After watching her team get dismantled by Tennessee in an exhibition game last Sunday, Coker women’s basketball coach Jenny Finora was asked to compare the Lady Vols under legendary Pat Summitt to their latest incarnation led by long-time Summitt assistant Holly Warlick.
Finora had to laugh.
“Just like Tennessee,” she said. “They're always good. They're long. They're athletic, quick, aggressive. That's Tennessee basketball. It's always been that way, and it's never going to waver at all from that."
Chattanooga coach Wes Moore would concur. His team plays host to the Lady Vols on Friday night in a game that, because it will be the first without Summit on the bench in nearly 40 years, has taken on historic proportions.
Summit’s absence notwithstanding, Moore says, it will be business as usual for Tennessee.
"There’s no doubt they’re going to miss a Pat Summitt, but Holly played for her, she’s been an assistant for 20-something (27) years,” Moore said. “They’re still going to have the same Tennessee tradition, and the way they play and the style they play isn’t going to change."
“I think Holly is very deserving, and I think the way they handled the whole deal — keeping Pat involved in the program (as head coach emeritus) — I think they handled it very well.”
The way Tennessee athletic director Dave Hart saw it, there was no other way to handle replacing Summitt, who was forced from coaching by early onset Alzheimer’s disease. That stunning news was revealed before last season began. Warlick, always a vital cog in Summitt’s program, became even more indispensable to her old friend and mentor as she began making the adjustments required to confront her condition and get through the season.
“Pat and I talked regularly as the season went along about a lot of things,” Hart said last April, when Warlick officially took over the program. “There was a time late in the season when she said to me, ‘Dave, if I made the decision, and I haven't made the decision yet, but if I made the decision not to coach next year, have you given any thought to who will follow?' And I said, ‘I have, Pat. I am giving very serious consideration to Holly.’ And she said, ‘that would excite me.’ ”
Suffice it to say Warlick was excited, too.
“I love the opportunity to follow Pat Summit,” Warlick said at the Southeastern Conference media day last month. “I’ve been associated with her, I’ve played for her and I’ve worked for her. It’s a great opportunity for me. It’s a challenge, absolutely. I’m blessed to have this opportunity. I still have Pat Summit by my side. Don’t forget that. I think it’s a perfect situation for me. It’s all I know, and it’s all that I am going to continue to do.”
Though the Lady Vols’ two exhibition games were against overmatched opponents, they did offer a glimpse of things to come. Against Carson-Newman and Coker, the Lady Vols averaged 111 points, 58 percent shooting from the field and an off-the-charts 19.5 steals. Tennessee made only seven 3-pointers combined, making those point totals (104, 118) all the more impressive.
Obviously, the Lady Vols are going to try and dictate tempo by getting in passing lanes, harassing opponents with their length and turning games into track meets.
“I think there was only one other time that I have played a game that fast—it was with USA basketball my 17 and under year against Japan,” said sophomore forward Cierra Burdick after the Coker game. “All we did was run. It got to the point that I was so tired that I looked over and said to (point guard) Ariel (Massengale) can we please slow down, let me get to half court before we shoot another layup because it was that fast.
“This game was extremely high tempo, but that is what Holly wants. She wants us to get skills and just run. Everything needs to be in transition."
"That's our goal,” Warlick said. “We want to try to score in transition. Now, we've got to continue to get in shape and stay in shape. I don't think we're quite there yet, but we're getting there. But I think this group loves to play up-tempo. I want to try to take advantage of that."
If that sounds like a certain head coach emeritus, well, that’s no surprise. Summitt was always a student of the game, first and foremost. Nearly 20 years ago, Summitt realized she was able to recruit a different caliber of player, with more athleticism, more length, more stamina. And she turned the Lady Vols loose. Four of her eight national championships followed.
Warlick was at Summit’s side the entire way, earning an advanced degree in the art of coaching from the best in the history of the women’s game. It’s little wonder Warlick didn’t want to leave to take over her own program. Her place was at Tennessee, just as it was for Summitt.
"People have asked me, ‘why have you not left?” Warlick said last April. “And I said, ‘why would I?' Why would I leave a place that is rich in tradition, has an unbelievable administration that has always supported women's basketball and women's sports, and has the most incredibly supportive fans in the country? It didn't take me being a genius to stay here and love what I do. I do love this program, and I'm proud of this team.”