KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) Tennessee coach Holly Warlick believes the issues that caused the Lady Volunteers to tumble out of the Top 25 for the first time since 1985 can still be corrected.
''There has not been a towel thrown in on this court,'' Warlick said. ''We're still battling. We're still trying to correct things. We're still getting better. That's all we know to do - just keep working. We're going to continue to work like we always have.''
But they're running out of time.
Tennessee (16-11, 7-7 SEC) has dropped three of its last five games heading into Thursday's matchup at Alabama (14-13, 3-11), which has lost 42 straight meetings in this series since beating the Lady Vols in the 1984 SEC Tournament. Tennessee, which already has matched a school single-season record for losses, closes the regular season Sunday by hosting Georgia (20-7, 8-6).
When Tennessee fell out of the rankings Monday to end a string of 565 consecutive weeks in the Top 25, it marked only the 10th time that a team has ever fallen out of the poll after starting the season in the top five. Tennessee was fourth in the preseason rankings.
The Lady Vols are 24th in the RPI, so an NCAA Tournament bid remains likely. Their chances of an extended postseason run depend on whether they can stop the up-and-down nature that's defined their season.
''We just continue to do what we've always done - get on the practice floor, work hard and hope that it carries over onto the basketball court,'' Warlick said. ''That's all we can do. As long as we play hard and work hard, we've got a shot at anything.''
The game-by-game performance of leading scorer Diamond DeShields reflects Tennessee's unpredictable nature. In two of Tennessee's three games last week, DeShields scored 21 against South Carolina and 19 against LSU. In the other game, she went scoreless and committed four turnovers against Mississippi.
So far, the most consistent thing about this team has been its inability to come through down the stretch of close games.
The Lady Vols are 0-5 in SEC games decided by five points or less. Tennessee blew double-digit, fourth-quarter leads at Mississippi State and Texas A&M. Last week, Tennessee squandered a nine-point, fourth-quarter lead against Ole Miss before rallying to beat the SEC's current last-place team.
Arguably the low point of Tennessee's season came Sunday in a 57-56 loss to an LSU team that entered the game with an 8-18 record. Tennessee went 2 of 6 from the foul line in the last 15 seconds. The Lady Vols were clinging to a one-point lead when they committed a foul about 80 feet from the basket, allowing LSU to make the winning free throws with 3.4 seconds left.
Their inability to make shots and take care of the ball has proved costly in close games. Tennessee is on pace for its lowest scoring average (65.6) and field-goal percentage (.411) since former coach Pat Summitt took over the program in 1974. The Lady Vols rank 13th out of 14 SEC teams in 3-point percentage (.263).
''It may be mental,'' Warlick said of Tennessee's struggles in the final minutes of close games. ''I think we just continue to work on it in practice. We've just got to keep getting better. We've got to keep putting them in situations, and just hopefully they get it.''