The wait is finally over and the No. 4 Lady Vols are set to begin their quest for the program's ninth national championship.

The team will tip-off the season Friday night on the road against Middle Tennessee in Murfreesboro, Tenn.

With the memory of losing to Chattanooga in Tennessee's 2012 season opener still fresh in many players' minds, the Lady Vols said their focus and intensity must be at full strength if they want to avoid another early-season let down in Murfreesboro.

"The key for us going into this game and all other road games is that we have to play as if we are playing at home," senior guard Meighan Simmons said. "We have an awesome fan base, so there's no reason why we shouldn't play as if we aren't at home.

"Going into another team's gym we just have to have the mentality to play Tennessee basketball and everything will fall into place."

The two in-state teams are no strangers to each other, especially after their battle in Thompson-Boling Arena last year in which the Lady Vols narrowly escaped with an 88-81 overtime victory over the Blue Raiders.

"MTSU is a great opponent and they can't be taken lightly whatsoever," junior forward Cierra Burdick said. "They play great at home and it's going to be a tough environment to play in, but we have to stay mentally tough and stay together. That's what will win us the ball game."

A season after advancing to the NCAA Tournament for the fifth straight season and posting 25 wins, the Conference USA team, coached by Rick Insell, expects to give Tennessee a tough early season test.

"There's a great standard that Coach Insell has set with their program," second-year Lady Vols head coach Holly Warlick said. "He does a great job preparing his team no matter who is on the team. Last year they hit big threes, played great defense, and were strong from inside. We expect them to be well-prepared and ready to play us."

One of the key matchups in both teams' season opener will be the battle down low.

Junior center Isabelle Harrison and sophomore forward Bashaara Graves will look to set the tone for the Lady Vols frontcourt and deny Blue Raider senior forward Ebony Rowe from imposing her will and scoring ability.

Rowe was one of 25 players selected to the Wade Trophy watch list – a list that Simmons and Graves were also selected to – this preseason, which is also known as "The Heisman of Women's Basketball."

Last season, the 6-foot-1 forward ranked in the top 25 in four NCAA categories and finished first on the team in scoring (19.7) and rebounding (11.2).

"(Lady Vol Assistant Coach) Dean (Lockwood) has expressed to us how well she is doing and especially in her first two exhibition games," Harrison said. "After playing her last year we know what she can do and we just have to be ready to go after it on the court."

While the Lady Vols expect plenty of orange to be in the Murphy Center for their first game of the season, they expect the start to the season to be a grind. After MTSU, the Lady Vols stay on the road for a contest at No. 12 North Carolina on Monday.

"It's going to be a good thing for us to start the season out with two hard road games in hostile environments," sophomore point guard Andraya Carter said. "No part of this season is going to be easy and starting with a tough schedule right of the bat we are going to get use to it."