AP Sports Writer
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee realizes its chances of winning a Southeastern Conference title depend on whether it can start playing championship-caliber defense consistently.
The 11th-ranked Lady Vols (20-5, 11-1 SEC) lead the conference and rank fifth nationally with 79.2 points per game, but their defense hasn't been quite as consistent. Three of Tennessee's last four opponents have shot at least 50 percent from the field in the second half.
Tennessee will try to stop that trend Thursday when it hosts Auburn (14-11, 3-9).
"We've got to get better," Tennessee coach Holly Warlick said. "That's the bottom line. I think they understand that and know that."
Ever since she took over for Pat Summitt, Warlick has preached the importance of defense and rebounding by noting those aspects of the game were the strengths of her predecessor's best teams.
Tennessee is outrebounding opponents by 6 ½ boards per game to rank second in the SEC in rebound margin. Defense has been the issue, so it continues to be the focus.
Tuesday "we had a practice that was just nothing but defense," junior guard Meighan Simmons said. "They've really been emphasizing it. It's just one of those things where we have to let our defense dictate our offense and continue to move forward. Because when we play defense, the offensive end comes easy to us anyway.'"
Tennessee ranks fifth in the SEC in field-goal percentage defense (.373). Defense has proved costly in many of the Lady Vols' losses.
That started in the first game of the season, as Chattanooga shot 56.3 percent in the second half to upset the Lady Vols 80-71. In Tennessee's only SEC loss, Missouri shot 52.7 percent and beat the Lady Vols 80-63.
"It's extremely critical," sophomore forward Cierra Burdick said. "I think it's clear we can put the ball in the basket. We have the talent with Meighan and Bashaara (Graves) and Taber (Spani). We can easily put the ball in the basket, but we need to get stops. Missouri is a good example of that."
Tennessee's losses also have featured big individual performances from opposing players.
Chattanooga's Taylor Hall matched a career high with 24 points against Tennessee. Stanford's Chiney Ogwumike scored 21 points and pulled down 19 rebounds in a 73-60 win at Tennessee. Notre Dame's Skylar Diggins had a career-high 33 points in a 77-67 victory over the Lady Vols. Morgan Eye scored 26 points in Missouri's upset of Tennessee.
The loss of starting center Isabelle Harrison has played a role in the defense's recent struggles.
Harrison injured her left knee in the first half of the Jan. 28 Notre Dame game and hasn't played since as she recovers from surgery.
In Tennessee's 4 ½ games since Harrison's injury, the Lady Vols have allowed opponents to shoot 42.6 percent. Opponents were shooting 35.9 percent against Tennessee before Harrison got hurt.
Those statistics are particularly concerning because two of the games Tennessee has played since Harrison's injury came against Mississippi State (11-14, 3-9) and Mississippi (9-16, 2-10), two of the three SEC teams with losing records.
Burdick, who still isn't quite at full strength, has moved from her usual position of small forward to power forward as the Lady Vols deal with Harrison's absence.
"It is a difference, but that's what I played in high school and that's what I played with USA Basketball," Burdick said. "It's not that big of a transition, but I do have to get used to the physical play down there. Us wing players, we just kind of stand out there and shoot the ball. We're not really down here getting beat up in the post."
Harrison was shooting with teammates at Wednesday's practice, but she wasn't much doing much more. Warlick is optimistic Harrison will return at some point this season, but no target date has been set.
Whether they get Harrison back or not, the Lady Vols understand they must improve their defense to have a realistic shot at a long postseason run.
"We're going to continue to work on it until it clicks for 40 minutes," Warlick said. "We have our moments that we look really good, and then we have mental lapses and letdowns. We're going to continue to work on it every day."
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