Coming off back-to-back national championships, the pressure was on the Tennessee women’s basketball team last season. W ithout any returning starters and just one senior, the Volunteers threw six freshmen and three sophomores into the fire.
An up-and-down season that ended with Tennessee bowing out in the first round of the NCAA tournament for the first time in school history.
This season, they are senior-less, but going through last year’s growing pains have paid dividends.
“We are mentally a lot tougher and physically a lot stronger,” Tennessee head coach Pat Summitt said. “I think our bodies have changed but I also think our minds are much stronger now than ever before.”
That was evident Monday night against Vanderbilt when No. 5 Tennessee rallied from seven points down in the second half on their way to a 69-60 victory at Memorial Gymnasium.
The Vols were actually down 51-45 with just more than seven minutes left but never panicked, answering with a 9-0 run to take a lead they wouldn’t relinquish. And it wasn’t because of a stare from Summitt. No, she says, her players decided they were going to win the game.
“I thought right then they started talking about what they needed to do,” Summitt said. “It wasn’t the coaches, it was the players. When they take that ownership, you are going to have a lot better execution because it is coming through them and they want it.”
The Volunteers (21-2, 9-1 Southeastern Conference) appear to really want it this year as they passed several early season tests — they beat ranked teams such as non-conference teams such as Baylor, Virginia, Texas and Oklahoma — and have won five in a row since losing to then No. 8 Georgia on the road on Jan. 21.
A big advantage for Tennessee has been its size. The Vols have five players at least 6-foot-3. On Monday, 6-foot-4 Alyssia Brewer and 6-6 Kelley Cain did most of the damage, combining for 29 points.
“It has to be a nightmare for other teams to guard two people 6-4 with the ability that Alyssia has and the ability I have,” Cain said.
Cain dealt with a lot of knee pain last year as a redshirt freshman but this season has battled through it, averaging nearly 10 points and nine rebounds. She was a big pain for Vanderbilt, controlling the paint with 19 points seven rebounds and five blocked shots.
“I don’t know of another post player in the women’s game right now that has the size and the skill set that Kelley Cain has,” Summitt said. “She is rebounding out of her area. She is moving better in the paint. I think her knee is about as strong as it has been and that is allowing her to be a lot more mobile and a lot more aggressive.”
In fact, Cain and the rest of the Vols outrebounded Vanderbilt 41-30.
“They’re good at rebounding,” Vanderbilt coach Melanie Balcomb said. “They brought their strength and we didn’t stop them.”
That size and balanced scoring — four players scored in double-digit figures Monday — have helped Tennessee all season. And the hope is that it will lead the Volunteers deep into the postseason — a place they are very familiar with. Something that this group didn’t get to experience last year, going 22-11 and just 9-5 in league play.
But as they are showing, last year is in the past.
“It is a new year though,” Cain said. “It is not like we were dwelling on last year. We are concentrating on this year. We hate to lose to anybody but we also learn you never lose to Vanderbilt.”