The past month has been filled with nothing but mystery for the Tennessee women’s basketball team. It spent the better part of the second half of the season sitting on the bubble, waiting to see whether it would miss the NCAA Tournament for the first time in team history.
In a season filled with negatives, the Lady Vols caught a break after a decent showing in the SEC Tournament, earning an 11-seed in the NCAA Tournament in the Albany Region, playing their first round game in College Park, Maryland, against No. 6 seed UCLA.
With a chance to finally silence some doubters, and prove that it belongs in the postseason for more reasons than just name recognition, Tennessee lost control late en route to an 89-77 loss to the Bruins.
It’s Tennessee’s first First Round loss since 2009, and just the second time in the team’s history. In addition, it’s the first time since 1985 that the team has won less than 20 games, posting a final record of 19-13.
The team, and head coach Holly Warlick, know that the future is now foggy.
“It’s out of my control,” Warlick said. “I love this program, I love what it stands for… When you have an administration that steps up and treats women equally to men, that’s special.
“Do I want to continue coaching? Absolutely. If it needs to go in a different direction, that’s not up to me.”
For a time, it looked as if the Lady Vols had gained control of the game. Early in the fourth quarter, they took their first lead of the game after trailing almost wire-to-wire. UCLA consistently held a double-digit lead that was as large as 17 points.
The first half was marked by a lack of effort on Tennessee’s part. With seven turnovers in the first quarter, it dug itself in a hole that looked almost insurmountable. The Bruins were in control for almost all of the first 20 minutes of play, carrying a 44-32 lead in the half.
The story was largely the same to start the second half, with UCLA surging to its aforementioned 17 point lead. It wasn’t until early in the third quarter that the Lady Vols finally began to show some life.
A layup by Jazmine Massengill with 8:44 left in the fourth quarter gave Tennessee its first lead of the game at 59-58. From that point onwards, the two teams were like a pair of seasoned fighters, trading blows, with neither giving any ground.
That is, until Tennessee appeared to get gassed. The Bruins slowly started to hit their stride, and quickly took another double-digit lead with about two minutes left. The Lady Vols looked dead in the water, and fell apart down the stretch.
UCLA closed the fourth quarter well and surged to its double-digit win. A dance with three-seed Maryland now awaits, a team that holds the home court advantage.
With a season filled with largely negatives now over, ending on a low note, Tennessee faces an uncertain offseason containing more questions than answers. It could be a tumultuous few months for a very young team.
“Steps need to be taken with our staff,” Evina Westbrook told WATE. “And just overall, off the court.”