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.”
Tennessee has been able to exceed preseason projections.
The Lady Vols didn’t return a single player who started an NCAA tournament game last year. The combination of a coaching change and roster upheaval led to them being ranked 20th in the preseason Top 25. SEC coaches picked Tennessee to end up fifth in the league, while the SEC media had the Lady Vols finishing fourth.
“I can’t tell you how many people told me, ‘We’re really not expecting (much from) you all, so you should have not a cushion, but a year that you can just develop and grow,’ “ Warlick said. “That motivated me, and I know it motivated our players. I knew what we had. I just didn’t understand or know what we could do as a whole. I’m proud of them. We’re only going to get better and better. We haven’t reached our full potential.”
This year’s Tennessee team is delivering the same type of results as Summitt’s last few squads. After winning back-to-back national titles in 2007 and 2008, Tennessee went 22-11, 32-3, 34-3 and 27-9 in Summitt’s last four seasons. The Lady Vols lost in the first round of the 2009 NCAA tournament, reached the Sweet 16 in 2010 and got to a regional final each of the last two years.
Tennessee has overcome injuries that left the Lady Vols with only nine healthy players. Freshman guard Andraya Carter is out for the season with a torn labrum in her right shoulder.
Sophomore forward Cierra Burdick has missed seven games with a broken right hand and is expected to return in early February.
“We always have a point to prove,” Simmons said. “Now this year since we are the underdog and people underestimate us. We have to remember Tennessee is Tennessee.”
The Lady Vols have benefited from the tenacity of Simmons, who averages 17.6 points per game and has a knack for delivering whenever her team needs a boost.
“She’s super, super fast,” Notre Dame guard Skylar Diggins said of Simmons. “She has great speed. I think she can score in a variety of ways. She’s a very emotional player. She can score in bunches.”
The Lady Vols have also gotten an instant impact from freshman forward Bashaara Graves, who has 14.5 points and 8.8 rebounds per game. And Tennessee’s players say the coaching change hasn’t been that big of an adjustment.
Players already were accustomed to working with Warlick, who constantly preaches the importance of defense and rebounding by pointing out those traits were the hallmarks of Summitt’s best teams.
“You hired the assistant that was there (27) years, so they’re still going to respect the same qualities Pat instilled in Holly and in the program,” Vanderbilt coach Melanie Balcomb said. “She built a program and a tradition. That just gets passed down. There’s a lot of generational leadership. It’s not like someone from the outside came in and is going to change a lot of things. I’m sure (Warlick) has her own way of doing some things, but there’s also going to be a lot of similarities to the way they’ve played in the past, absolutely.
“The one similarity right away is that they win.”
Now they’re looking for that signature victory.
Last season, Tennessee fell 72-44 at Notre Dame in the second-most lopsided loss of Summitt’s tenure. After that game, the coaching staff covered the walls of the Lady Vols’ locker room with pieces of paper showing the final score.
“They got after us and they by far were a better team than we were last year,” Warlick said. “We weren’t even close. Sure we’re going to use it to motivate us to see where we are, as a measuring stick for us.”
One year later, they have a chance to earn revenge and make one more statement that they’re not going away in the post-Summitt era. Already this season, they’ve surprised just about everyone but themselves.
“We saw the talent we had in the offseason,” Spani said. “You could see the chemistry of this team and the development of the skill level.
“Honestly, we’re disappointed we have three losses.”
AP Sports Writers Teresa Walker in Nashville, Tenn., and Tom Coyne in South Bend, Ind., contributed to this report.