Lady Vols surging after getting off to sluggish start

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) Tennessee has come a long way since splitting its first eight games and falling out of the Top 25.

The Lady Volunteers' next two games will be a good barometer to see just how far they still have to go.

Tennessee (9-4, 1-0 SEC) has won five consecutive games, including victories over No. 10 Stanford and No. 24 Kentucky. The streak hasn't been enough to get Tennessee back in the Top 25, but it's given the Lady Vols a healthy dose of confidence.

''We're playing harder,'' Tennessee coach Holly Warlick said. ''We're playing smarter. We're playing together.''

Bigger tests are coming in the next few days.

Tennessee travels to Vanderbilt (10-4, 0-1) on Thursday for its first road game in over three weeks and then hosts No. 4 Mississippi State (15-0, 1-0) on Sunday.

In Warlick's five seasons as head coach, Tennessee owns just one win over a top-five opponent - a 73-61 victory over No. 4 South Carolina on March 2, 2014. The Lady Vols lost both their meetings with Mississippi State last season, marking the first two times the Bulldogs had ever beaten Tennessee.

Before the Lady Vols can think about Mississippi State, they must beat a Vanderbilt team looking to snap a three-game skid. Vanderbilt had won 10 of its first 11 games before this slide.

''We have the comforts of home,'' Vanderbilt coach Stephanie White said. ''We have the home fans. So it's an important game for us. (It's) more important just that we continue to show our positive progression.''

Tennessee has lost its last three road games. The Lady Vols have averaged just 62 points and have shot 36.7 percent overall and 22 percent from 3-point range in those contests. For comparison's sake, Tennessee has scored 84.6 points per game while shooting 48.6 percent overall and 41.9 percent on 3-pointers during its winning streak.

The Lady Vols now will try to carry that momentum away from home.

''I think just from the start, we've been coming out with a lot of effort and energy, and we've been carrying it on throughout the whole game,'' said center Mercedes Russell, the reigning SEC player of the week.

Tennessee's turnaround began after an 88-66 loss to No. 2 Baylor on Dec. 4 that matched the most lopsided home loss in Lady Vols history. Warlick said after the game that her team was ''underachieving'' and ''not playing hard.''

Tennessee fell out of the Top 25 the day after that game but has looked like an entirely different team since. The Lady Vols were much more competitive a week later in a 72-67 loss at No. 15 Texas and have followed that up with five straight wins.

Although the Lady Vols have only nine available players this season, they're getting big production from their top performers.

Russell, Diamond DeShields and Jaime Nared all are scoring over 15 points per game. Tennessee hasn't finished a season with three players averaging 15-plus points per game since Chamique Holdsclaw, Tamika Catchings and Semeka Randall did it for the 1997-98 national championship team.

Over her last three games, Jordan Reynolds has totaled 27 assists and just five turnovers. In a victory over UNC Wilmington last week, Reynolds became just the third Lady Vol ever to post a triple-double.

''A lot of people have a lot of negative things to say about our team, but we're not going away,'' DeShields said after the Kentucky game. ''Tennessee's not going anywhere. We've got players. We're not scared of anybody.''

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AP Sports Writer Teresa Walker in Nashville, Tennessee, contributed to this report.

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Follow Steve Megargee at www.twitter.com/stevemegargee

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