Lady Vols jell at just the right time
The NCAA selection committee has gone away from making the previous 10 games of a team's season such a huge priority in regard to tournament selection/placement. That used to be something that was consistently brought up as being very important. Now, supposedly, it's just another factor to consider, but the whole "body of work" thing is bigger.
Still, this season, it seems clear that Tennessee's No. 1 seed was secured by the Lady Vols winning the SEC tournament. And if you are going to focus on the "last 10," that stretch looks quite good for the Lady Vols.
Tennessee has won seven in a row and 13 of its last 14. As for their lead-up into the NCAA tournament, the Lady Vols beat regular-season SEC champ South Carolina, and they then won three games at the SEC tournament in Duluth, Ga., for the program's 17th league tourney title.
In the SEC final against Kentucky, Tennessee avenged its only loss of the past two months, when the Wildcats got an ultra-rare victory in Knoxville, Tenn. The Lady Vols beat the Wildcats 71-70 in a game that had an NCAA tournament atmosphere.
Coaches will always spin things to try to give their teams confidence going into the postseason. But Tennessee's Holly Warlick doesn't need to do any spinning with her players. They seem to have really clicked, and -- obviously -- the timing could not be better. With the Final Four in Nashville, Tenn., the Lady Vols have their GPS set to get to Music City.
"Our kids are ready, our coaches are ready," Warlick said. "I think [the No. 1 seed] is about how we finished our season. I hope it's about respect for this team. We haven't been a No. 1 seed in a while."
You have to chuckle at that. A while? Yeah, it was three whole years ago that Tennessee was last a top seed. A veritable eternity, right? Well, if you are Tennessee, it probably seems like it.
As a No. 1 seed in the 2011 NCAA tournament, Tennessee lost in the regional final to Notre Dame. That was Tennessee's first loss to the Irish after 20 consecutive victories in the series.
In 2012, Tennessee lost in the Elite Eight to Baylor, which then went on to finish a perfect season with a national championship. Last year, the Lady Vols were halted a step away from the Final Four again, this time by a hot Louisville team that wasn't cooled down until the NCAA final by UConn. Tennessee was a No. 2 seed both those seasons.
Tennessee made its 18th trip to the Final Four back in 2008, when the program won its eight NCAA title. These are facts that Tennessee players are, perhaps, a little too familiar with. Warlick wants them to know the history, but not be overwhelmed by it or feel excess pressure.
Nor does she want them to be too consumed with the fact that, for just the second time, the Women's Final Four is in the state of Tennessee. The Lady Vols didn't make it that far the first time, despite being the event's host. The 1990 Final Four at Thompson-Boling Arena in Knoxville ended up being a showcase for native Tennessean Jennifer Azzi and the Stanford Cardinal.
None of the current Tennessee players were even born then. But Warlick was an assistant to Pat Summitt at the time. And she knows how much it would mean to the Tennessee program and this team's lone senior -- Meighan Simmons -- to make it back to that event.
Simmons leads Tennessee in scoring (16.2 ppg) and had to become even more efficient with injured junior backcourt-mate Ariel Massengale out since Jan. 23. That has pushed redshirt freshman Andraya Carter into the starting lineup, and she has been up to that challenge.
"It's still going to be a tough road," Carter acknowledged of the path to a potential ninth NCAA title. "But I think we gave ourselves the best possible chance by having a 1 seed."
There was a time earlier this season when even the most ardent Tennessee supporter would have been dubious about this group securing a top seed. From Dec. 21-Jan. 20, Tennessee had four losses. That included defeats to fellow No. 1 seed Notre Dame, and to Stanford, which is a No. 2 seed. More concerning to Tennessee and its fans were the losses to LSU -- at home in Knoxville -- and at Vanderbilt.
Warlick and her team went into the end of January still trying secure an identity. And when Massengale suffered a facial injury, that was one more piece of the puzzle that became uncertain.
But this was a team that began to demonstrably jell in February. Yes, there was the 75-71 loss to Kentucky on Feb. 16, which was notable as the first time the Wildcats had won in Knoxville since 1985. However, that seemed to galvanize Tennessee even more about what it needed to do.
Specifically, take better care of the ball and consistently make sure to maximize the athleticism and skill of their post players.
Junior Isabelle Harrison, who dealt with injury issues that limited her in her first two seasons, has really stepped forward both with her play on court and her personality.
Harrison, a Nashville native, is averaging 13.9 points and a team-best 9.4 rebounds. She had 20 points and 15 rebounds in the 73-61 victory over South Carolina on March 2, a "statement" double-double against a Gamecocks team that has so much depth and size inside.
Tennessee faces Northwestern State in its NCAA opener. With a win, the Lady Vols would meet the winner of St. John's-Southern California. If Tennessee advances to the Elite Eight, it might have to face No. 3 seed Louisville on the Cardinals' home floor.
"That's the way they decided to do it this year, to have the regionals at schools," Warlick said. "But we've been on the other end; we've hosted regionals. It's a big plus for you. We've just got to go with it.
"The SEC tournament is a huge benefit for us, playing three games back-to-back-to-back. They're tough, physical games. I'm happy with the road we have. I know it's going to be a difficult task, but I'm anxious to get started."
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