By Beth Rucker
The Associated Press
KNOXVILLE - Tennessee women's basketball coach Pat Summitt thought her team had finally figured out what was needed to compete for a national championship. Instead, the Lady Volunteers are wrapping up a third straight season disappointed with the outcome.
They're back home in Knoxville after a 73-59 loss to Notre Dame in the NCAA regional final in Dayton, Ohio, and will be back to practice today. Instead of practicing for what would have been the first Final Four appearance for most of the team, the Lady Vols will be practicing for the 2011-12 season.
"I hate this for our program," Summitt said following Monday night's loss. "I hope our players will learn from it, because we have a way to go. We were exposed."
After an undefeated run through the Southeastern Conference season, an SEC tournament championship and an easy win against 16th-seeded Stetson in the opening round of the NCAA tournament, Tennessee's struggle to stay motivated became more and more apparent.
For much of the season, Summitt had lamented how she had to keep on her players to give basketball their full effort. Most of the time, the Lady Vols responded, albeit briefly.
Summitt spent the halftime of many games delivering what she calls a "prayer meeting" to her players. She offered a particular scathing speech after the first half against Ohio State during the regional semifinal game with her team down by two points, questioning the heart of her players.
"I am kind of lost for words as to why they wouldn't come in and already know what they were going to do," Summitt said.
Junior forward Shekinna Stricklen, whom Summitt turned to for leadership this season, already knows what the team needs to take with them as they prepare for next season.
"Know your defense. That's the key to winning the game," she said. "You have to play as a team. You have to bring your defense and energy, and we didn't have that. Shots weren't going, and when that happens you better play defense. We didn't have any leaders step up, and we weren't clicking as a team."
Tennessee (34-3) had relied on solid shooting to overcome previous defensive struggles. Against Notre Dame the Lady Vols shot 33 percent and had 19 turnovers. Sharpshooting senior guard Angie Bjorklund had a single point, and freshman guard Meighan Simmons went 1-for-11 and finished with two points.
Simmons "is a freshman and sometimes we forget that with a great future ahead of her, but she had four turnovers," Summitt said. "This was a big game that seemed a little bit different to her then playing through the SEC and getting here."
The good news for the Lady Vols is most of the team will remain intact for next season. They lose Bjorklund, who leaves as Tennessee's all-time career 3-point shooting leader with 305 made treys, and guard Sydney Smallbone.
Simmons, who led the team in scoring this season with 13.5 points per game, will have a chance to hone her skills in her first full offseason at Tennessee. The Lady Vols will add two McDonald's All-Americans in point guard Ariel Massengale and forward Cierra Burdick and another forward with Isabelle Harrison.
The bad news for the Lady Vols is the pressure for them to win the program's ninth national championship will be greater than ever next season. The seven players who will be seniors next season have only one more chance to live up to the expectations that come with playing at Tennessee.
So far, the legacy for the soon-to-be senior class includes Tennessee's only first-round loss in the NCAA tournament in 2009, a regional-semifinal loss as a No. 1 seed in 2010 and the most recent loss in the round of eight.
"I thought we had overcome this," junior forward Alicia Manning said. "At this point of the year, you can't let another team outwork you, and they outworked us. It's hard to live with, but it happened and it's over."