KNOXVILLE — The Tennessee women's basketball team's two opponents so far this season have been from the Southern Conference and the Colonial Athletic Association, and Lady Volunteers coach Holly Warlick knows there are tougher nights ahead for a Southeastern Conference team with four freshmen playing key roles.
But as she evaluated her players after Wednesday night's 89-60 win over James Madison at Thompson-Boling Arena, the tone of her voice dropped for a moment to what is best described as an urgent whisper with a tinge of giddiness.
"I've got a lot of confidence in them," she said.
A performance like the one Tennessee put on against the Dukes can help with that. The 13th-ranked Lady Vols (2-0) shot 55 percent from the floor, had 21 assists and forced 17 turnovers against James Madison (1-2), which is favored to win its league.facebook
Senior wing Jaime Nared led Tennessee with 25 points, nine rebounds and five assists, while senior center Mercedes Russell added 14 points on 7-of-8 shooting and eight rebounds.
Then there were the freshmen. Rennia Davis added 17 points, eight rebounds and three steals from her position on the wing, while guards Anastasia Hayes and Evina Westbrook combined for 12 assists.
Nared's points stood out, but they came efficiently: in transition, after several passes or after Tennessee forced turnovers.
"Probably the best thing is that it's an unselfish basketball team," Warlick said. "They're happy for each other's successes, and it makes me happy. It makes me smile."
This year's Lady Vols, Warlick said Tuesday, write what they need to correct on the whiteboard in the locker room at halftime before coaches have had a chance to enter and say it themselves.
There are still plenty of teaching moments, though. Warlick called a timeout with 3:26 remaining in the first half when James Madison used a quick run to cut a 16-point deficit to 37-26. After the game, Warlick said the Lady Vols had slipped into giving up rebounds and not playing hard.
"When we have a lapse, we let teams back in," she said. "You just can't have that."
They promptly corrected their errors, going on an 11-2 run to close the first half and head to the locker room up 48-28.
"What I liked us about us was a lot of our defense transferred over to offense," Nared said. "We had a lot of fast-break points, we had a lot of deflections, a lot of steals. That helps us. When we're playing hard defensively and really working together, that just translates over to offense, especially when you're playing tough games."
Tougher games are on their way. Wichita State visits on Monday night. Then the Lady Vols head for Mexico, where they will play in the Cancun Challenge over Thanksgiving weekend, taking on Marquette, Oklahoma State and South Dakota. Marquette made the NCAA tournament last season, and Oklahoma State beat Wichita State 91-67 on Tuesday night.
Warlick's confidence in her team is "tremendous."
"Because I see what they do and how hard they practice and how hard they play," she said. "They're not there yet. But we're getting there."
Contact David Cobb at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story was updated Nov. 15 at 11:59 p.m.