KNOXVILLE — With only a few games remaining for the University of Tennessee women's basketball team in the regular season — one that hasn't gone the way anyone in the program would want — coach Holly Warlick knows what the mission should be for her Lady Volunteers.
"We've got to win," she said plainly after Thursday's 73-62 home victory over Auburn, which took Tennessee to 16-8 overall and 5-6 in Southeastern Conference play.
For the Lady Vols to further strengthen their case for an NCAA tournament bid — they're the only program in the country that has never missed the event, which debuted in 1982 — they will need more victories. The next opportunity comes in Sunday's 5 p.m. EST game at Missouri (19-7, 6-4).
There are plenty of reasons to expect the matchup in Columbia to be a challenge for the Lady Vols, despite them having won four of their past five games after losing six in a row.
Tennessee's lone loss in its recent run of success came against Mississippi State last Sunday in Starkville, where a disastrous fourth quarter for the Lady Vols helped lead to a 91-63 win for the Bulldogs. Mississippi State moved up a spot to fifth in this week's polls, but Missouri upset the Bulldogs 75-67 on Thursday in Starkville.
The Tigers also beat the Lady Vols in their first meeting this season, 66-64 on Jan. 6 in Knoxville, and Missouri is 11-2 at home in 2018-19.
"It is a tough environment," Warlick told reporters Saturday afternoon. "They are coming off a big win over Mississippi State, and they beat us. So we have a lot of incentive.
"We gave up a lot of 3-pointers the last game (against Missouri), and that cannot happen. If you do, things are not going to be good. They are going to get some, but those shots need to be contested, and they need to be between 10 and 11 shots."
Tennessee's win against Auburn — another NCAA tournament bubble team — was much-needed, and it took a dominant third quarter dictated by the Lady Vols' defense for them to come out on top. Tennessee held Auburn to 4-for-14 shooting from the field and used those stops to get out in transition for easy baskets. It led to a 14-3 run by the Lady Vols to start the second half and helped them assume control of the game. Tennessee led 49-42 by the end of the third quarter and by as many as 13 points before the finish.
The Lady Vols seem to have righted the ship since their losing streak. Their final five regular-season games — including the next three, against Missouri, Texas A&M and South Carolina, all currently projected to make the NCAA tournament — provide opportunities for noteworthy wins that would give them momentum headed into the SEC tournament and beyond.
"We're just staying together and understanding that we have to win these next few games, but also not putting that pressure on ourselves, just coming out there and being able to play," Lady Vols forward Rennia Davis said Thursday. "And I think that today we really proved to ourselves that defense can win us a lot of games."
They'll try to prove it again at Missouri.
"I think all games for us are important. We have to come out swinging," Warlick added on Saturday. " We have five games left, and we need to be focused on each one and take care of business. Every game is important to us."