In a season that began with Tennessee looking to reclaim its status as one of the nation’s elite women’s basketball teams, the Lady Volunteers instead are going backward.
Tennessee was in danger of its first three-game losing streak since 1986 before it defeated Vanderbilt on Thursday night.
The Volunteers visit Kentucky on Monday.
A third straight loss could have knocked the 18th-ranked Lady Vols out of the Top 25 for the first time since February 1985. An unranked Lady Vols team, under .500 in Southeastern Conference play — that would raise eyebrows among women’s basketball fans.
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“We’re hearing a lot of negativity from our fans and from people,” Tennessee Coach Holly Warlick said Monday after a 79-66 loss at No. 3 Notre Dame. “Hey, guys, give this group a break. They’re playing as hard as they can. Are they playing great? Absolutely not, but they’re putting it all out there.”
But results have defined Tennessee when players have put it out there in the past.
Injuries, inexperience and even coaching have contributed to Tennessee’s struggles.
“Certainly they’re not in their glory years anymore,” said Gail Goestenkors, an ESPN analyst and former Duke and Texas coach. “South Carolina has risen to the top (of the SEC). Tennessee was always the cream of the crop in the SEC and nationally.
“Now they’ve taken a step back.”
Goestenkors said the Lady Vols (12-6, 3-2 SEC) have several issues they need to address, including chemistry and shot selection problems.
“They were always going to be very physical and very tough and they were going to outwork most teams,” she said. “You don’t see that on a consistent basis anymore.”
Tennessee won eight national titles under Coach Pat Summitt, who stepped down in 2012. But the Lady Vols haven’t reached a Final Four or produced an Associated Press first-team or second-team All-American since Candace Parker led them to consecutive championships in 2007 and 2008.
Tennessee seemed primed to take a big step this season back to its glory days.
The Lady Vols were ranked fourth to start the season, had added North Carolina transfer Diamond DeShields and returned center Mercedes Russell, who missed the 2014-15 season recovering from surgeries on both feet.
But after starting 5-0, the Lady Vols split their next 12 games.
Their 64-59 setback at Arkansas last week marked their first defeat to a team with a losing record since 1979. They also had trouble executing, committing at least 20 turnovers in each of three most recent losses.
“We’re very capable. Everybody knows that. You can say what you want. There are doubters. There’s this, there’s that,” DeShields said after the Notre Dame game. “But we’re very capable and we’re still here. We’re going to come back tomorrow and we’re going to fight back harder than we did today. That’s just going to be our mindset moving forward.”
Warlick also remains confident this team can turn things around.
“My message has been, ‘Let’s carry on, let’s play hard like we did in the fourth quarter,’ ” said Warlick, referring to Monday’s game when the Lady Vols outscored the Fighting Irish 27-22. “We are trying to simplify things for them. We want them to have confidence in their ability to score and to relax. I think now they are pressing a little bit.”
Tennessee felt that pressure Thursday night against Vanderbilt. The Commodores rallied from a 14-point deficit and only trailed 52-49 when they had the ball on two separate occasions in the final minute, but they turned the ball over both times. Tennessee sealed the victory by going 6-for-6 on free throws in the final 16 seconds in the 58-49 win.
Warlick has drawn the ire of some disgruntled fans. She received a one-year extension and $100,000 raise before the season to improve her annual pay to $665,000. Her contract runs through the 2018-19 season.
But Tennessee’s Final Four drought began well before Warlick took over.
The Lady Vols went 115-26 with two losses in NCAA regional finals, one regional semifinal exit and one first-round defeat in Summitt’s final four seasons. The Lady Vols are 97-26 under Warlick and had two regional final appearances and one regional semifinal loss in her first three seasons.
“I think Holly’s done a good job,” Goestenkors said. “This is probably her greatest challenge this year because of the talent level she has and the expectations that were there and the injuries she’s had to deal with.”
Goestenkors said Tennessee has enough talent to reach the Final Four but adds that “it’s trying to get the pieces in place and to play together the way they need to (in order) to make that happen.”
The Lady Vols must find those solutions soon. Tennessee visits No. 9 Kentucky and No. 10 Mississippi State next week.