KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Pat Summitt might not have pushed the panic button, but the legendary University of Tennessee women’s basketball coach started to wonder whether this group of Lady Vols was on board.
Shortly after the 2007-08 season, Tennessee lost five players, including National Player of the Year Candace Parker, to the WNBA Draft in the wake of a second straight national championship — the program’s eighth all-time.
The quest for a ninth crown didn’t figure to be easy, but Tennessee nonetheless endured a wake-up call during the 2008-09 campaign, capped by an upset loss to Ball State in the first round of the NCAA Women’s Tournament. It was the first time in program history that the team failed to ascend the opening round. They finished with a 22-11 record — the 11 losses were tied for the most in school history.
“I was sick and tired of losing and sick and tired of people not being in the gym working,” Summitt said. “I told them, ‘If ya’ll don’t get it, you are not going to win anything unless you do get it.’ … We have two courts in Pratt [Pavilion], and obviously we have Thompson-Boling Arena, and it was a little disheartening to know that at times, I would go up there and nobody is up there.”
But they’ve started to get it, Summitt said. This winter, the Lady Vols appear to be back on track, which is bad news for the rest of the Southeastern Conference. That includes Vanderbilt, which hosts Tennessee at 5 p.m. Sunday in a matchup that will be televised on ESPNU.
Coming off a Sweet 16 appearance and an SEC championship — its first in three seasons — Tennessee is ranked fifth overall with a 21-2 record, including a 9-0 mark in league play.
“I think this is the best Tennessee team since Parker,” Arkansas coach Tom Collen said. “This is the most complete team they’ve had. I think this is a team that can probably make a run to the Final Four, and anytime you get there you’ve got a chance to win the national championship.”
Perhaps the biggest reason for Tennessee’s return to national prominence is maturity. The last two years, the Lady Vols have relied on youth, with six freshmen coming in during the 2008-09 campaign. They had just one senior that season and none last year. They are still low on senior leadership this season with just two — including starting guard Angie Bjorklund — but don’t lack experience. Tennessee returns nine players who took their share of lumps two years ago.
“I think this entire team, they are just more invested,” Summitt said. “Our staff, we have done the best job that I think we have done in the last few years of just holding people accountable and no shortcuts to success. I think they are more invested, particularly with our defense and our board play — things that you can control pretty much every game. The leadership is better. I think Angie and [junior] Shekinna [Stricklen] have embraced that role and I think that’s really necessary.”
Tennessee also has plenty of size, including 6-foot-6 junior Kelley Cain, who set the school record with 113 blocks last year. That presence, along with 6-3 Stricklen and 6-3 junior Glory Johnson, can be intimidating to smaller teams, and it gives Tennessee an edge on the glass: The Lady Vols boast a plus-12.8 average rebounding margin, which is fourth-best in the country.
“One of the reasons why they are always at the top is because they’re a phenomenal rebounding team,” Florida coach Amanda Butler said. “You know you have to try to take that away from them if you’re going to try to compete with them.”
Tennessee hasn’t blown by every opponent, though. The Lady Vols couldn’t handle Baylor (now ranked No. 1) and 6-8 sophomore Brittney Griner in a 65-54 road loss in December.
“It just goes to show if we want to be a Final Four team, we have to bring the intensity every single possession, not just the ones we want to,” Bjorklund said later that month.
The setback rattled Summitt. The Lady Vols are now 0-2 against Griner, who is tied for first in the country with 4.9 blocks a game. Tennessee also lost to Baylor in last year’s Sweet 16.
If the Lady Vols see Baylor again, it will most likely be deep in the NCAA Tournament. That isn’t too far-fetched with the way Tennessee has been playing since the loss to the Lady Bears.
The Lady Vols have won 12 straight, including a victory over ranked Stanford, and seem to have gained experience from those lessons learned the hard way two years ago.
“I think what happens is when you have a Candace Parker and a Nicky Anosike and Alexis Hornbuckle and that core group, I think they just thought it was going to be easy because obviously they cut down nets,” Summitt said. “It’s not easy. It’s hard. I have been doing this now 37 years and, yes, eight championships is one thing, but I can think about all the ones that got away. Hopefully this team is going to help us win a couple more.”