KNOXVILLE – Tennessee has emerged from a women’s basketball gauntlet with its record and its NCAA tournament resume badly damaged.
Five consecutive losses, four of which came against ranked foes, have cost the Lady Vols (17-9, 7-6 SEC) their ranking and cast their ball-handling problems as arguably ingrained in nature. The aforementioned games have placed a greater premium on the three that follow to conclude the regular season.
The closing stretch begins against Vanderbilt at noon Sunday at Thompson-Boling Arena.
“We’ve got three games, seven or eight practices and I think we have to maximize every day,” UT coach Kellie Harper said on Friday, “whether that’s a game, practice or an off day.”
Charlie Crème, who projects the NCAA tournament bracket for ESPN, still has Tennessee in his 64-team field.
But the day after Thursday night's 83-75 loss at Arkansas, he downgraded the Lady Vols to within one spot of the final four teams in the field. Their stature recalls last season, when six consecutive losses in January set the stage for the dismissal of former coach Holly Warlick and her staff.
Unlike last season, none of Tennessee’s losses to date qualify as bad in nature. Even setbacks against unranked foes Texas and LSU don’t pale in comparison to UT’s other losses. The RPIs of the Tigers (26) and Longhorns (41) are better than Tennessee’s 55.
Conversely, Tennessee’s 63-58 victory over LSU in the teams’ first meeting on Jan. 26 in Knoxville constitutes the lone quality victory for the Lady Vols.
Imagine Tennessee’s situation if forward Rennia Davis hadn’t swished an off-balance 30-foot 3-pointer with less than a second left to beat Alabama 65-63 on Jan. 20. If not for that shot, UT’s streak of qualifying for every NCAA tournament field, which stands at 38, would be in real peril.
As it stands, Crème indicated that it behooved the Lady Vols to beat Vanderbilt and then Ole Miss and Auburn to avoid such a predicament. Their RPI of 60 last season was the lowest of any team in that NCAA field.
Tennessee already has victories over Vanderbilt and Ole Miss to its credit and will play the Rebels at home on Thursday. While the first meeting with the Commodores, a 78-69 victory in Nashville on Jan. 30, was competitive, an 84-28 rout of Ole Miss in Oxford, Miss., on Jan. 9 was not.
The regular season finale at Auburn previews as, by far, the most difficult of the trio. The Tigers beat LSU last Sunday and led by 14 points in the second half on Thursday before falling in overtime to Mississippi State 92-85. The Tigers lead the SEC in steals, averaging 10.7 per game. Their opponents average 17.5 turnovers per game.
Turnovers continue to be the Lady Vols most vexing problem. They’ve committed at least 21 in three of their last five games and have averaged 19 during their last eight games. They were charged with 23 at Arkansas, which corresponded with 26 Razorbacks points.
If Lady Vols intend to hold on to their impressive NCAA tournament streak, they will need to grip the basketball as securely as ever during the next three games.
“You never want to be talking about it this late in the season,” Harper said, “but you’ve got to keep fighting.”
* * *
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 may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org