KNOXVILLE — Now starts what will be the uneasiest week in the history of University of Tennessee women's basketball.
Gone for now are the days when the only intrigue was which team the Lady Volunteers would face — and beat — in the opening round of the NCAA tournament. No longer are the times when the program that was light-years ahead of so many and coached by one of the matriarchs of women's college basketball, Pat Summitt, would be stunned by anything less than a Final Four appearance.
The Lady Vols lost 83-68 to fifth-ranked Mississippi State in the Southeastern Conference tournament quarterfinals Friday at Bon Secours Arena in Greenville, S.C. They dropped to 19-12 and, after up-and-down season, are unsure of their postseason fate.
The field of 64 for the NCAA women's tournament will be announced March 18.
On Friday, 25 Tennessee turnovers led to 30 Mississippi State points, and the Lady Vols were outscored in the paint, 48-24, and had only 11 offensive rebounds. After the game, though, seventh-year Tennessee coach Holly Warlick said she thought her team had played a "pretty solid game."
"The difference is the turnovers," Warlick told reporters. "But our kids played hard. Do I think we deserve to be in the (NCAA) tournament? Absolutely. We played a tough schedule and grinded it out. We got on a six-game losing streak, but we stepped up and competed. We're a young group that continued to get better.
"So do I think we deserve a chance? Absolutely. I don't have any friends on the committee; I wish I did, but this team has a no-quit attitude, and I thought we did that today. We battled, we just couldn't get it done."
Tennessee is the only program in the country to have been in every NCAA women's basketball tournament since its start in 1982. That streak is in jeopardy.
In the latest NCAA bracketology released Sunday afternoon by ESPN, Tennessee is in as a No. 11 seed but one of the last four teams in the field. The credentials the Lady Vols have laid out to the committee include six wins against teams currently in the NCAA field or projected to be: Auburn (twice), Belmont, Clemson, Missouri and Texas.
The Lady Vols also have a pair of wins against LSU — including one in the second round of the SEC tournament — which was considered a bubble team going into last week.
On the downside, Tennessee also has a loss to Arkansas, but even that looks better after the Razorbacks' run to the title game of the SEC tournament. Seeded 10th, they beat seventh-seeded Georgia, second-seeded South Carolina and third-seeded Texas A&M in Greensville. The Razorbacks are now projected as one of the first four teams out of the NCAA field.
But there are also Tennessee losses to Alabama and Georgia, as well as an inexplicable home loss to Vanderbilt, the Commodores' first-ever win at Thompson-Boling Arena.
So has it been an ideal season for the Lady vols? By no means.
Is it a season that deserves to end — either with a national championship or with a loss — in the NCAA tournament?
Time will tell.
"I think my team deserves a chance to prove ourselves," point guard Evina Westbrook said. "I don't want to use the word talented, because we're much more than talented, but I think so.
"I hope we have a chance to prove ourselves, wherever it may take us."