No. 13/12 Tennessee (6-1) will square off with No. 18/20 Texas (6-1) at 2 p.m. Eastern (TV: FSN) at the Frank Erwin Center.
The Lady Vols have been out of competition for two weeks after an extended break for exams - they last played Dec. 2 against North Carolina - and the players indicated they were ready for an activity besides practice.
“I think our practices have been harder than any game that we’ll be in,” senior Taber Spani said. “So that’s really what our coaches are trying to do. They’re trying to prepare us and make us so physically exhausted and mentally fatigued in practice that the games kind of become a little easier.
“With that approach, I think it’ll help.”
Spani, fellow senior Kamiko Williams and junior Meighan Simmons, who is from the San Antonio area, and expects to have a section of family and fans, are the only players on Tennessee’s roster who made this same two-game swing - the Lady Vols next play at Baylor on Dec. 18 - two years ago.
The other six available players on the roster will be playing at the two venues - Baylor plays at the Ferrell Center in Waco, Texas - for the first time in their careers. The Lady Vols also are shorthanded.
Freshman guard Andraya Carter, arguably the team’s best on-ball defender, had season-ending shoulder surgery on Thursday and is rehabbing in Knoxville.
Juco sophomore guard Jasmine Phillips just returned to practice Wednesday after taking the last two weeks off from all team workouts to focus on academics. She made the trip to Texas but is not expected to play in the two road games by head coach’s decision.
That opens the door for Williams to assume a bigger role on the team - she is averaging 15.0 minutes a game - and for Spani, who is averaging 16.3 minutes a game, to increase her workload.
Spani is dealing with lower back pain - she indicated Wednesday it was “OK,” in an answer that was rather clear that she is still hurting but will play on.
Williams has the capability to be a shutdown defender and can provide backup to sophomore Ariel Massengale at the point position. Spani has the size and strength to play inside and out, and her three ball appears to be back on target. She was draining shots from the arc in Saturday’s practice session at the Erwin Center.
They are the team’s only two seniors and, for Tennessee to be successful this season, they will have to leave their fingerprints on every game, whether it’s a timely three-point shot, a defensive stop or a key rebound.
“Honestly as seniors it should be that way,” Spani said. “You should have that influence with your team.”
Both seniors have endured a lot in their careers with nothing bigger than the announcement in 2011 that Pat Summitt had early onset dementia. They entered their senior season with a new, but familiar, head coach in Holly Warlick.
Williams’ talent has never been in question, but her career has been inconsistent and Warlick, with considerable assistance from assistants Kyra Elzy and Jolette Law, wanted to wring out every last drop of effort from the senior.
The staff also wanted Spani to relax and stay in the moment.
“At times it gets overwhelming to think, ‘Oh, my gosh. We have such responsibility we have to get to this team to a Final Four,’ ” Spani said. “We want to set a tone for Holly’s coaching career, get her off to a good start. Pat’s legacy.
“And our senior year. And then you’ve got five newcomers.”
Williams added, “You feel like you’ve got to think for them while you’re thinking for yourselves. I already had a talk with the coaches. ‘I feel so stressed and overwhelmed. You want me to do this. You want me to pick up the ball. You want me to handle the ball. You want me to pass the ball. I don’t know to do.’ ”
Williams, whose exuberance is uncontainable, is acting out her breakdown while Spani smiles.
“This the real Kamiko right here,” Spani said.
“I already had a breakdown,” Williams said. “I talked to Elzy and Coach Law, they told me don’t worry about it, and Dean (Lockwood) brought in quotes from books and stuff. They basically told me to just play.
“Sometimes I feel like the team goes as we go.”
Neither player starts but that remark is not off the mark. If Spani can extend the defense, it opens up the paint. If Williams can harass the ball-handler, it energizes the defense behind her.
The seniors also had to adjust to an up-tempo style of play and workouts that ratcheted in intensity thanks to a directive from Elzy.
Spani actually embraced it. Williams acted aghast.
“Take a picture of my face and put it by 10,” Williams said, displaying a face of shock and agony.
“I like to play this way,” Spani said. “We enjoy that.”
