By Jimmy Hyams
SANDESTIN, FLA. – Eight Lady Vols national championship banners hang from the rafters at Thompson-Boling Arena.
So do 22 Final Four banners (18 NCAA, 4 AIAW).
This is a proud program with a rich tradition, a program that was the face of women’s basketball for about 30 years. But no longer.
That mantle belongs to UConn.
And in last season’s national championship game, two SEC battled for the title, but neither was Tennessee.
Stunningly, it’s been eight years since the Lady Vols made it to the Final Four – by far the longest drought in school history. The previous skid was three years.
Coach Holly Warlick was asked how long it’s been since UT made the Final Four.
“It’s been a while,’’ she said at the SEC Spring Meetings.
Do you know the years?
“It’s been a while,’’ she repeated.
Surely, Warlick knows the number of years. She might even know the number of days.
Does it gnaw at her?
“It gnaws at me when we lose a game,’’ said Warlick, entering her fifth year as the Lady Vols coach. “I don’t want to lose any game. I think we should win every game when we step foot on the court. And we should be competitive in every game we play.
“If you ask what drives me, I want to put a team out there that is competitive every time they touch the floor. Why wouldn’t you be? Why wouldn’t you be competitive and work hard in practice? Why wouldn’t you do that on a basketball court?
“I am driven to win. I want to win. I think I’m going to win in everything I do. When you don’t win and you lose, it’s not very fun.’’
By that definition, the past four years haven’t always been fun for Warlick, because she has had seasons with double-digit loses, SEC Tournament losses, Elite Eight losses.
Make no mistake, anything short of a Final Four doesn’t sit well with Warlick.
“Truthfully, yes,’’ she said, when asked if the Final Four is the program barometer. “That’s just in my blood. … Yeah, our goal is to win a national championship and we will continue to strive for that. And I think that’s what these kids come to Tennessee for, to compete at the highest level. And I think that’s what you’ve got to do in order to hold up a trophy, you’ve got to compete at the highest level.’’
Is the Lady Vols brand as strong as ever?
Warlick says yes.
“It is (synonymous) with success, with tradition,’’ Warlick said. “We’re still succeeding in recruiting. We’re still competing.
“One thing great about the Tennessee brand, we don’t quit. We’re going to keep grinding. We’re going to keep representing the University of Tennessee and the Lady Vols brand as best we know how.’’
With the return of Diamond DeShields, Mercedes Russell and Jaime Nared and the signing of the nation’s top-ranked class, Warlick said, on paper, she has her most talented team.
“I’m real excited about the four freshmen coming in, bringing their energy,’’ Warlick said.
Warlick thinks the newcomers should be ready to contribute right away considering their experience on the national level with AAU teams, playing in all-star games, and playing for state championships.
The newcomers will also give UT the depth it has lacked in recent years. In fact, Warlick is confident the Lady Vols can go two-deep at every position.
“I’m excited that we can do things I love to do,’’ she said. “We can press a little bit more. We can run a little bit more. We can get after it on the defensive end. I hope you’re going to see a team be uptempo and control the tempo, make it fast, spread the ball, spread the floor. I plan on playing a lot of people.’’
Another thing Warlick likes is the versatility of so many players who can play multiple positions.
“If you can shoot the 3 and penetrate, it’s just hard to guard (you),’’ Warlick said. “I look at players who are difficult for us to defend and those are the type players that can do multiple things. They can post up, catch and shoot or drive and pull up.
“Those type of players are tough to guard. I want our players to be versatile also because there are not too many people that just get locked in on one position. … I think the more versatile a player can be the better.’’
Perhaps that versatility and depth and freshmen energy can help raise another banner at Thompson-Boling Arena and end the eight-year Final Four drought.
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