KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee forward Rennia Davis loves to cook and wants to run her own restaurant someday, but she only occasionally prepares meals for her Lady Vols teammates.

“This group can eat,” Davis quipped. “I’ve never seen girls who eat this much, I’ll just say that.”

Not that it’s a problem for Davis; she already has enough on her plate.

As the Lady Vols’ top returning scorer, she needs to have a big sophomore season for Tennessee to regain its status as a national power after two straight NCAA tournament second-round exits.

“She needs to be our go-to player,” Tennessee coach Holly Warlick said.

Tennessee must replace Jaime Nared and Mercedes Russell, who averaged a combined 32 points and 16.6 rebounds as seniors last year. Seven of the 10 available players on Tennessee’s roster are freshmen or sophomores.

That means the Lady Vols are counting on Davis to contribute plenty on the floor and in the locker room.

Davis acknowledges she prefers to lead by example rather than by saying much, but the 6-foot-2 forward has learned to become more vocal by watching how sophomore point guard Evina Westbrook interacts with teammates.

“If you put it in stockholders’ terms, she’s got more shares in the company now,” assistant coach Dean Lockwood said. “She’s embraced that. She’s really tried to set the tone. She’s somebody who’s really trying to learn right now about the responsibilities of what leadership is, what it entails, what a good leader does and how she can help the team in that way.”

The learning process started for Davis as soon as she began her college career. Davis had 27 points and 13 rebounds in a preseason exhibition last year and was somewhat surprised when she couldn’t deliver that kind of production consistently.

“I thought that it would be easy after that game,” Davis said. “It did get harder from there. Once we got to SEC play, it was another level of difficult. I’d never played against girls as physical, as big, as athletic, as quick.”

Davis still had a productive freshman season. She averaged 12 points and 7.6 rebounds and sank a memorable tiebreaking 3-pointer with half a second remaining in a conference tournament victory over Auburn.

The Lady Vols need her to deliver those kinds of moments more often. Lockwood discussed the expectations for Davis by comparing her to a cat that’s constantly seeking its prey.

“It doesn’t mean they’re pouncing every time,” Lockwood said. “Sometimes they’re silent. Sometimes they’re stealth. But the mindset is that they’re constantly prowling for attack moments. That’s what she has to keep doing. She had moments of that last year certainly, but we need that all the time.”

Davis wants to make sure Tennessee avoids a repeat of last year’s finish, when it lost an NCAA tournament game on its home floor for the first time in school history. The Lady Vols had won 57 straight NCAA Tournament home games before their second-round loss to Oregon State.

“For us, it was kind of like a dagger in the back,” Davis said.

Tennessee needs Davis to play at an all-SEC level in her sophomore season because of the inexperience on its roster. Senior guard/forward Meme Jackson is the only junior or senior on Tennessee’s roster who has started a game for the Lady Vols.

The Lady Vols lacked experience even before fifth-year senior forward Lou Brown tore her anterior cruciate ligament last week, knocking out the Washington State graduate transfer for the entire season. Warlick says Tennessee will pursue a sixth year of eligibility for Brown.

Warlick is hoping Tennessee’s chemistry makes up for its lack of experience. The Lady Vols open the season Nov. 11 against Presbyterian.

“It’s a really, really tight-knit group,” Warlick said. “They are tight. And we haven’t had that in a long time.”

This article was written by Steve Megargee from The Associated Press and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@newscred.com.

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