A young Lady Vols volleyball team played South Carolina in its SEC opener on Sunday and showed its ever-present youth-laden squad.
Tennessee played well in stretches, but a more consistent Gamecocks squad eventually outlasted the Lady Vols in four sets, 25-18, 17-25, 25-20, 25-23.
"It's kind of been a theme for us with our young team right now," UT coach Rob Patrick said. "We kind of break down a bit on our side of the net."
A well-organized South Carolina squad came out and gave the Lady Vols all they could handle. South Carolina relied heavily on outsider hitter Juliette Thevenin in the match, and saw great results. The 6-2 Belgian gave the Vols all they could handle with 57 total attacks, the most of either team.
The inexperience that hindered the Lady Vols (8-7) in non-conference continues to show as they attempt to build valuable experience.
"I definitely think we're still young, but it's still a lot of excitement coming out and playing," Freshman outside hitter Jamie Lea said. "Of course we all need to mature more and get better on the court."
Players like Jamie Lea, Raina Hembry and Ashley Mariani, all freshmen, did their part at the net by contributing a combined 30 kills. First-year starting setter Lexi Dempsey orchestrated the attack and posted 42 assists.
It's these young players that are slowly earning the respect of Patrick and the more experienced players on the team.
"We just have to get in there and continue to teach them, but I also saw some good things," Patrick said. "They're trying to get better and that's all you can ask right now."
Senior libero Ellen Mullins also spoke praise of her young teammates after the loss.
"They played well," Mullins said. "It's a team sport and they're very young; we have a lot of work to do. Obviously, we want to win. They can get a lot better. Everyone can."
Mullins once again anchored the defense against the Gamecocks. The Nashville, Tenn., native recorded a match-high 26 digs as she continues to climb the all-time leaderboard for most digs in Tennessee history.
Many team members described this game as a necessary step in a maturation process. The Lady Vols continue the process as they travel to Georgia this weekend for their first road match since early September.
"We've been playing on the road pretty well," Patrick said. "We went down to Chattanooga, we went to Cincinnati and we did some good things there, won some matches. We keep everything as same as you can whether were at home or on road."
The Lady Vols return to Knoxville next Saturday as they take on one of the newest members of the SEC in Missouri.