Early NCAA Tournament exit caps Lady Vols' up-and-down year

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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) After failing to reach the Sweet 16 for just the second time ever, Tennessee enters the offseason seeking to establish the consistency the Lady Volunteers have lacked the last two years.

Tennessee's up-and-down season concluded Monday with a 75-64 loss to Louisville in the second round of the NCAA Tournament at Louisville, Kentucky. Since the NCAA Tournament started in 1982, the only other time Tennessee didn't get at least to the regional semifinals was when it lost a first-round game to Ball State in 2009.

''It's definitely something that we're going to need to learn from, but we'll just take this feeling that we have right now and use it for motivation next season,'' center Mercedes Russell said after the game.

The biggest question facing Tennessee now is whether there actually will be a next season for Russell and guard Diamond DeShields.

Both players are fourth-year juniors who must decide whether to return for their senior seasons or enter the WNBA draft. DeShields was the leading scorer and Russell the leading rebounder for a Tennessee team that had an uncanny knack for playing to the level of its competition.

Tennessee (20-12) beat four teams that were seeded first or second in the NCAA Tournament: Notre Dame , South Carolina , Stanford and Mississippi State . But the Lady Vols also lost twice to Alabama, which tied for 11th place out of 14 teams in the Southeastern Conference and failed to make the NCAA's 64-team field.

That continued a troubling recent pattern for the Lady Vols, who haven't reached a Final Four since their 2008 national title.

For a 30-year stretch from 1986-2015, Tennessee lost a total of four games to teams that would go on to miss the NCAA Tournament. The Lady Vols have 10 such losses over the last two seasons, including six this year.

After going 86-20 in the first three seasons of Holly Warlick's coaching tenure, the Lady Vols are 42-26 the last two years.

Tennessee will try to change that trend next season with the arrival of a recruiting class rated as the nation's best by multiple services. The class includes guards Anastasia Hayes and Evina Westbrook, post player Kasi Kushkituah and wing Rennia Davis. All four players are McDonald's All-Americans.

''These kids know what they're getting into,'' Warlick said after the Louisville game. ''I mean, it's Tennessee, and you've got to be on your `A' game every game. .... We've got to have some people step up and be just solid on the leadership end of it and be consistent and give these freshmen an opportunity to grow - because they're going to play. They're going to play, and they're going to play a lot.''

Tennessee also should benefit from the presence of guard Te'a Cooper and forward Cheridene Green, who had knee injuries that prevented them from playing this season.

They ought to boost the depth of a team that relied too heavily this season on the trio of DeShields, Russell and Jaime Nared, who each scored over 15 + points per game. The only seniors on this year's roster were reserve forward Schaquilla Nunn and point guard Jordan Reynolds, who had 85 career starts.

''I love what our practices are going to be,'' Warlick said. ''They're going to be extremely competitive, and we're going to bring this -- we're going to make sure this Lady Vols program is intact, and we're going to be as competitive as we can, because we've got the kids now to be competitive.''


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