). The 7 p.m. game will be televised on CSS and UT will retire Lady Vol legend Candace Parker's jersey before tipoff.
The Lady Vols are coming off of a dominating 110-42 win over Lipscomb on Dec. 29. UT's 68-point win over the Lady Bisons was its largest margin of victory since winning by 68 (107-39) over Princeton on March 20, 2005. Head coach Holly Warlick was pleased with the sustained effort and execution Tennessee displayed in the big win and hopes to see that carry over into SEC play.
"I thought we played a really solid all-around game and I want to see how we play carrying it into conference play," Warlick said. "I was really proud of us because we could have gotten lax when we got ahead and we could have backed off. But I think we kept our focus and hopefully that will carry over in to the LSU game."
The team is looking forward to paying tribute to raising Candace Parker's No. 3 into the rafters of Thompson-Boling Arena before Thursday's game.
Parker helped lead Tennessee to national titles in 2007 and 2008 and won numerous awards as the nation's top basketball player. She averaged 19.4 points and 8.8 rebounds per game during her time at Rocky Top and was a truly revolutionary player for the sport because of her ability to play all five positions at 6-4 at an elite level.
"When you get a player like Candace, it's very difficult to defend because she can handle the ball full court and then she can post you up," Warlick said. "So if you put somebody small on her, she will post you up. If you put somebody big on her, she will go by it. That's what made her special."
Parker continues to exemplify what it means to be a Lady Vol, serving as a role model for young women both on and off the court.
Chamique Holdsclaw, Tamika Catchings, Candace Parker - they all fall in the same line," junior forward Cierra Burdick said. "They've helped continue to build this legacy and make it what it is today. As a player right now, I feel a great opportunity to continue this legacy that they've built, that they've put under our feet. Candace is a great player, I can't say that enough, and she's a really good person as well. I think that speaks for what Lady Vols are about. They're going to compete, they're going to step in between these lines and they're going to give it their best every single time. Off the court, they're just as good of a person and I think Candace really represents that."
Mercedes Russell was 12 years old when Parker, Nicky Anosike, Shannon Bobbitt and the 2007-08 Lady Vols hoisted the national championship trophy. Because of her size, versatile skill set and big-time reputation entering Tennessee, the 6-6 freshman has sometimes drawn comparisons to Parker.
"When I was a little kid, my mom told me that I used to watch Tennessee play and I loved every aspect of her game and how she can go inside and outside at her size," Russell said. "I just loved overall her whole game."
Another former Lady Vol will also be making a return to Knoxville on Thursday as former UT player and assistant coach Nikki Caldwell leads her LSU Lady Tigers into Thompson-Boling Arena.
LSU is 10-2 on the year with its two losses coming on the road at then-No. 5 Louisville on Nov. 14 and at NC State on Dec. 20. Freshman guard Raigyne Moncrief lead s the Lady Tigers with 13.3 points per game and senior forward Theresa Plaisance is averaging 12.8 points and7.1 boards per contest.
"I think Nikki has done a great job," Warlick said. "I think she has had some freshmen step up. I think they're running a little bit of a matchup zone, sagging man. She'll come in and do some things that we have not seen as well. So, we'll press us, we'll run the ball. It's a little bit of what we do, but we play more man-to-man than she does."
LSU presents a tough starting test for Tennessee in what should be an exciting SEC schedule. Burdick and the UT veterans are prepared for the physical play of league games and have their sights set at winning conference regular-season and tournament crowns.
"We want to go undefeated in our conference," Burdick said. "That's the goal. We want to win the regular season outright and we want to win the tournament. We've got to take it game by game - that's how it's going to happen. Obviously LSU is our first test, so we've got to come out here and prepare and play Lady Vol basketball."
The younger players will get their first taste of SEC play. The stakes are higher, the games are more physical and decades-old rivalries run deep, regardless of who is on the other side of the court. Russell said that the Tennessee veterans have told her to be ready to rumble in the paint.
"You've got to have endurance," she said. "Guarding the post and being the post takes a lot out of you. You've got to be able to fight, foot fight, push around and all of that."
In preparation for a grueling SEC slate, Tennessee looks to continue to work the inside game. With several talented six-footers on the roster, the Lady Vols hope to dominate the paint when facing league rivals.
Assistant coach Dan Lockwood has stressed that the guards and post players need to work as one with ball movement and execution.
"I think Dean said it best - it's a partnership," Burdick said. "You're in this together. The guards have got to make great passes to the post and the post has got to finish. It's just a matter of us both coming together, bringing our skills and bringing it into one piece. It's like fitting pieces into a puzzle."
Although she has already put up strong rookie numbers of 8.6 points and 5.3 rebounds per game in non-conference play, Russell is a player that Tennessee is looking to get even more out of in SEC play.
"I think Mercedes is just now getting used to the tempo and things being physical and the pace of the game," Warlick said. "I think each game she is going to get better and better. We keep putting her in different situations and I think she is going to be fine. I think with time for Mercedes in practice and in games, she just keeps getting better and better."
Russell is shooting a team-best 60.5 percent from the floor and registered a team-high 20 blocks. She has played with good discipline down low and has made the most out of opportunities when they present themselves.
"When I go into the game, I just want to make sure that I get clean seals, deep seals and get big so the guards can see me when I'm open," Russell said.
The team is looking for to Russell being more aggressive offensively in upcoming games.
"We need her to be aggressive," Burdick said. "She's such a great player. She's so long and so big and tall. We need her to be aggressive. She can get those easy buckets that we need. I think Izzy and Bash have taken her under their wing and done a great job of that and continued to get it in her mind that `Hey, we need you to score the basketball. You have all these skills - let's use them. Let's really use you so you can be a benefit to us.' I think she has really stepped up to the plate. She's taken the challenge and so far she has done a great job."
Isabelle Harrison is one post player who is just absolutely on fire right now. She is coming off four-straight double-doubles, including a 26-point, 15 rebound, three-block, four-steal effort against Lipscomb. Burdick is quick to point out that Harrison's footwork has created easy scoring opportunities.
"The posts with the best feet, those are the ones that are going to be the most successful," she said. "I think Izzy does a great job of just working her man up the lane. ‘Inch by inch’ Dean calls it. That's why she gets all of those easy buckets. I call it ‘Easy Money.’ It's wide-open layups because she does her work before she catches the ball."