Stuck in the mud.
That’s how coach Holly Warlick described the state of the Tennessee women’s basketball team following its 86-65 loss to Alabama on Thursday night.
It was Tennessee’s fourth loss in a row. The No. 20 Lady Vols (12-5, 1-4 SEC) hadn’t lost four straight since 1970 — four years before Pat Summitt took over the program in its infancy and coached Tennessee to 1,098 wins.
“Alabama just wanted it more than us,” said Warlick, who took over the program in 2012 after Summitt stepped down. “We didn’t have any energy, emotion. I don’t know. It was hard to watch.”
During the Lady Vols’ 12-1 start this season, they were averaging 82.4 points and 21.8 points off turnovers while shooting 45.2 percent from the field. In their last four losses, they have averaged 65.5 points and 9.5 points off turnovers while shooting 35.5 percent.
“We’re a lot better defensive team, and we’re a lot better offensive team,” Warlick said. “Something is zapping our energy, and we’ve got to get it straightened out.”
It’s not the first time the Lady Vols have made history in the wrong kind of way this season. They dropped back-to-back home games — against Missouri (15-4, 4-1 SEC) and Kentucky (16-3, 3-2) — for the first time since the 1996-97 season.
Missouri’s 66-64 victory at Thompson-Boling Arena on Jan. 6 was the first time the Tigers had beaten Tennessee in Knoxville.
“There’s no doubt in my mind they’re going to make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament,” Missouri coach Robin Pingeton said after that game. “There’s a lot of talent on this team, and I think they’ve still got some young kids and different pieces that they’re trying to work through a little bit.”
Tennessee is young, with seven of 10 active players either freshmen or sophomores. But the Lady Vols seem to be moving in the wrong direction as far as development goes, making a deep postseason run seem more and more like a long shot. At 1-4, Tennessee has the second worst SEC record ahead of Vanderbilt (5-13, 0-5).
The Lady Vols’ loss to Georgia on Sunday was their third in the losing streak. Tennessee hadn’t lost three straight since 1986. They won eight national titles and reached 18 Final Fours between those three-game losing streaks.
Tennessee’s 21-point loss to Alabama (10-8, 2-3) — a team that was also riding a three-game losing streak into Thursday — marked a 49-year low. The Lady Vols’ last four-game losing streak happened during an era in which they played 10 games all season. They lost six straight in 1970 while the other four results are unknown.
Warlick said the Lady Vols played “sporadic” against Alabama, only playing hard “at times.”
“You can’t look for breaks,” Warlick said. “You’ve got to play hard and create your own breaks.”
The Lady Vols shot 33.8 percent from the field and 17.4 percent from behind the arc against Alabama. They were 3-for-21 in the fourth quarter as the Crimson Tide pulled away for good.
One of Tennessee’s top players, Rennia Davis, finished with zero points while their top 3-point shooter, Meme Jackson, had four.
Jackson has been in a slump since her 27-point performance in the Lady Vols’ SEC opener at Auburn, which they won 78-69. Since then, she has shot 4-for-27 from the field in their last four losses combined while averaging five points.
Davis hasn’t scored in double figures in last two games, during which she was 2-for-17 from the field against Georgia and Alabama combined.
Freshman Rae Burrell was one of few bright spots for Tennessee on Thursday. She recorded 12 points and seven rebounds along with a block against Alabama in her 32 minutes of action. Burrell entered that game averaging 12 minutes on the floor.
“I just knew that, when I got the chance, I would be able to come in and bring something to this team because I really want to help this team,” Burrell said. “We just all need to come together.”
When asked for two things she would change about the team, Burrell began by noting improvement needed on defense. She then said she wanted the Lady Vols to play with “a little bit more heart.”
All of this begs the question: What is going on with Tennessee?
“I don’t have an answer, actually,” Warlick said. “We just didn’t play hard. We didn’t play with any energy, any emotion, any heart, and Alabama played with more heart and energy than we did.”
The Lady Vols will return to action Monday with a home game against Arkansas (13-5, 2-2 SEC). On Jan. 24, they welcome No. 1-ranked Notre Dame (17-1, 5-0 ACC) to Thompson-Boling Arena.