KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — The Tennessee Lady Vols have shown expectations of their demise in the post-Pat Summitt era were unfounded.
They’ve overcome preseason forecasts that they would finish fifth in the Southeastern Conference, the transition to new coach Holly Warlick and their season-opening loss to Chattanooga that dropped is them to No. 24 in the Top 25 — the program’s lowest ranking since 1985.
The Lady Vols (16-3) have climbed to ninth, are riding a nine-game winning streak and sit alone atop the SEC standings heading into Monday’s showdown against No. 2 Notre Dame.
“Every year this team should be motivated to get to a Final Four,” said guard/forward Taber Spani, one of only two seniors on the roster. “I think this team especially is because we understand really that outside this circle and our families, nobody else in the country really believes in us. That’s fine with us. We don’t mind that. But I think it provides a little extra motivation.”
The fast start has shown that the Lady Vols should be OK without Summitt on the sideline during games. She has been diagnosed with early-onset dementia, Alzheimer’s type, and stepped down last April after winning eight national titles in 38 seasons. She still routinely attends practices and sits in the stands during home games in her role as head coach emeritus.
What Tennessee hasn’t been able to do is prove it belongs among the nation’s elite.
The Lady Vols lost 76-53 at Baylor, now the top-ranked team in the nation. They also fell 73-60 at home to Stanford, which was No. 1 when they played on Dec. 22. Monday’s matchup against Notre Dame gives them another chance to show they’re a legitimate Final Four contender.
“The second half with Baylor, I thought we competed,” said Warlick, who played for Summitt and worked as her assistant for 27 seasons. “I thought the first half, we were just totally scared. For Stanford for some reason, we didn’t compete at all. ... Now we have a chance with another team out of the top three coming to our place. We’ve got to compete.”