The only other time Tennessee lost in the first round of the women’s NCAA tournament, it was a stunner. A decade later, it definitely wasn’t. No. 11 seed Tennessee lost to sixth-seeded UCLA 89-77 in the Albany Regional, ending a disappointing season for the Lady Vols.
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A game that looked like a blowout in the first quarter — Tennessee trailed by as many as 17 points — became close thanks to the Lady Vols outscoring UCLA 22-14 in the third quarter. Tennessee even took a three-point lead in the fourth quarter.
But UCLA senior Kennedy Burke, who had to go to the bench with four fouls, came back in to make two crucial steals that she converted to layups, grabbing the momentum back for UCLA. Burke scored 10 of her 19 points in the game’s last 4 ½ minutes, and the Bruins move on to the second round vs. No. 3 seed Maryland.
Tennessee’s other first-round exit came in 2009, after losing all the starters from its 2008 national championship team. The Lady Vols were a No. 5 seed then and fell to No. 12 Ball State. Even though the Lady Vols struggled some that season, that was still a total shocker. But things have changed a lot in the last 10 years for the Lady Vols.
The program went through a tragedy in losing coach Pat Summitt, who was diagnosed with early onset dementia, Alzheimer’s type, in 2011. She coached the 2011-12 season, then moved into an emeritus role with longtime assistant Holly Warlick taking over. Summitt passed away in 2016.
This is the third consecutive early-round exit for Tennessee, which lost in the second round the past two seasons. Tennessee, which has won eight national championships, has made every NCAA tournament since the event began in 1982. But that streak was in jeopardy this year, as Tennessee had to rely on being one of the last teams in the field as an at-large bid.
After being upset as a No. 3 seed at home by Oregon State last year, Tennessee lost seniors Jaime Nared and Mercedes Russell to the WNBA, but brought back a promising group of sophomores. Tennessee lost one of them, 2018 SEC sixth woman of the year Anastasia Hayes, last August when she was dismissed for a violation of team rules.
Still, with players like Rennia Davis and Evina Westbrook, the Lady Vols were tied for No. 11 in the preseason Associated Press poll with Texas. (Both teams exited in the NCAA’s first round.)
Tennessee opened the season 12-1, but things began to go south with a 66-64 loss at home to Missouri on Jan. 6. That started a six-game losing streak. It looked like Tennessee had turned things around after winning five of the next six, but then the Lady Vols lost three of their final four games of the regular season. The low point was falling to the SEC’s worst team, Vanderbilt, in the Commodores’ only win in series history to occur at Tennessee.
After beating LSU and losing to Mississippi State at the SEC tournament, the Lady Vols had to do something they’ve never done before: sweat out the wait to see if they made the NCAA field. They did, but now they’re out.
In August, Warlick received a three-year contract extension, which takes her through the 2021-22 season. The question remains, though, about whether Tennessee will part with Warlick before then.
Meanwhile, UCLA lost two players, Jordin Canada and Monique Billings, to the WNBA off last year’s Elite Eight team. The Bruins took a while to jell this season, but they have done that.
All five UCLA starters scored in double figures Saturday, led by junior forward Michaela Onyenwere with 22 points. She also had 15 rebounds.