Holly Warlick summed up her circumstances in stark terms Saturday afternoon in College Park, Md., after Tennessee’s 89-77 loss to UCLA in the first round of the NCAA women’s basketball tournament.
“Do I want to continue coaching? Absolutely.” UT’s coach said. “But if it needs to go in a different direction, that’s not up to me.”
The Lady Vols’ season ended in a manner similar to how it played out for 32 games. There was a wretched quarter – in this case the first - when they trailed by as many as 17 points. And then there was an impressive comeback that erased the entirety of that deficit and provided a three-point lead midway through the fourth quarter.
In the end, there were too many turnovers and not enough defense to extend a season that ended a victory short of 20 wins for the first time since 1976.
And that leaves Warlick in the predicament she described. She wants to fix things but realizes the nature of this breakdown might preclude an opportunity.
The calls for a coaching change have echoed more strongly across the last four seasons. Even the 25 victories of last season did not quell them much. If anything, they were fed by Warlick’s tearful defense of her players after the season ended with a second-round NCAA loss to Oregon State at Thompson-Boling Arena.
Warlick’s best season was in 2014-15, when the Lady Vols won 30 games. They erased a 17-point deficit against host Gonzaga in a region semifinal and two days later came within about three minutes of reaching the Women’s Final Four. The accomplishments were achieved despite losing their best player – center Isabelle Harrison – to a season-ending knee injury in February.
That team was led by seniors Cierra Burdick, Ariel Massengale and Harrison, who had been chastened by three seasons of not reaching the Final Four. Before practice started that season, Massengale said that they finally were heeding the words of Warlick and her staff.
“We can no longer go on our own agenda because as we saw in the past few years, it hasn’t gotten us to where we want to be,” Massengale said.
She and Burdick openly wept after the season-ending loss to Maryland in Spokane, Wash. Haven’t seen anything quite like that since then, in terms of both leadership and emotion.
I no longer cover the team on a regular basis. But Knoxville TV stations WVLT and WATE as well as the Maryville Daily Times were there Saturday and they each posted on social media video of a candid postgame interview with Evina Westbrook. The sophomore point guard spoke of a need to address “off the court stuff” and said “steps need to be taken with our staff.”
When asked specifically if she expected Warlick to be coaching (at UT) next season, Westbrook paused before saying “I don’t know.”
Those comments reflect poorly on Warlick and that’s where the primary focus will be.
I can’t address the off-the-court issues that Westbrook referenced. The turnovers and suspect defense that haunted this team on the court, though, reflect poorly on the players’ pride and initiative. They could’ve done more to alleviate those problems.
In the face of all this, one of the freshmen acted more like a senior. First-year player Mimi Collins arranged for male practice players to help her work extra on her defense during the season. She tended to her other skills in a similar fashion.
“I just got in the gym and worked hard,” she said. “My thing was coming in and working hard and doing what needed to be done.”
She took some prudent steps and by season’s end the 6-foot-3 forward was a starter. She scored 14 points on Saturday.
She set an example worth following.
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Dan Fleser is a 1980 graduate of the University of Missouri who covered University of Tennessee athletics for the Knoxville News Sentinel from 1988-2019. He can be reached at email@example.com