KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — The hopes of Tennessee fans are that next season something good comes out of the miserable one they just endured.
Yes, Tennessee’s storied women’s basketball team won 22 games, but the Lady Vols lost 11—the most since 1976. They didn’t win a conference title and after a first-round exit from the NCAA tournament, the team fell short of even Pat Summitt lowered expectations.
And with no Candace Parker or Chamique Holdsclaw waiting in the wings to lead Tennessee back to prominence, it is up to the current players.
“All I can hope is that it will be a motivation,” Summitt said of Tennessee’s 71-55 NCAA tournament loss to Ball State on Sunday. “We are only graduating one senior and it’s all about what this team decides to do in the offseason.”
Summitt was forced to replace all five starters from last year’s national championship squad, including the player of the year in Parker. After signing a freshman class that included five McDonald’s high school All-Americans, the Lady Vols were expected to struggle this season, but to eventually be competing with the nation’s elite programs again.
That was before losing redshirt sophomore point guard Cait McMahan to a career-ending knee injury and sophomore post player Vicki Baugh to season-ending knee injury. Their absence left the team with one senior and two sophomores to help lead a bench full of freshmen.
Sophomore guard Angie Bjorklund brought the only starting experience to the lineup, and only one freshman, guard Shekinna Stricklen, performed consistently up to Summitt’s expectations. The pair led the team in scoring with a combined 25.6 points per game.
“Angie Bjorklund has had a very good year for us. She’s a special player. Shekinna has grown a lot,” Summitt said. “I’ve counted on her a lot and for the most part been pleased with what she’s done, and these two ladies need to step up and provide leadership for us next year.”
She’s signed three incoming freshmen, though only 6-foot-1 high school All-American guard Taber Spani ranks among the top 30 recruits in the nation as the third-best guard.
There’s still a chance for more of the soon-to-be sophomores to step up. Summitt often praised Glory Johnson for being the most physical member of the squad despite her inconsistent play. Guard Alicia Manning could provide another deep threat for the Lady Vols with more accurate shooting.
Tennessee also needs Baugh and post Kelley Cain, who struggled all season with a nagging knee injury, to be healthy for 2009-10. The team played its best with one of the two on the floor, drawing attention in the paint and opening up space on the perimeter for Bjorklund and Stricklen.
Summitt was clear about her frustrations with the young players throughout the season: they didn’t play with passion, they struggled with defense like few Tennessee teams have and they often looked lost on the court, she said.
Summitt challenged them by making them launder their own practice jerseys and taking away their locker room privileges. She threatened to make them walk home from away games a few times too.
But the Lady Vols remained as inconsistent at the end of the season as they were at the beginning.
Summitt said she thought they turned a corner during the Southeastern Conference tournament. They didn’t win, but they seemed to grasp how dedicated they needed to be to succeed during the postseason.
If that was the case, it didn’t last long.
The 12th seeded Cardinals made the No. 5 seeded Lady Vols (22-11) look like amateurs. They were smaller but faster. They shot more accurately and as the Lady Vols unraveled, Ball State looked more poised.
The team representing the sport’s legendary program lost to a team making its first appearance in the NCAA tournament. If that wasn’t enough, it was Tennessee’s first loss in either a first or second round game.
“This hopefully down the road will be a valuable lesson for them,” Summitt said.