InsideTennessee reporter's notebook

Last August, the Lady Vols were looking at an overhauled roster, a new head coach and a schedule that said they were hosting the NCAA tourney. At that point getting in wasn't a sure thing. Go inside for a Tennessee postseason notebook.

InsideTennessee chatted last summer with Holly Warlick and Dean Lockwood after the schedule came out and it was noted that the Lady Vols were an NCAA tourney host site for the early rounds.

After a pause, it was also noted that Tennessee wasn't guaranteed to get a bid. As preposterous as that may sound given the Lady Vols tradition, it made sense. Pat Summitt had retired. Five seniors had departed, and two of them were All-Americans and were taken among the top five in the WNBA draft.

Warlick, after 27 years at Summitt's side, took over as head coach. She had a roster of 11, and five players were putting on an orange uniform for the first time.

Knoxville was a guaranteed host site after bidding for the tourney. But the Lady Vols were by no means a lock to be on their home court.

"We were very, very serious when we told you that," Assistant coach Dean Lockwood said. "I was incredibly serious. It was not a given at that point."

"When we talked in August, we hadn't even seen them on the court," Warlick said. "They look good on paper, but we hadn't seen them all together. They've really gelled and got better.

"The freshmen stepped up, the sophomores have been great leaders, our seniors have been great leaders. It's kind of all come together in a positive way for us. Looking forward to the first and second rounds."

Warlick and the team will learn Monday evening the three teams being sent to Knoxville. The brackets will be announced beginning at 7 p.m. Eastern on ESPN, and coaches, players and media members will gather in a club room at Neyland Stadium for the annual unveiling.

It will be the 32nd consecutive bid for the Lady Vols, who are the only program to appear in every NCAA Tournament. This will be the 14th time that Tennessee has hosted the early rounds, and the Lady Vols are 48-1 in those games and have never lost at home in the tourney. The lone strike came in 2009 in Bowling Green, Ky., against Ball State.

Tennessee won the SEC regular season in Warlick's debut despite a team that was gutted by injury from November to March. Expectations are always high in Knoxville, but the team exceeded them.

"I think they have, and I think it's been a pleasant surprise for us to win the league," Lockwood said. "If you would have told me that and that's an envelope, either grab the envelope or play it out, I would have snatched that envelope so fast from your hand it wasn't even funny.

"So it did exceed expectations. But at the same time there was always a deep seated belief by our coaching staff. When we were picked fourth or fifth we firmly believed we were a better team than that. Now to say that we were going to win the league, I would be lying to you. We didn't know that. But we thought we were capable. We knew things had to break perfect.

"But we really thought we could be better than a fourth-place basketball team."

Of course things didn't break perfect for Tennessee. Andraya Carter, who had moved into the starting lineup, went down with a shoulder injury. Two more starters would be lost for long stretches – Cierra Burdick with a broken hand and Isabelle Harrison with two knee injuries.

Taber Spani has played all season with back issues, and Kamiko Williams has been hobbled by two sprained ankles.

But 10 players were on the practice court Saturday – Carter's season ended in December with surgery – and Tennessee will enter the tourney relatively healthy, a situation bolstered by scheduling sufficient rest for the team after the SEC tourney ended in Duluth, Ga.

Spani has noted that traveling for the NCAA tourney early rounds can make it seem like a business trip, and a team will be focused. But the senior is grateful for another chance to play on "The Summitt."

Given the callow nature of the team – prior to Duluth only Spani and Meighan Simmons had started a game in postseason for Tennessee – Lockwood is thrilled with opening the tourney at home.

"There is a comfort level," Lockwood said. "I am not going to lie at all. There is a comfort level playing here. Our kids like it."

SENIOR STAND: Taber Spani and Kamiko Williams now take the court knowing each game could be their last.

"Guaranteed 40 minutes," Dean Lockwood said.

"I think when you're younger you don't necessarily relate to ‘this could be my last game,' " Holly Warlick said. "I think they understand the importance of each day, each practice, each moment they can get better and lead this team.

"They feel what any senior feels. They have to come and bring it, and play their best each game. The first game is the most important. You take care of business then and then it's the next game. I think they understand they don't look ahead and stay in the moment."

Both seem to be in a good place.

Williams stays loose.

"She's moment to moment," Lockwood said with a smile.

Spani grasps the urgency of the situation.