“I like running down the floor,” Williams said.
Williams will listen to Spani, who has taken it upon herself to help get Williams focused at times. Spani also is expected to set the tone for the underclassmen.
“I feel all of the extra responsibility because I want to help this team so much,” Spani said. “In that sense it has been a little overwhelming, but I feel like I’ve learned and grown and I’m at a point I like.
“You have to be who you are and that is enough. Leadership is about serving and a lot of sacrifice. That is something I have tried to embrace. A young team needs that. They need you on the floor, but they also need you outside of basketball.”
It helped Spani to get back on target in the 102-57 wipeout of North Carolina. She was 4-8 from the floor, hit her first two treys and grabbed four boards to go along with two assists, two steals and no turnovers.
“I think I was pressing early on,” Spani said. “And I had some back issues and so I think it was a combination of things.”
It wasn’t from a lack of repetition. Spani would head to the gym and drain shots.
“So frustrating,” Spani said. “At some point it just becomes mental. I just really wanted it to go in too bad instead of just shooting it. I am just going to shoot and let it go.
“It wasn’t about repetitions. I would go in and shoot 18 for 20 for three in the gym. The last few games my shot has felt back. I stopped thinking about it.”
Spani is shooting an uncharacteristic 22.2 percent from long range. Williams actually leads the team in three-ball percentage at 60.0 percent as she is 3-5 from long range.
That earned her a high five from Spani.
“She’s worked on it,” Spani said.
“I have. I am trying to be like Taber,” Williams said.
“She always says that, too,” Spani said with a smile.
Williams, Spani and sophomore Cierra Burdick will have to prove they can hit some shots from the perimeter on this two-game road swing and especially at Baylor where the 6-8 Brittney Griner patrols the paint.
“I think that is because we’re unselfish players,” Spani said. “I know I need to score, but I am always if we can get a better shot … but the problem is, and Cierra, too, we cannot pass up good shots. A three is like a layup for me. A jump shot is like a layup for her.”
Williams’ head nodded constantly in agreement.
“If I see Izzy down low, I am going to give it to her,” Spani said, referring to post player Isabelle Harrison.
Both Burdick and Spani have made some highlight reel passes this year.
“Sometimes y’all will be wide open,” Williams said. “I am like, ‘OK, shoot! OK, that was a good pass. Cool, cool, cool.’ ”
The Lady Vols, after opening the season with 26 turnovers against Chattanooga, have won six games in a row. They have tallied 122 assists to 120 turnovers.
It has been an unselfish approach with players across the court making the extra pass.
“Actually this year I think it’s working in our favor,” Williams said.
Burdick can at times be a reluctant shooter, but she let loose against the Tar Heels and tallied 15 points. She also connected on her one three-ball attempt.
“It was definitely a solid game on my behalf,” Burdick said. “The biggest thing that I have to do is keep shooting and not be scared to shoot the ball. I need to shoot with confidence.”
Burdick’s performance was noteworthy, too, in that she started 1-6 from the field. Instead of passing up shots, she went 4-6 after halftime.
“Second half I tried to come in and take advantage of the looks that I got,” Burdick said. “My teammates got me the ball.”
Burdick will need reminders to shoot, and she uses her shoes. She has “Stay Low” written on one, a defensive guide. The words “Let it Flow,” tell her to get in an offensive rhythm.
Williams just needs to have an assistant coach in her ear with a reminder to play to her strengths. Elzy can bring the heat if needed - and share her struggles at Tennessee - and Law can soothe, though she will dial up the temperature if need be.
“Coach Law is my saint,” Williams said. “Coach Elzy, talking to her about her freshman year and all the things that she went through. She was telling me her stories and I started telling her my stories, and I was like, ‘Oh my God, there is someone else.’ We had a connection. I just cried.
“I told her, ‘I’ve been there. I’m going to make it, right?’ We definitely have a connection.
“Coach Law, she just calms me down. That is why I called coach Law my saint. When I get frustrated or when I am too excited or if I am not energized enough, she gets me going or she can calm me down and bring me back.”
