OKLAHOMA CITY, Okla. — When she thinks back on the journey that has become her first season replacing a legend, first-year Tennessee women’s basketball coach Holly Warlick credits a rugged beginning with helping the Lady Vols carry on the winning ways of former coach Pat Summitt.
In typical Summitt fashion, Tennessee’s schedule was demanding. But no one could have forecast that the Warlick era would start out with a loss at Chattanooga, but the Lady Vols quickly regrouped.
“Starting our season off with a loss on the road to UT Chattanooga,” said Warlick, whose team plays Oklahoma in the NCAA tournament’s Sweet 16 on Sunday. “When you look at our schedule, I know as coaches it made us very nervous. First three out of the four games were on the road.”
The loss was as good a teaching tool as Warlick could have asked for, given the importance she places on toughness, defense and rebounding. After that humbling experience, the Lady Vols realized they couldn’t just show up and expect to win.
“We've just played with a chip on our shoulder,” Warlick said. “When you play hard and you have a lot of effort, great things happen. I think our practices have been very competitive. They listened. We haven't had to coach effort.
“I think they understand the importance of hopefully now defense and rebounding. We're an offensive minded team trying to teach them to play on the other end. So I think they bought into it when we got into our season.”
After the loss to Chattanooga, Tennessee won seven straight, including on the road at ACC powers Georgia Tech and Miami at also Texas. They went on to win the SEC regular-season championship at 14-2, and after losing in the league tournament, they entered the NCAA tournament at 24-7. Wins over Oral Roberts and Creighton propelled the Lady Vols to a match-up with Oklahoma (24-10).
Tip-off is set for 4:35 p.m. ESPN2 will televise.
Like the Lady Vols, Oklahoma has had to overcome injuries this season.
"I think they were motivated to get back here to play, No. 1,” Warlick said. “I think they're extremely resilient. They're dealing with a ton of injuries. But I think Sherri (Coale) is a great coach and they play hard. I don't care if they're dealing with five people, six, seven, eight, they play extremely hard. She's got them representing Oklahoma.
“At this point you got to be doing something right to get to the Sweet 16. I think (Aaryn) Ellenberg has stepped up her game. I think (Joanna) McFarland stepped up her game. I think they play extremely well together and feed off each other. I don't care what their record is. It's survive and advance, and that's what they've done."