published Wednesday, March 6th, 2013

Tradition transition: Tennessee Lady Vols' top spot earns Holly Warlick honor

Tennessee coach Holly Warlick, center, directs her team during NCAA college basketball practice at Thompson-Boling Arena in Knoxville.
Tennessee coach Holly Warlick, center, directs her team during NCAA college basketball practice at Thompson-Boling Arena in Knoxville.
Photo by The Knoxville News Sentinel /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

ORANGE TINTED

Tennessee has dominated the SEC women's basketball tournament since its inception in 1980:

School - Titles

Tennessee - 16

Vanderbilt - 6

Auburn - 4

Georgia - 4

LSU - 2

Kentucky - 1

MOLDING CLAY

The only Chattanooga-area player competing in the SEC women's tournament is Auburn 5-foot-7 freshman and GPS graduate Chadarryl Clay.

Clay is averaging 2.9 points and 10.7 minutes as a backup point guard. She is fourth on the team with 49 assists and third with 15 made 3-pointers.

"I think she's had an OK year," Auburn first-year coach Terri Williams-Flournoy said. "She's been your typical freshman, and there are so many adjustments freshmen have to make. She got recruited to play a different style of basketball, and now you come in to play a pressing, running, transition type of basketball."

  • photo
    Georgia guard/forward Anne Marie Armstrong (3) attempts a shot while defended by Auburn guard Chadarryl Clay (21).
    Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

New coach. Same perch.

The Tennessee Lady Vols are the top seed in the Southeastern Conference basketball tournament for the third time in four years and for the 10th time since 1998. It is the first with head coach Holly Warlick, who had to replace all five starters from Pat Summitt's final team that reached the NCAA tournament's Elite Eight.

"Tennessee graduated a class last year that had been the No. 1 recruiting class in the country, so the dynamic was going to be different," Georgia coach Andy Landers said. "What Holly did was incorporate some freshmen and some players who had played totally different roles a year ago and made them a very good basketball team.

"Tennessee has always had and has today extremely talented players, and Holly took what she had and basically rebuilt Tennessee this year into a Southeastern Conference champion."

Warlick was voted by her peers Tuesday as the SEC coach of the year after guiding the Lady Vols to a 23-6 record and a 14-2 league mark. Picked by league coaches before the season to finish fifth in the SEC, Tennessee will open tournament play Friday at noon in Duluth, Ga., against the winner of Thursday's matchup between Arkansas and Florida.

The SEC women's tournament opens tonight with 12th-seeded Mississippi State against 13th-seeded Alabama. Ole Miss is not competing this week after self-imposing a postseason ban in November.

Taking over for a legend who won 1,098 games over 38 years and produced eight national championships, Warlick stumbled out of the gate with an 80-71 loss at UT-Chattanooga on Nov. 9. She and her Lady Vols quickly regrouped, and they wound up with a better league record than last season's veteran team that finished 12-4 and a game back of Kentucky.

Not that Warlick is or has ever been about comparisons.

"There is only one Pat Summit," she said. "I've just been focused on one game at a time, and I want this team to get better. I have an unbelievable staff. Pat taught me to surround myself with quality people, and that has been huge for me."

Warlick played for Summitt and graduated in 1981, before the first NCAA women's tournament, and joined her staff in 1985. She has been a part of all eight national titles and has experienced 854 career triumphs against just 128 defeats in her Tennessee coaching tenure.

Landers, now the only SEC women's coach to work every league tournament, said this year's Tennessee team reminded him of some when Warlick played. Alabama coach Wendell Hudson believes Warlick has done a great job of "stepping into Pat's shoes" and providing her own imprint.

"One of the things they've done is show a lot of different looks defensively with a lot of different combinations," Hudson said. "They've taken a forward-type player like Jasmine Jones and have her go out and guard the guards. That has made a big difference at times because of her size and athletic ability.

"That's a big touch right there."

Warlick wasn't alone among the Lady Vols winning honors Tuesday, as center/forward Bashaara Graves won freshman of the year and junior guard Meighan Simmons shared player of the year with Kentucky's A'dia Mathies. Simmons leads the league in points per game (17.7) and free-throw shooting (83.9 percent), while Graves is averaging 14.3 points and 8.5 rebounds and is shooting 51.2 percent from the floor.

Though top-seeded, the Lady Vols are not overwhelming favorites as so many of Summitt's teams were. They have lost five games by double digits, including an 80-63 setback at Missouri on Feb. 3 and a 13-point loss at Kentucky last Sunday.

"You can look at LSU, which is the sixth seed, and I can see them winning the tournament," Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell said. "You can go all the way down to Vanderbilt as the seventh seed, and I can see them winning the tournament. I don't know that there is a clear-cut favorite."

Giving Warlick a chance to impress even more.

"We've got to understand what got us to No. 1, and that's playing hard and playing together," she said. "We've got to get our kids refocused and ready."

about David Paschall...

David Paschall is a sports writer for the Times Free Press. He started at the Chattanooga Free Press in 1990 and was part of the Times Free Press when the paper started in 1999. David covers University of Georgia football, as well as SEC football recruiting, SEC basketball, Chattanooga Lookouts baseball and other sports stories. He is a Chattanooga native and graduate of the Baylor School and Auburn University. David has received numerous honors for ...

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