KNOXVILLE - Where's the confidence level of Tennessee's women's basketball team?
The answer isn't quite clear.
The Lady Vols dropped their fifth consecutive game Monday, losing 80-79 at home to Arkansas to fall to 12-6 for the season and 1-5 in the Southeastern Conference, with top-ranked Notre Dame lurking on Thursday.
There's also no clear explanation for the program's worst losing streak in nearly 50 seasons. The Lady Vols are young - very young - but talented.
Meme Jackson, the one four-year player on the team, has largely been a role player who hasn't been asked to lead prior to this season. Losing two players before the season - sophomore guard Anastasia Hayes was kicked off the team in August, and graduate transfer senior forward Lou Brown tore her ACL in mid-October - hasn't helped.
What's left are two seniors in Jackson and forward Cheridene Green, a junior in forward Kamera Harris who has played in only 28 career games and a bunch of talented sophomores and freshmen being asked to fill a lot of voids.
Add that Jackson suffered what appeared to be a lower-leg injury - coach Holly Warlick called it an ankle injury - in the third quarter of Monday's loss, and the Lady Vols could be playing with as few as nine players - eight of whom play - against the Fighting Irish.
But the Lady Vols currently have bigger problems. Four of their five losses during the skid have come by four or fewer points, with a possession here or there potentially making the difference. Holding a lead against the Razorbacks, Tennessee turned the ball over on two consecutive possessions, with freshman Rae Burrell grabbing a rebound and losing control of the ball while dribbling upcourt and another turnover by sophomore Evina Westbrook. Both possessions led to 3-pointers by Arkansas, erasing a four-point Lady Vols lead and putting them behind 76-74.
Warlick's hope is that the losses can be a teaching lesson going forward.
"It is a young team trying to defend seasoned players, but that is what we've got," Warlick said Monday. "They are talented, and they are continuing to learn and grow. It is about a young team and, again, they've got to understand that little mistakes keep adding up.
"The 16 turnovers - I think we had nine or 10 in the first half. It just keeps adding up. Arkansas had 20 points off just our turnovers and 12 3s. We have got to really understand the importance of taking care of the basketball. Late in the game, we turned it over. We have got to at least get a shot off. Those are things we are going to continue to work on.
"It was really tough in the locker room, because they have really worked hard these last couple of days. But I have confidence in them. I have confidence in my staff. All the noise that we are hearing, the players have blocked that out, and they are playing with a lot of heart, and that is all that I can ask them to do. I am not going to give up on this basketball team."
From the players' comments, it doesn't sound as though they're going to give up, either. Most came to Tennessee in hopes of competing at the very least for SEC championships. Instead, they're fighting to turn their season around. But the learning curve has been steep and will continue to be just that.
"Players come here from winning programs, and it's typical for people to put their head down," sophomore Rennia Davis said. "We've been trying to keep each other up. There are a lot of games we know we could have won, should have won, but we have to be able to put 40 minutes together and sustain leads in this league."
If there was a positive Monday, it came in the team's response to the Jackson injury. Instead of putting heads down like Davis had described, the players rallied around each other. Should they be able to eventually turn things around, it could wind up being a defining moment in their season.
But Westbrook said that the loss - one that hurt - could serve as a reminder of how close the team is to turning things around.
"I think our confidence is fine," Westbrook said. "We're more frustrated than anything. Everyone on this team is competitive and we don't like to lose at all. We just have to get back to the winning mentality, get our swag back.
"I think today was the start of it, for sure."
Contact Gene Henley at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @genehenley3 or at Facebook.com/VolsUpdate.