KNOXVILLE — Most members of the Tennessee women's basketball team came to the program in hopes of playing in pressure-packed games against top-level competition.
Tonight, that will be only half-true.
The unranked Lady Volunteers (12-6), who have lost five consecutive games for the first time since 1970, host top-ranked Notre Dame (18-1) at 7 at Thompson-Boling Arena in their second straight "We Back Pat" game. Tennessee lost 80-79 to Arkansas on Monday in the first of its two games this season intended to honor late legendary Lady Vols coach Pat Summitt by raising awareness of Alzheimer's disease and The Pat Summitt Foundation.
Tennessee's losing streak has knocked a lot of the anticipated luster off tonight's game, which will be televised on ESPN. Since beating Auburn to open Southeastern Conference play, the Lady Vols have dropped close games to Missouri, Kentucky, Georgia and the Razorbacks, with a 21-point defeat at Alabama sprinkled in.
The only blemish this season for the Fighting Irish, who are trying to repeat as national champions, is an 18-point loss to Connecticut on Dec. 2. Since then, Notre Dame has won 11 straight games — all by double digits, including an 82-68 win over then-No. 2 Louisville.
So while one team is surging, the other is just attempting to right the ship. When asked how big tonight's game could be for the rest of the season, Tennessee coach Holly Warlick deflected, saying it would be more important because it is the next game.
"We will prepare for it," Warlick said Monday. "We have to go out and be confident. We aren't supposed to win the game, and that's fine. We were supposed to beat Missouri, Kentucky, Arkansas, and Alabama, and we didn't get it done. We aren't supposed to beat Notre Dame, but that doesn't mean that we aren't going to prepare, be ready, fight and give our kids the opportunity to win.
"I think that we are going to win every game. When our kids are dialed in and playing hard, we are pretty darn good."
The loss to Arkansas gave Warlick and the Lady Vols more material to work with as they try to find solutions.
"We had a lot of turnovers and we made some mental mistakes. We shot too many 3s," Warlick said. "Those are things that we can correct. We are going to continue to work and fight and get this thing turned around. I have a staff that is killing it in everything we are doing in practice and in prep. We had two killer days in practice, so absolutely this hurts, but we are going to keep going."
Players believe they have been lacking a full 40-minute effort, coupled with little things that have cost them big in recent games. Sophomore guard Rennia Davis called Notre Dame "probably one of the toughest teams we play this year," but that doesn't mean the Lady Vols are intimidated.
"It really starts in practice," sophomore guard Evina Westbrook said. "We have to get better, and we really have to be better at getting on each other in practice. We have to continue to work hard.
"As (assistant) coach Dean (Lockwood) would say, 'Respect all, but fear none.' We're not going to fear them at all coming in, but at the same time, they are ranked as the No. 1 team in the nation. We can't take any possessions off, and we can't take them lightly whatsoever. We have to be ready for that."
Warlick has had a simple message for her team through the recent tough stretch, one she learned from Summitt, her predecessor: Lean on each other.
"I think Pat would be proud of us because we fought," Warlick said Monday. "The losses are tough. Everything right now is tough on this team, but we have got to come together, because we are the only ones that can fix it. The players are going to rally together. That is what I talked about: Lean on each other. It is a fight. It is a battle.
"When we play within our team and together, we are a pretty good basketball team."