KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Now that Tennessee has shown it can beat just about anyone at home, the Lady Volunteers get a chance to see what they can do on the road.
The seventh-ranked Lady Vols (10-0) are back in the top 10 for the first time in two seasons after an 82-75 home victory Sunday over No. 8 Texas , which was ranked second at the time. Tennessee will put that ranking to the test the rest of this month during a 3 ½-week stretch without a home game.
Tennessee plays its first three true road games of the season Sunday at Long Beach State, Dec. 21 at No. 18 Stanford and Dec. 31 at Kentucky.
“California’s beautiful and obviously there are a lot of things that could be a distraction, but just seeing how we’ve handled the first 10 games shows the maturity of our team and how competitive everybody is. I think everyone will be fine on the road trip,” said senior guard Jaime Nared, the reigning Southeastern Conference player of the week.
Nared is the daughter of Greg Nared, the former Wilmington High School standout and 1997 inductee into the Clinton County Sports Hall of Fame.
Tennessee’s only games away from Thompson-Boling Arena thus far have been its three wins in the Cancun Challenge.
But this will mark the first time Tennessee has played on an opposing team’s home floor this season. That should provide an interesting test for freshmen Rennia Davis, Anastasia Hayes and Evina Westbrook, who are averaging a combined 32.9 points.
Tennessee has outperformed most preseason expectations thus far after being ranked 14th to start the year, but Lady Vols coach Holly Warlick says the fast start doesn’t surprise her.
“I had great expectations for them,” Warlick said. “I think they’re pretty spot on. They’re talented. They’re mature. We put them in situations when we were in Cancun to play three games back to back to back, and they responded. I think they’re right where we thought they would be.”
Stanford should give Tennessee a pretty good idea of just where it stands. The Lady Vols have lost in each of their last five visits to Stanford and haven’t won there since Dec. 4, 2005.
But in some respects, the game at Long Beach State (2-7) will show how much Tennessee has changed over the last year. Tennessee struggled through an inconsistent 20-12 season last year in which it often played up or down to the level of competition away from home.
“We all learned a lot last year, the past couple of years honestly, just to work together,” Nared said. “Our team in the past couple of years (had) not been very cohesive or really anything. We were one of the most talented teams in the country, and we had the most up-and-down season.
“It’s not something we’re really focusing on as much this year. We know what we needed to fix. We’ve warned everybody what we need to do every single game, and everybody’s responded. Last year’s just kind of whatever now. It doesn’t really matter anymore. You can’t fix the past. We’re just worrying about now.”
That approach has helped Tennessee earn its highest position in the Top 25 since November 2015. The Lady Vols were never ranked higher than 13th last season and were unranked for the majority of the year.
The Lady Vols aren’t making too much of their lofty ranking. They know there’s still plenty of work to do.
“It’s still early,” Nared said. “It’s December. It doesn’t really matter right now. I like to see that we’re growing each game and just playing well together. That’s something I like to see, especially this early in the season. Obviously we have to keep it going. We can’t settle with where we are right now.”
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