The top-seeded Lady Vols’ 73-62 loss to No. 4 seed Maryland in Sunday’s Louisville Regional semifinals left Tennessee out of the Final Four for a sixth straight year.
Tennessee’s eight national titles match Connecticut for the most in the nation, but the Lady Vols (29-6) haven’t reached the Final Four since winning back-to-back championships in 2007 and 2008. Tennessee made 18 Final Four appearances from 1982-2008.
“This team is special to me,” Tennessee coach Holly Warlick said. “I mean, they have committed since last year. They don’t give up. They don’t have that in them, so I think that’s what makes it tough. It makes it tough for us to go out this way.”
This year’s exit was particularly painful for the Lady Vols because the Final Four’s in Nashville, a three-hour drive from Tennessee’s campus. The cover of their media guide had Warlick holding a plated steel object in the shape of the state of Tennessee with the slogan “Grind for 9” inside the borders, a reference to the Lady Vols’ bid for a ninth championship.
The loss to Maryland ended a string of three straight regional final appearances and marked the third time in this six-year Final Four absence that Tennessee had fallen short as a No. 1 seed. Top-seeded Tennessee teams lost to Baylor in the 2010 regional semifinals and to Notre Dame in a 2011 regional final under former coach Pat Summitt, who stepped down in 2012 after leading the Lady Vols to all eight of their championships.
Tennessee entered this tournament on a roll despite playing much of the season without Ariel Massengale, who missed the Lady Vols’ last 16 games with what the junior point guard described as a head injury. The Lady Vols had won 15 of 16 games before Sunday.
They continually bounced back from slow starts. Tennessee trailed by double digits before winning each of its three Southeastern Conference tournament games. The Lady Vols were tied early in the second half of their first two NCAA tournament wins.
But they couldn’t erase an 18-point deficit against Maryland.
“In the SEC tournament we were able to do that, get down, and we were able to fight back,” guard Andraya Carter said after the game. “But this game, we got ourselves in a hole and we just could never get over the hump. It just showed. They’re a great basketball team. I don’t know what it was. We just got beat by a better team today.”
Tennessee couldn’t stop Maryland’s Alyssa Thomas, who had 33 points and 13 rebounds. Thomas’ performance continued a trend regarding Tennessee’s postseason exits.
The Lady Vols haven’t produced an Associated Press first-team or second-team All-American since Candace Parker led the 2008 team to its championship. In each of Tennessee’s last six tournament losses, the opponent had the best player on the floor, whether it’s Baylor’s Brittney Griner, Notre Dame’s Skylar Diggins, Louisville’s Shoni Schimmel or Thomas.
Tennessee tries to end this Final Four drought next season without AP SEC player of the year Meighan Simmons, whose 2,064 career points rank fifth in program history.
Simmons was Tennessee’s only senior, so the Lady Vols figure to enter next season with a lofty ranking. Tennessee should be particularly strong in the frontcourt, where it returns all-SEC center Isabelle Harrison, Bashaara Graves, Cierra Burdick and Mercedes Russell.
“I would just say to any other team, ‘Just look out,’ because I know when I leave here, I know everybody else that’s going to be coming back is going to be pushing twice as hard to get back in this position and maybe even get over that hump and get to the Elite Eight and get to the Final Four,” Simmons said.