By Steve Williams
The once-great Tennessee women’s basketball program has been sinking the past season and a half. Every now and then we hear a gurgle. But last week she made a splash.
The 71-69 come-from-behind win over No. 6 ranked Notre Dame at fired up Thompson-Boling Arena again showed us the Lady Vols are capable of great things from time to time.
This time it happened on a fitting night as it was a “We Back Pat” game, bringing attention to the Pat Summitt Foundation and that organization’s fight against Alzheimer’s disease in honor of the legendary UT coach who died last June after a five-year battle with the disease.
Inconsistency, however, has plagued the Lady Vols this season, much like it did most of last year until they finished with a flurry to reach the NCAA tournament’s Elite Eight.
But it’s not just poor shooting and turnovers that have brought down the Lady Vols. Their effort and their heart and even their pride in the storied program have been publicly criticized at times.
And while former old rival UConn recently won its 91st game in a row, what used to be automatic wins in the SEC for Tennessee have ceased one by one.
In fact, four nights prior to upsetting the Fighting Irish, Tennessee lost at Ole Miss 67-62, bringing an end to a 28-game win streak over the Lady Rebels that began in 1996.
Last February, the Lady Vols dropped out of The Associated Press’ Top 25 poll for the first time in 31 years after Mississippi State beat them for the first time ever and Alabama snapped a 42-game losing streak that stretched back to 1984.
In that loss to the Crimson Tide, Tennessee hit 26 percent from the field, was zero for 11 behind the 3-point arc and missed all 12 of its field goal attempts in the second quarter.
Poor shooting also was a problem against Notre Dame until Tennessee caught fire late in the third period and rallied back from a 62-48 deficit.
Diamond DeShields dominated the opening 94 seconds of the final period with her skill and speed. Her personal power surge, which produced eight points and included a laser pass inside, would have made WNBA owners drool. The outburst left DeShields a little winded but cut the gap to two.
“When she puts her mind to it, she can do just about anything,” said UT Coach Holly Warlick after the game.
“She’s incredibly talented,” added Muffet McGraw, Notre Dame coach.
Schaquilla Nunn came off the bench to give Tennessee a big lift with two baskets inside. UT grabbed a 69-67 lead on Meme Jackson’s 3-pointer with 1:05 to go. After Notre Dame tied it, Tennessee gained possession with 34.6 seconds left. The Lady Vols worked the 30-second shot clock down and Jamie Nared, coming off a high post screen, hit the game-winning jumper with 10.3 on the clock.
With only three team fouls, Coach Warlick had three fouls to waste and wisely used them to trim the remaining time to 4.2. The Irish hurried to get off a 3-point shot but missed the mark.
Warlick was tickled with the win and was among many who felt Summitt contributed to it. Summitt’s honorary seat on the Tennessee bench this season, put there by Holly, Pat’s former player and longtime assistant, drew even more attention.
“We talked about her spirit, we talked about her resilience and we talked about her fight,” said Warwick. “To win tonight on this night is a blessing to honor Pat the way we did, and to play like a Lady Vol team should play – together, hard and with heart.”
Three nights later, however, another SEC team ended a losing streak against the Lady Vols as homestanding Auburn stormed back for a 79-61 win after trailing 25-8 at the end of the first quarter. The Lady Tigers had lost nine in a row in the series since 2010.
“I was in disbelief,” said Warlick on her post-game radio show. “We got comfortable and then we stopped playing defense.”
Tennessee, which got a career-high 26 points and 11 rebounds from 6-6 post Mercedes Russell, played an almost flawless first quarter, but committed 21 of its 22 turnovers over the last three periods. Auburn finished with a 33-14 advantage in points off turnovers, which was pretty much the difference.
The Lady Vols’ pattern of inconsistency isn’t likely to change this season. With a bench of only nine players, Warlick is limited in what she can do about it. That should change next season, with the nation’s top ranked recruiting class headed to Knoxville.
That super group includes 6-foot guard Evina Westbrook of South Salem, Ore; 5-7 point guard Anastasia Hayes of Murfreesboro Riverdale; 6-2 wing Rennia Davis of Jacksonville Ribault; and 6-4 center Kasiyahna Kushkituah of St. Francis in Alpharetta, Ga.
Westbrook is the nation’s No. 2 ranked player in the espnW HoopGurlz Top 100. Hayes is No. 9, Davis No. 12 and Kushkituah No. 55.
So don’t jump overboard just yet. This foursome plus returnees from this season’s squad could make the Lady Vols’ program great once again.