KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee is continuing to make the kind of history it would rather avoid.
The 20th-ranked Lady Volunteers (12-4, 1-3 SEC) have lost three straight games for the first time since February 1986. That three-game skid includes Tennessee’s first back-to-back home losses since December 1996.
It’s the latest rough stretch for the program trying to rebound from two straight NCAA Tournament second-round exits, which marks Tennessee’s longest absence from the Sweet 16.
“I worry about them refocusing,” Tennessee coach Holly Warlick said Wednesday. “Look, we’re going to make mistakes. We’ve got to learn to regroup and really concentrate on what’s getting ready to happen. I think this group sometimes dwells on what just happened instead of putting it behind (them) and getting motivated to what we need to do moving forward.”
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Tennessee hasn’t lost four consecutive games since the early 1970s in the years before former coach Pat Summitt took over the program. The Lady Vols try to avoid that fate Thursday when they visit Alabama (9-8, 1-3).
The Tennessee-Alabama series exemplifies Tennessee’s changing fortunes. Tennessee has lost its last four games against Alabama after beating the Crimson Tide 42 straight times from 1984-2016.
Tennessee has reason to believe it can recover, as its three straight losses were decided by a total of eight points. The Lady Vols fell 66-64 to Missouri and 73-71 to No. 16 Kentucky before blowing a 17-point lead in a 66-62 loss at Georgia.
“I think that they’re still trying to go through that phase of learning about themselves and trying to figure out what they want to build the team on,” said SEC Network analyst Tamika Catchings, who played on Tennessee’s 1998 national championship team.
Tennessee signed consecutive top-five classes in the fall of 2016 and 2017, but transfers and past recruiting misses have left this roster bereft of proven upperclassmen. Seven of Tennessee’s top nine scorers are freshmen or sophomores.
That youth has been evident in some of these close losses. Sophomore guard Evina Westbrook acknowledged after the Georgia game that the Lady Vols’ second-half shooting struggles impacted their defense.
“I think we just kind of got down on ourselves, which is kind of rare for us and (something) we really don’t do,” said Westbrook, the Lady Vols’ leading scorer.
This three-game skid is the latest example of Tennessee’s recent downward trajectory. The Lady Vols posted a 42-6 SEC record in Warlick’s first three seasons but have gone 30-22 in league competition ever since.
Warlick received a three-year contract extension and a $25,000 raise last summer that increased her salary to $690,000, which ranks in the middle of the pack among SEC coaches. If Tennessee fired Warlick without cause any time before March 31, 2020, the school would owe her one-third of the money she would have earned up until the contract’s April 30, 2022 expiration date.
“I’m going to keep pushing this team the best I know,” said Warlick, who owns a 165-58 overall record. “I can’t get caught up in the criticism. It is what it is. Social media’s social media. All I’m going to look at is the positive on this team and continue to move forward and get this team in the right place. I know our kids are out reading stuff and I hate it because that fills their heads full of stuff, but they choose to do it. I choose not to read it.”
Catchings said she is confident Warlick can get Tennessee back on the right track.
“We’re so used to seeing Tennessee as one of those dominating forces in the women’s game,” said Catchings, who played for the Lady Vols when Warlick was an assistant on Summitt’s staff. “Whenever you kind of don’t see them up there, it’s like, ‘OK what’s going on?’ and we want to start trying to find all the different things that are going wrong.
“But I do feel like this class and this group this year has a lot of potential. It’s just about finding that. All it takes is one game for everything to click, and for you to play the way that you know how to play.”
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