KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee coach Holly Warlick believes improving her team’s toughness can keep the Lady Vols from peaking too early for a second straight season.
The Lady Vols headed into last season’s NCAA tournament on a roll but couldn’t maintain that momentum and lost in a regional semifinal. Warlick says Tennessee’s bid to get back in national title contention is more a mental hurdle than physical test.
“I think our team needs to have a little bit more togetherness,” Warlick said in an interview with The Associated Press. “We have to have a little bit more discipline, a little bit more toughness. I thought we were tough at times, but not all the time. I thought sometimes when our back got against the wall, we folded a little bit.”
Tennessee has shown plenty of toughness on occasion. The Lady Vols won last season’s Southeastern Conference tournament by erasing double-digit deficits in each of their three games.
But they weren’t the same in the NCAA tournament. Tennessee was tied early in the second half of victories over Northwestern State and Southern California before falling 73-62 to Maryland.
The Lady Vols lose leading scorer Meighan Simmons but return everyone else as they chase the Final Four bid that has eluded them since the 2008 national championship. That represents Tennessee’s longest Final Four drought since the NCAA started running the tournament in 1982.
“I don’t think we played well in any of the three (NCAA tournament) games we played,” Warlick said. “The first two, we got by. In the regional semifinals, we couldn’t get by with a team like Maryland. For some reason, we weren’t as focused. It was almost like we peaked at the SEC tournament.”
Warlick is 56-14 since taking over for Pat Summitt, who remains on staff as head coach emeritus after stepping down in 2012 with the most career wins of any men’s or women’s college basketball coach in history.
Tennessee won an SEC regular-season title in Warlick’s debut season and was 29-6 with a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament last season. Warlick’s shown plenty of recruiting ability in signing highly-touted center Mercedes Russell in the fall of 2012 and recently adding North Carolina transfer Diamond DeShields, who will sit out the 2014-15 season.
“Holly continues to do a very, very good job,” athletic director Dave Hart said. “Filling in for a legend is no easy task, and she’s handled that very well.”
The Lady Vols just haven’t ended seasons the way they wanted. Warlick notes Tennessee hasn’t played particularly well in each of her two NCAA tournament losses.
“I just think at times certain people put a lot of pressure on themselves,” Warlick said. “We’ve got to learn how to compete at the highest level when the game’s on the line and (if) you lose, you’re out.”
Youth may have played at least some role in that regard. Tennessee had only two seniors and one junior in Warlick’s first season. Simmons was Tennessee’s lone senior last season.
Inexperience shouldn’t be an issue this year.
Senior center Isabelle Harrison was a first-team all-SEC selection last season. Senior guard Ariel Massengale, a three-year starter, is back after missing the last 16 games of the 2013-14 season with a head injury. A third senior is forward Cierra Burdick, who has 44 career starts.
Tennessee returns five players with at least 19 starts and eight players who averaged over 15 minutes per game last season.
That group has helped Tennessee remain among the SEC’s top programs in the post-Summitt era.
The Lady Vols have much bigger goals.
“We want to compete for the national championship,” Warlick said. “We sell that to these kids. That’s why they came here. We haven’t done it in a while. These kids want to get us back there.”