Lady Vols fall just short of reaching Final Four once again
Tennessee's Final Four drought continues for one more year.
Fortunately for the Lady Vols, reinforcements are on the way.
Tennessee's season ended Monday with a 58-48 loss to Maryland in the Spokane Region final, leaving the Lady Vols just shy of the Final Four once again. This loss came exactly one year to the day after Maryland beat Tennessee 73-62 in a regional semifinal.
''I would say it's the same feeling - disappointment,'' sophomore guard Jordan Reynolds said. ''We could have (gotten) farther. We just couldn't pull it together for our seniors.''
Tennessee hasn't reached a Final Four since its 2008 national championship and has lost in the regional finals four of the last five years. That's a long run of frustration for a program that has earned eight national titles and 18 Final Four appearances since the NCAA started running the tournament in 1982.
The Lady Vols (30-6) have reason to believe they can end the drought this season, when North Carolina transfer Diamond DeShields begins playing for her new team and center Mercedes Russell and forward Jasmine Jones are expected to return from injuries.
''We're not going to stop saying that's our goal, because it is,'' Tennessee coach Holly Warlick said. ''We're just going to continue to try to get better and just try to keep pushing forward and try to stay healthy and reach our goal, and I think we can.''
DeShields, the 2013-14 Atlantic Coast Conference rookie of the year, adds instant star power to a team that hasn't produced an Associated Press first-team or second-team All-American since Candace Parker in 2008.
Better health also could help Tennessee deliver better results.
Tennessee lost its leading scorer and rebounder in mid-February when center Isabelle Harrison tore the anterior cruciate ligament in her right knee. Russell redshirted while recovering from offseason surgery on both her feet and Jones played just seven games before sitting out the remainder of the season due to what the school described as lingering concussion-like symptoms.
This marked the third straight season injuries hindered Tennessee. Guard Ariel Massengale missed the last 16 games of the 2013-14 season because of a concussion. Guard Andraya Carter played just seven games in 2012-13 before undergoing season-ending shoulder surgery.
''Every year that I've been here as head coach, we have had somebody of importance get injured and can't play the rest of the year,'' said Warlick, who just completed her third season. ''So it just seems to be how we've gone. They have had to fight without really all of our players.''
Warlick credited Massengale and senior forward Cierra Burdick for leading the Lady Vols to a share of the Southeastern Conference regular-season title. Tennessee's toughness was most apparent in the Sweet 16, when the Lady Vols rallied from a 17-point deficit in the final seven minutes of regulation to beat Gonzaga 73-69 in overtime.
''I think when Izzy (Harrison) went out, those two really took it upon themselves to step up and take this team in their own hands,'' Warlick said. ''And I just can't say enough about their leadership and how hard they battled and how they carried this team. They had a lot of pressure on them. I don't know how much more they could do.''
Their departures mark the end of an era. The senior trio of Burdick, Massengale and Harrison were the last Lady Vols to play for former coach Pat Summitt, who stepped down in April 2012 after their freshman seasons. All three ended their careers with over 1,000 points.
Tennessee will have a tough time replacing those three seniors, but the Lady Vols still have plenty of talent. Carter, Reynolds and forward Bashaara Graves return after starting over 30 games this season. The arrival of DeShields and the anticipated comebacks of Jones and Russell could help Tennessee finally earn that elusive Final Four berth.
AP Sports Writer Tim Booth in Spokane, Washington, contributed to this report.