"No doubt," Lockwood said. "There is a wistfulness in some of this stuff. There is a sense of urgency when she is with our team. We had a meeting (last Monday) to go over the schedule with the team and her comments to the team, she had emotions in them.

"The sense of urgency you could feel it coming out in her. She was imploring our team to realize this is an opportunity, and we're not guaranteed anything past one game."

LOCKED IN: Taber Spani's last game was one for the record book with her career high 33 points and five made treys.

"She was in such a good place," Dean Lockwood said. "She is playing without fear of consequences. So many times players will take a shot and they're, ‘Oh, what if I miss?' She was playing very loose but very focused, very dialed in.

"She was in the moment, but it wasn't over-pressurized. She was just playing her game. I was really pleased to see her play like that. She was just enjoying the game."

It was advice that has been imparted to the players this season by former Lady Vol Tamika Catchings.

"Catchings told our team, ‘Remember, the game has to be fun. You have to have fun playing the game,' " Lockwood said. "Taber was having fun playing that game."

The problem for Tennessee was that Spani, who had 18 points at the break and hit her first four shots in the second half, completed a three-point play via layup and foul with 13:49 left.

Spani, who played 40 minutes, didn't attempt her next shot until there was 7:17 left to play. She connected on two free throws at the 4:50 mark and tied the game on an offensive tip-in with 54 seconds left.

The Lady Vols lost 66-62 to Texas A&M, and the hottest shooter – Spani was 11-13 overall, 5-6 from the arc and 6-6 from the line – barely touched the ball for nearly 14 minutes. That was a mistake.

"No doubt," Lockwood said. "We lost our poise a little bit. We had a little bit of an upper hand in that game and when we lost that, Texas A&M was relentless, they kept coming, we lost our poise and we started to quick shoot the ball.

"Everybody is motivated by good things but now everybody is saying, ‘I gotta be the one. I gotta help.' That is something … we've got to learn from that."

It can appear to be selfish, but it's actually players wanting to make plays. The problem is that it's not smart play.

"There you go. Exactly right," Lockwood said. "There is selfish basketball and then there is unintelligent basketball. I think it wandered more into the area of number two than number one, but the bottom line is the result is still the same.

"You get beat if you do too much of either. That is something we have to be cognizant of."

Pat Summitt always referred to players letting their offense affect their defense – missed shots lead to uninspired play on defense. Lockwood explained she wasn't just referring to the player who missed. Teammates get annoyed at the quick shots.

"You and I get a little edgy on the defensive end because now you are asking us to save you guys," Lockwood said. "That is the stuff you've got to be careful of. Intelligent basketball."

Granted, the Aggies blanketed Spani on defense, but that should have opened up opportunities. Instead, the Lady Vols got impatient on offense and the result was quick shots and misfires.

"We have to be able to counter that strategy, but we still have to take a good shot, a shot that has a high chance of going in," Lockwood said. "You can't take an OK shot in those moments.

"You can always get an OK shot when you have less than five seconds on the shot clock, but when you come down and you have repeated possessions where you quick shoot and you take an OK shot and settle, you play into their hands because now they only have to play 10 to 15 seconds of defense, they get the ball back and you're on your heels."

Those poor shots were part of film study.

"Absolutely," Lockwood said. "Step back a day or so and let the emotion drain out of it and then say, ‘Let's analyze this thing and not do it again.' "

DEFENSE MATTERS: With that in mind it's not a surprise that Tennessee spent most of last week working on defense, especially guarding multiple actions.

"At times we're not very tuned in to stuff," Dean Lockwood said. "We want to be very aware, very alert to things that happen defensively. I like to use the word suspicious. Good defenders, especially off the ball, are always suspicious. They are never, ever, ever totally relaxed and say, ‘Everything is fine.' Something is going to happen.

"It is kind of like the Secret Service when the president is in the room. Those guys are never relaxed. They are looking. Their eyes are darting. They are moving. They know if anything breaks I need to be on top of it.

"That is what a good help-side defender is like. Here comes a possible screen. Here comes a possible cut. What could happen here? I might have to help here."

So, the coaches presented challenges to players both via the court and the film room.

"We are trying to create scenarios where they can do that," Lockwood said. "Just get a lot of reps in on defense and stuff. Probably a 90-10 split, defense to offense."

Inside Tennessee Top Stories