Lady Vols hope to rebound with win against Texas A&M on Thursday night

From second from left, Tennessee basketball players Kortney Dunbar, Cheridene Green, Kasiyahna Kushkituah and Kamera Harris watch the final moments of Sunday's loss at unranked LSU. The No. 12 Lady Vols host 14th-ranked Texas A&M tonight.
photo Tennessee center Mercedes Russell (21) dives to recover the ball she knocked loose from LSU guard Chloe Jackson during Sunday's game in Baton Rouge, La. LSU won 70-59, giving the Lady Vols their fourth loss in six games.

KNOXVILLE - If games ended at halftime, the Tennessee women's basketball team's only loss this season would be to Mississippi State, which is 22-0, ranked second nationally and beat the Lady Volunteers 71-52 on Jan. 21.

The Jan. 11 loss at Texas A&M that halted Tennessee's 15-0 start would never have happened. The Lady Vols would also have won at No. 5 Notre Dame on Jan. 18 and at unranked LSU this past Sunday.

But as games have progressed this season, woes have arisen for the No. 12 Lady Vols (17-4, 5-3 Southeastern Conference), and the trend has caught up to them the past three weeks.

The Lady Vols host No. 14 Texas A&M Thursday night at Thompson-Boling Arena with a chance to avenge the loss that sent Tennessee into a downward spiral of four losses in its past six games.

The first three defeats came against highly ranked foes, but the loss at LSU felt problematic to the Lady Vols for a new reason. After leading 31-26 at halftime, Tennessee was outrebounded 26-14 and outscored 44-28 in the second half.

"The LSU game, it really wasn't us, to be honest," freshman point guard Evina Westbrook said Wednesday.

Regarding the aftermath of that loss, senior center Mercedes Russell said it was tough feeling for the first time this season that effort - such as the pursuit of loose balls and rebounds - was a concern. During their 15-0 start, the Lady Vols were "playing really hard," Russell said.

Effort wasn't the problem the first few losses this season, either. It was at LSU.

"I think we've learned a lot just in this past stretch, these six games," Russell said.

Tennessee's struggles come with eight games left in the regular season. There is time to shore up the defense, correct recent rebounding deficiencies and continue expanding the playing rotation - although coach Holly Warlick said fatigue has not been a problem.

Westbrook said the team had "a really good talk" before a Monday practice that emphasized sustaining energy.

"Because that's kind of how our games have been," Westbrook said. "We start out really good, and the energy has kind of dropped. So definitely maintaining that energy level."

Tennessee is outscoring opponents 472-290 in the first quarter of games this year. In the fourth quarter, the Lady Vols are outscoring opponents just 399-379.

Texas A&M appeared to be the team running low on energy when its hosted Tennessee last month. All five Aggies starters played 40 or more minutes in the showdown, which went to overtime. But three turnovers doomed the Lady Vols after they took a 74-70 lead early in the extra period.

"We could have won that game, should have won that game," Westbrook said. "So this is our time to redeem ourselves."

The tough stretch has taught a team that relies heavily on three freshmen - Westbrook, Rennia Davis and Anastasia Hayes - about how they don't want to feel after games.

"Honestly, I think we needed this," Westbrook said. "We're not going to win every game, but it just kind of gave us an eye-opener of, 'We don't want to be in this place.' So we just have to continue to work even harder now as the season moves forward so games like this and the past games don't happen again."

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