Postseason surge gives Lady Vols reason for optimism
Tennessee wanted to put together the type of NCAA Tournament run that could erase memories of a disappointing regular season.
The Lady Volunteers came close, but their goal ended one step shy of the Final Four.
After setting a single-season record for losses and falling out of the Top 25 for the first time since 1985, the Lady Vols produced an impressive postseason that finally concluded Sunday with an 89-67 loss to Syracuse in the Sioux Falls Regional final.
''To have such a rough season and (then) to get so far, no one expected us to be here,'' guard Andraya Carter said. ''And it's still not good enough. After the way our season went, it's kind of like Final Four or bust. I'm just proud of us. We held it together.''
Tennessee (22-14) couldn't earn its first Final Four appearance since its 2008 national championship, but the impressive finish at least quelled concerns about the direction of the program after such a turbulent season.
Ranked fourth at the start of the season, Tennessee struggled with injuries and inconsistency for much of the year. The Lady Vols' No. 7 seed in the NCAA Tournament was their lowest ever.
Yet they beat No. 2 seed Arizona State on the Sun Devils' home floor and knocked off No. 3 seed Ohio State before falling to Syracuse in the regional final. The Lady Vols made 44.9 percent of their field-goal attempts in the NCAA Tournament - and were at 50 percent or better against Arizona State and Ohio State - after shooting just 40.3 percent beforehand.
Tennessee coach Holly Warlick complimented her players by saying the postseason surge was ''a credit to them and their commitment to turn our season around and play with each other.''
''It's kind of bittersweet for me,'' Warlick said after the Syracuse game. ''I'm proud of how we came back, but obviously disappointed in the outcome today.''
This marked the third time in Warlick's four seasons that Tennessee has lost in a regional final. The Lady Vols fell to Maryland in the Sweet 16 in 2014.
Tennessee must try to take that next step without Bashaara Graves, a key figure on each of Warlick's first four teams. Graves, a four-year starter, ended her Tennessee career Sunday as the No. 3 rebounder (1,044) and No. 19 scorer (1,509) in school history. The Lady Vols also lose reserve center Nia Moore to graduation.
The Lady Vols didn't add any recruits in the fall signing period, so they're going to have to rely on improvement from their returning players. They need Diamond DeShields and Mercedes Russell to build on the momentum they established in the postseason.
DeShields, who had led North Carolina to a regional final in 2014, was erratic during the regular season as she dealt with a nagging leg injury the team described as shin splints. But she scored at least 20 points in five of her last eight games and averaged 17 points, 6 rebounds and 4 assists in the NCAA Tournament.
Russell averaged 9.9 points and 8.3 rebounds per game this season after missing the 2014-15 campaign to recover from surgeries on each of her feet. But the 6-foot-6 center showed in March that she's capable of much more, as she had 25 points and 15 rebounds against Ohio State.