KNOXVILLE — This time last year was leading into unfamiliar territory for the Tennessee women’s basketball team.
For the first time in program history, Tennessee was not a shoo-in for the NCAA Tournament. The Lady Vols’ loss to Vanderbilt down the regular season stretch seemed like the nail in the coffin as far as their postseason legacy was concerned.
“I haven’t talked to the team about that. I would think they don’t need that reminder,” Tennessee coach Kellie Harper said. “We can’t do anything about what has happened in the past. All we can control is who we are today.”
The Lady Vols are running out of time to distance themselves from last season’s team, which notched historic low after historic low.
The most inexplicable of those setbacks happened last February, when Tennessee fell to Vanderbilt for the first time ever in Knoxville. Making matters worse, Vanderbilt entered that matchup with a 1-13 SEC record.
The Lady Vols (17-9, 7-6 SEC) will aim to avoid similar fate Sunday when they host the Commodores (13-13, 3-10). Tipoff is at noon.
“I think it’s really important that we go into this game with a great mindset — we’re going to have to work for this,” Harper said. “It’s a dangerous team, despite what their record says.”
The Lady Vols learned that firsthand after their most recent matchup in Thompson-Boling Arena. Tennessee allowed a 10-point lead to slip away against Vanderbilt en route to a 76-69 loss.
It was a dagger to the program — the only one to play in every NCAA Tournament since it began in 1982.
After the game, former coach Holly Warlick had no explanation.
“If I could put my finger on it, maybe I could stop the bleeding,” Warlick said. “But I can’t put my finger on it. It just seems to happen.”
The Lady Vols entered that matchup 33-0 against Vanderbilt at home.
That loss was one of many negative milestones the Lady Vols hit that season. Their six-game losing streak last January was their longest in 49 years. (They 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.)
Tennessee also finished the regular season 6-8 in the SEC — its first losing conference record.
However, the Lady Vols avoided rock bottom by sneaking into the NCAA Tournament. Their resume was bolstered by six victories over opponents ranked among the top 50 in the Ratings Percentage Index, which factors in wins, losses and strength of schedule.
Tennessee isn’t going to have the luxury of taking it easy against Vanderbilt this time. The Lady Vols have dropped their last five games, and they have just one win over a top-50 RPI team (LSU).
They have just three games left before the SEC Tournament.
“We have to maximize every day — whether that’s a game, a practice or an off day,” Harper said. “They’re a unique group — their confidence hasn’t been visibly rattled. ...
“I just have to keep them in a good spot as we go down the stretch. There’s still a lot of basketball to be played.”