No. 25 Tennessee's final possession in the first half against No. 3 South Carolina Monday night represented a microcosm of the season.
The Lady Vols were trailing 22-21 and had the ball with 12 seconds left on the clock. Instead of holding the ball for the last shot of the half and potentially taking a lead into halftime, the team rushed a three-pointer and missed poorly.
South Carolina center Alaina Coates grabbed the rebound and surged down to the other end of the court before passing it off to Tina Roy, who hit a jumper as the buzzer went off.
The Gamecocks carried a 24-21 lead into halftime and eventually went on to win the game 62-56.
Losing has almost seemed like the Lady Vols’ calling card this year. Tennessee has reached 10 losses this season faster than any other team in program history, becoming the third 10-loss team since 1985-86 for the Lady Vols and the first since 2008-09. Tennessee’s six conference losses are also the most in program history.
Redshirt junior Andraya Carter was very vocal after Monday’s loss to South Carolina when asked about fans calling out the Lady Vols for their multiple defeats this season.
“I think a lot of fans forget that there’s a team that lost 10 games and still won a national championship,” Carter said. “(In) a lot of our losses, we’ve beaten ourselves.”
Statistically, the Lady Vols’ losses this year have been a mixture of good and bad. Although eight of the 10 teams that have beaten the squad are ranked higher than the Lady Vols in The Associated Press poll, their largest loss was a 14-point meltdown at home courtesy of a 15-10 Virginia Tech squad.
Bundle that Virginia Tech loss with a 64-59 road loss to a 10-15 Arkansas team and the program’s first ever defeat to Mississippi State, and the criticism of the Lady Vols landslide seems justified.
Carter is not buying that. Instead, she is opting to ignore the outside voices.
“A lot of that negativity, you really just have to tune it out,” Carter added. “A lot of it is coming from people who are just sitting at home. They’re fans, and they mean well, but they really just don’t know. I think they get caught up in their emotions and the (losses).”
Looking at the Lady Vols from a numbers standpoint, turnovers and three-point shooting have been daggers in the team’s chest all season. With head coach Holly Warlick admitting that her ideal number of turnovers per game is around the “12-14 mark,” the Lady Vols have given the ball away 425 turnovers this season, which is an average of 17 giveaways per game.
The turnovers have come at inopportune times, resulting in opponents going on runs that would later doom the Lady Vols. The only instance this year where the team had fewer than 11 turnovers came in a win against No. 7 Oregon State on December 19. In that game against the Beavers, the Lady Vols only committed nine turnovers, which makes Warlick’s statement during Monday’s postgame press conference ring true.
“We clean up the turnovers, and we’ll be in business,” the fourth-year coach said.
Missing from beyond the arc has been an Achilles heel for the Lady Vols all season long. The team is collectively shooting 26 percent from three-point land, the lowest percentage in the SEC. The Lady Vols have only hit 98 of their 377 threes they have attempted this season.
Diamond DeShields, who is hitting 23 of her 103 three attempts (.223 percentage), said that the team still has confidence in the locker room and on the court.
“We have a lot of negativity surrounding us, but this is a moment where we just lean on each other,” the redshirt sophomore said. “It’s the 12 players in the locker room and the four coaches, and that’s all we’re listening to. We’re keying in on each other. We’re tuning in, and that’s all we have moving forward.”
With the inaccuracy from three-point land and 17 turnovers a game weighing them down, not all is dark for the Lady Vols. The team’s free throw shooting is at a solid 71.1 percent, which is the third-highest percentage in the conference.
Mercedes Russell and Bashaara Graves are both nearly averaging double-doubles this season, as well. Russell is averaging 10.6 points and 8.8 rebounds per game, and Graves is putting up 10 points and snagging 8.2 rebounds a game.
Jaime Nared and Te’a Cooper have also surprised with their defensive ability and scoring outbursts.
“We’re in great shape. It’s mental for us,” Warlick said after the team’s December win over East Tennessee State. “A lot of people aren’t going to come watch talented people be average, and I’m not going to sit back and watch it, as well.”
Whatever the case, whether it be the turnovers or the three-point shooting, the Lady Vols have not lived up to the hype they were receiving at the beginning of the season. With three of the last four games remaining being against the bottom three teams in the conference (Alabama, Ole Miss and LSU, respectively), the Lady Vols have a limited time to right the ship before the SEC Tournament in March and eventual NCAA Tournament later that month.
Time will tell whether or not that ship has already sailed.