It will take a team effort in the state of Texas with No. 1 Stanford awaiting when the Lady Vols return to Knoxville.
The roster got shorter, but Tennessee is still likely to accelerate the pace, though perhaps let up at times if needed. A young team - three sophomores and a freshman start - would be hard-pressed to run over an entire season without backup, and the loss of Carter is a big one because of guard depth.
“There are only a few women’s basketball teams that play like we do because we aren’t the biggest team, and we understand that, but if we can hold onto that as our identity and then you go up against North Carolina – that’s what they’re known for, they run and everyone knows that – and then we do what we do to them, that gives us a lot of confidence,” Spani said.
“When we go up against Texas and Baylor and Stanford, we can’t abandon our style.”
Tennessee coach Holly Warlick is expected to start: Ariel Massengale, 5-6 sophomore guard, No. 5 (8.3 points per game, 2.0 rebounds per game, 3.8 assists per game), hails from Bolingbrook, Ill.; Meighan Simmons, 5-9 junior guard, No. 10 (17.9 ppg, 3.9 rpg), hails from Cibolo, Texas; Cierra Burdick, 6-2 sophomore forward, No. 11 (8.6 ppg, 6.9 rpg), hails from Charlotte, N.C.; Bashaara Graves, 6-2 freshman forward, No. 12 (15.1 ppg, 7.9 rpg), hails from Clarksville, Tenn.; and Isabelle Harrison, 6-3 sophomore center, No. 20 (11.0 ppg, 8.1 rpg), hails from Nashville, Tenn.
Texas Coach Karen Aston is expected to start: Celina Rodrigo, 5-8 freshman guard, No. 2 (1.9 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 5.1 apg), hails from Marietta, Ga., is fourth in the Big 12 in assists and first among freshmen; Chassidy Fussell 5-10 junior guard, No. 24 (17.6 ppg, 4.6 rpg), hails from Troy, Tenn., sustained a concussion, missed last two games, listed as starter by Texas for Sunday, 10-21 on the season (47.6 percent) from long range; Empress Davenport, 5-7 freshman guard, No. 1 (7.7 ppg, 3.3 rpg), hails from Duncanville, Texas, tallied 11 points in last outing versus Louisiana-Monroe ; Nneka Enemkpali, 6-1 sophomore forward, No. 3 (17.9 ppg, 12.9 rpg), hails from Pflugerville, Texas, only player in Big 12 to average a double-double, has accomplished the feat in six consecutive games, a Texas record, she put up a pair of 20s in points and rebounds against Jackson State on Nov. 20; and Cokie Reed, 6-4 senior post, No. 45 (10.9 ppg, 5.6 rpg), hails from Waco, Texas, tallied 14 points, nine rebounds in last outing.
Imani McGee-Stafford, a 6-7 freshman center from Los Angeles, Calif., has started one game this season, and averages 9.0 points and 8.1 boards a game. She leads the team with 19 blocks.
Ashley Roberts, a 5-8 junior guard, from Duncanville, Texas, has started three games this season.
Tennessee leads the series with Texas, 21-12. The Lady Vols are 9-6 on the road against the Longhorns with Tennessee taking the 2010 matchup in Austin and Texas claiming the win in 2008. As today, those games also were played in December. The series began in 1978 - and now head coach Holly Warlick played in that game - and the two programs have somehow never met in postseason play. … Something has to give Sunday. Tennessee started the week No. 2 in the country in scoring at 86.0 points per game and has reached 100 points four times this season - twice in exhibitions and regular season games against Rice and North Carolina. Texas is ranked fifth in the country by allowing opponents to shoot just 30.6 percent from the field. Foes tally just 52.0 points a game against the Longhorns. The rebounding column also bears looking at - Texas is No. 2 in the country with a rebound margin of +18.2. Tennessee’s margin is +9.1. … Kathy Harston has carved a path between Tennessee and Texas. She was an assistant coach for the legendary Jody Conradt for 18 years and after Conradt retired she headed to Tennessee in 2008 to serve as director of basketball operations until 2012. She headed back to Texas after the 2011-12 season and is now the Senior Associate Athletics Director for Sports Programs.