LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Every game, it seems, has gone the same way for the Tennessee Lady Volunteers throughout the postseason.
It begins with a sluggish start, usually ending with a double-digit deficit.
Then comes the comeback, a torrid combination of improved offensive performance and stifling defensive stands.
And just like in recent games, the Lady Vols came out the gates slow on Sunday, giving themselves an uphill path as they tried to reach their fourth consecutive Elite Eight.
But unlike the past, the comeback never materialized, and Tennessee found themselves eliminated from the NCAA tournament, losing to the Maryland Lady Terrapins, 73-62, inside the KFC Yum! Center in Louisville, Ky.
“I hate that it ended the way it did,” head coach Holly Warlick said. “It wasn’t indicative of our season and how hard we played and what kind of team we are, but we just didn’t have our ‘A’ game today. I thought we came out a little scared and we just couldn’t pop out of it.”
The “nerves and jitters” that Warlick stated her team having showed early, as Maryland was able to jump out to a double-digit lead just 7:11 into the game.
It was a deficit that the Lady Vols would get used to seeing throughout the night.
And while neither team shot the ball particularly well in the first half – Maryland shot 37.5 percent from the floor compared to Tennessee’s 32.1 percent –, the Lady Terrapins capitalized when they needed to, scoring 14 points off of 14 UT turnovers.
Those mistakes proved to be the difference in the first half – and the entire game – as Tennessee committed 22 turnovers on the afternoon and went into halftime trailing 41-27.
“We came out really nervous, really timid, and we weren’t playing Lady Vol basketball,” junior forward Cierra Burdick said. “We weren’t the aggressors, and I think that hurt us early. The turnovers killed us. A lot of them were unforced, some of them were forced, but we just didn’t come out and play our ball.”
In the second half, though, the Lady Vols showed some life, threatening to be the comeback kids that they had proven to be.
Three different times in between the 7:44 and 5:52 marks of the closing period, the Lady Vols clawed their way to within single-digits, getting as close as eight following a Meighan Simmons free throw with 6:27 to go.
But Maryland’s Alyssa Thomas had other ideas.
The three-time ACC Player of the Year constantly put an end to Tennessee’s momentum, scoring 18 of her 33 points in the final 20 minutes of play, including two baskets to push the Lady Terrapin lead back up to double-digits.
Her biggest play of the night, however, proved to be a pass as she found Laurin Mincey on the wing for three, plunging the final dagger into Tennessee’s national championship hopes.
“She’s a great player, and great players are going to make great plays,” Burdick said. “She willed her team to a great win and I give her all the credit, she’s a great player and I have a lot of respect for her.”
Senior guard Meighan Simmons, who played in her final game as a Lady Vol, was instrumental in Tennessee’s comeback effort, scoring 19 of her 31 points in the second half on 5-of-9 (.556) shooting – a much better percentage than the 25 she shot in the first half.
But even with her being at her best for the final 20 minutes of her career, it doesn’t make it easier to deal with the fact that she will never play in a Lady Vol uniform ever again.
“It makes it even harder,” Simmons said. “We all wanted to win and we just fell short. We got closer and closer and we just didn’t have that extra fight that we did in the SEC tournament.”
With their ‘Grind for Nine’ now over, the Lady Vols now turn their attention to next season, where they will try to break their six-year drought of not making the Final Four – the longest in program history.
“This team has been a close-knit team and they’ll take this one pretty hard – as will the staff and myself.” Warlick said. “We just get down and we keep fighting and we keep battling and that’s what our MO has been. We’ve just had to prove our worth all year. I don’t know why we’ve had to prove our worth but we have. This group has had a great season, a season to be proud of.
“We’re Tennessee, and we’re not happy that we’re not playing for national championships. That’s in our DNA. So we’ll go back to work and we’ll prepare for next year.”