AP Sports Writer
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — A Tennessee frontcourt that already relies on one of the nation's top newcomers now has even more of a freshman flavor.
Sophomore center Isabelle Harrison will undergo surgery Friday on her injured left knee. Sophomore forward Cierra Burdick just had her cast removed after missing eight games with a broken right hand and has been targeted for an early February return.
That means the ninth-ranked Lady Vols (16-4, 7-0 Southeastern Conference) may have to rely entirely on the freshman trio of Bashaara Graves, Jasmine Jones and Nia Moore to handle the post duties Thursday against Mississippi State (9-11, 1-6). Graves already has established herself as a legitimate all-SEC candidate, while Jones and Moore are reserves who could have expanded roles.
"Injuries are part of this game and have been a part of this program, and we're going to have to deal with it," Tennessee coach Holly Warlick said. If "Izzy's with us or without us, we've got to have some people step up. You only need five people, I understand that. Our style is going to have to probably vary a little bit. Maybe we don't get up and down as much, don't press as much."
Harrison's status for the rest of the season won't be determined until after her surgery. The Lady Vols announced before their 77-67 loss to No. 2 Notre Dame on Monday that Harrison was playing through a meniscus injury in her left knee. Harrison hurt the knee again while driving to the basket that night.
Harrison averages 10.0 points and 8.3 rebounds. The 6-foot-3 center also ranks third in the SEC with 2.1 blocks per game.
Her absence puts more of a burden on Graves, who ranks third in the SEC in rebounds (9.1) and eighth in scoring (14.7) while leading all conference freshmen in both categories. Graves had 19 points and 13 rebounds against Notre Dame. Ten of her rebounds in that game were offensive.
"Graves is a heck of a player," Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. "She was a really tough matchup for us. She's going to be a phenomenal player."
Graves says she's ready for the extra responsibility. She reflected that attitude with her assessment of her monster performance against Notre Dame.
"Last game I would say even though I had 19 points, that was still nothing because I missed a lot of easy shots," Graves said. "I look at myself as being more of a leader now, especially with people going down. Even though I'm a freshman, I still have to play like I'm an upperclassman."
Graves has changed her diet in an attempt to avoid wearing down. She has stopped eating hamburgers and is drinking more water.
"I'm trying to cut out sweet tea, bu it's not really working that well," Graves quipped.
The Lady Vols also may need to rely more on Jones and Moore, particularly while Burdick remains out. That could prove troublesome Thursday when the Lady Vols match up against Mississippi State center Martha Alval, a 6-4 sophomore who ranks second in the SEC in rebounds (9.7) and blocks (2.3).
Jones has averaged 5.1 points and 4.6 rebounds in 16.5 minutes this season while emerging as one of Tennessee's top defenders. The 6-2 forward likely will make her first career start Thursday if Burdick and Harrison can't play.
Moore, a 6-3 center, hasn't been part of Tennessee's regular playing rotation during league competition and has appeared in only one of the Lady Vols' last five games.
"I think Nia's very capable," Warlick said. "The more practice time she has and the more game experience she has will help her. When you're playing behind Bashaara and playing behind Izzy, your playing time's limited."
If Harrison and Burdick are both out, it would leave Tennessee with only eight healthy players. The Lady Vols already have overcome injuries while moving atop the SEC standings.
After freshman guard Andraya Carter underwent season-ending surgery on her right shoulder, Kamiko Williams stepped up her game. When Burdick got injured, senior guard/forward Taber Spani moved into the starting lineup and bounced back from her early season slump.
The Lady Vols once again may have to rely on reinforcements. And they undoubtedly will be depending on Graves more than ever.
"I would like to still consider myself a freshman, but everybody else is not," Graves said. "The coaches tell me all the time, 'Bashaara, you're not a freshman so you don't have time to play like a freshman. You can't be out there like a freshman.' I'm not (a freshman) in everybody else's eyes."
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