When the No. 8 Lady Vols tip off against Ole Miss on Thursday night, Tennessee will be searching for its fifth straight win overall and sixth straight in conference play.

Tennessee (18-4, 7-2 SEC) will visit the C.M. Tad Smith Coliseum just a game behind conference leader Texas A&M.

However, while the Vols look positioned well enough to finish the year strong and win the SEC regular season title, just last month the team was in the midst of an identity crisis.

After losing four contests in a span of eight games, a cold stretch that lasted from mid-December to mid-January, Tennessee has returned to its winning ways thanks in large part to the team coming together around the loss of one of their leaders, Ariel Massengale.

In the Lady Vols Jan. 23 victory over Florida, the junior guard suffered a facial injury of which she has yet to recover.

Instead of potentially excusing poor play with the team's third-leading scorer out on injury, the squad went on to outscore opponents in their last three games by a margin of 41 points.

"With (Massengale) not here, we've had to have people step up, and they've done just that," Lady Vols head coach Holly Warlick said at Tuesday's media availability at Pratt Pavilion. "I think it has brought them closer, because with her leadership gone, somebody had to hold this team together and accountable, and that's what Cierra (Burdick) has done."

The junior forward has filled Massengale's void, scoring 37 points in her last two contests.

Massengale's understudies have also filled in well.

In the past three games, redshirt freshman Andraya Carter has averaged nine points per game, 4.3 assists, and 2.3 steals.

True freshman Jordan Reynolds has also taken on the responsibility and even hit her biggest 3-pointer of the season just before the half against Arkansas, which gave her team the lead and momentum that would carry the Lady Vols to victory in the second half.

"Andraya and Jordan's leadership have both helped us on the floor as well," Warlick said. "I think the past few games we have really played the leadership role by committee, and it has worked and we have been playing some of our best basketball."

Although Massengale has not been practicing and will not make the trip down to Ole Miss, her teammates admitted they still feed off of their absent leader.

"She is still momma Massengale," Burdick said. "She has continued to support us and encourage us in her time out.

"Until she returns, we will be the Lady Vol team we know we can be."

With the Lady Vols continuing to climb back up into the national spotlight, the team, who has been tested at extreme measures with their floor leader out, has found a spark.

"I think we are noticing our potential, but we also have to notice that things aren't just going to be given to us because Tennessee is across our chest," junior center Isabelle Harrison said. "We have to work hard just like the previous teams did when they were here."

"Nothing was given to them. I think we are really starting to realize what we have to do on game days to get the job done."

Tennessee tips off against the Rebels (10-13, 1-8) at 9 p.m. tonight. The game will be broadcasted by CSS.