KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee considers its recent slide a wakeup call as the Lady Vols try to recapture the form they showed earlier this season.
After racing to a 15-0 start, the 12th-ranked Lady Vols have lost four of their last six games. Ranked as high as sixth in the nation just a couple of weeks ago, the Lady Vols now find themselves in a three-way tie for fifth place in the Southeastern Conference .
"Honestly, I think we needed this," freshman guard Evina Westbrook said. "We're not going to win every game, but it just kind of gave us an eye opener. We don't want to be in this place. We just have to continue to work even harder now as the season moves forward, so that games like this and the past games don't happen."
Tennessee (17-4, 5-3 SEC) will try to end the slump Thursday when it hosts No. 14 Texas A&M (17-6, 6-2).
The complexion of Tennessee's schedule made this type of slump a realistic possibility.
Tennessee went 1-3 during a stretch of four straight games against ranked opponents. The Lady Vols lost 79-76 in overtime at Texas A&M, won 86-70 at No. 7 South Carolina, lost 84-70 at No. 5 Notre Dame and fell 71-52 at home to No. 2 Mississippi State.
But the struggles have continued over the last week when Tennessee hasn't faced Top 25 foes. Tennessee struggled much of the way in a 75-66 victory over Mississippi and got outhustled in a 70-59 loss at LSU .
Senior center Mercedes Russell says the LSU game marked the first time all season that Tennessee failed to play hard. Russell said that kind of performance was more characteristic of the 2016-17 Tennessee team that went 20-12 and lost in the second round of the NCAA Tournament .
"It was really tough just to wonder why we weren't playing hard and wonder why we weren't being physical and getting loose balls and things like that," Russell said.
Tennessee's slide has featured blown leads, numerous turnovers and uncharacteristic rebounding issues.
The Lady Vols wasted a 23-point lead at Notre Dame, squandered a 10-point advantage at LSU and led Texas A&M by four points in overtime. Tennessee committed 28 turnovers in the Notre Dame game.
Although Tennessee has a plus-8.8 rebound margin to rank 17th among all Division I teams , the Lady Vols have been dominated on the glass in their last two losses. The Lady Vols have won just one of the four games in which they've been outrebounded this season.
Mississippi State outrebounded Tennessee 44-33 and outscored the Lady Vols 20-11 in second-chance points. Tennessee was outrebounded 44-32 and outscored 20-10 in second-chance points at LSU.
"They just outworked us, and that hasn't happened this year," Tennessee coach Holly Warlick said after the LSU game. "They got after us. We didn't respond."
They now get a chance to respond against the team that handed them their first loss. Westbrook heads into the Texas A&M rematch with particular motivation.
Texas A&M pulled ahead of Tennessee for good in the Jan. 11 matchup when Danni Williams made three free throws with 7.8 seconds left in overtime after she was fouled by Westbrook while attempting a 3-pointer. Westbrook then committed a turnover before Tennessee could attempt a shot in the closing seconds.
That game stands as one of the low points in an otherwise impressive debut season for Westbrook, who has 5 assists per game to rank second in the SEC . The freshman from Salem, Oregon, will get another shot at the Aggies on Thursday with her mom and 10-year-old brother, Tko, watching from the Thompson-Boling Arena stands.
"We could have won that game," Westbrook sad. "We should have won that game. This is our time to redeem ourselves."