Lady Vols seek Final Four berth

OKLAHOMA CITY - The Lady Vols met with the media and practiced Monday at Chesapeake Energy Arena the day before the Elite Eight matchup with Louisville. Go inside for story and video interviews.

Holly Warlick stood outside the Lady Vols locker room Monday before her team took the practice court and fielded questions ranging from the Baylor loss to succeeding Pat Summitt.

The head coach looked tired - the staff was up most of the night preparing a scouting report for Louisville - but she was smiling.

No. 2 seed Tennessee (27-7) will take on No. 5 seed Louisville (27-8) at Chesapeake Energy Arena at 9 p.m. Eastern (TV: ESPN2) for the right to seize a Final Four berth in New Orleans.

That Tennessee reached yet another Elite Eight despite the retirement of Pat Summitt and loss of five seniors and two All-Americans is a testament to Warlick and her staff.

That Tennessee won't meet Baylor for the third time in the NCAA postseason is a shock after the Cardinals wrote themselves into sports lore with the upset of the Bears, a juggernaut that seemed predestined to win a second national title.

The Tennessee players were at their downtown Oklahoma City hotel watching the Baylor-Louisville game and reacted as Lady Vol Nation did. They were screaming and jumping on their beds. Cierra Burdick took off running down the hallways.

It wasn't just because Tennessee would not face Baylor in the Elite Eight yet again. It was also because the players had just watched one of the biggest upsets in sports.

"I think we were in a state of shock," Burdick said. "I think the country was in a state of shock."

Warlick returned everyone to reality as soon as she reached her players. She reminded them that Tennessee hadn't won anything yet. It was a message the team needed to hear. It was vintage Summitt, who always reminded players they have never arrived.

Summitt didn't travel with the team to Oklahoma City, but her influence and impact are here.

Sophomore point guard Ariel Massengale said she was motivated to get to a Final Four for Warlick and the seniors. She also wanted to continue Summitt's legacy.

Warlick has spoken to Summitt every day while at the regional site and she heard from her immediately after the win over Oklahoma.

"She is extremely excited," Warlick said. "She was the first person that called me when I went back into the locker room."

Warlick has been loathe to talk about herself this season, but she finally allowed that Summitt is proud of her.

"Yeah, quite a bit," Warlick said softly. "She is proud of this team. She can't help but be proud."

Warlick was the perfect coach to succeed Summitt because she understood the tradition of Tennessee - she lived it as a player and an assistant for 31 years - and she wanted the now head coach emeritus to remain a part of the program. Warlick also was prepared for what became a defining moment of her career.

"I've been working for this all my life," Warlick said. "If I think about it, it can be pressure, but I put it in perspective and I try to go each day and do my job and making sure these young ladies are prepared.

"I love Pat around me. I love her at practice. I talk to her daily. That is how I feel about Pat, a great friend. … I love her being around. I don't feel any pressure from her. She doesn't feel like she gets in our way. She is a part of our staff."

On Tuesday night Warlick and her team have a chance to achieve what Tennessee fans considered a birthright in the Summitt era - a spot in the Final Four.

Warlick is aware of the significance of the achievement, and she especially wants it for seniors Taber Spani and Kamiko Williams.

"I think it would be huge, huge for them," Warlick said. "It's unique at Tennessee in we've created a monster because it's great to win SEC championships, but our fans and everybody, if you don't go to the Final Four and win a national championship, you've had an okay year.

"Now, that's crazy, and I know I was a part of helping build that, but that's crazy. ... Yeah, it would be huge for these young ladies to go to the Final Four."

PROBABLE STARTERS

Tennessee coach Holly Warlick is expected to start: Ariel Massengale, 5-6 sophomore guard, No. 5, hails from Bolingbrook, Ill. (8.1 points per game, 2.6 rebounds per game, 4.5 assists per game); Kamiko Williams 5-11 senior guard, No. 4, hails from Clarksville, Tenn. (7.2 ppg, 4.2 rpg); Meighan Simmons, 5-9 junior guard, No. 10, hails from Cibolo, Texas (17.0 ppg, 3.7 rpg); Taber Spani, 6-1 senior forward, No. 13, hails from Lee's Summit, Mo. (10.8 ppg, 4.5 rpg); and Bashaara Graves, 6-2 freshman forward, No. 12, hails from Clarksville, Tenn. (13.2 ppg, 8.0 rpg).

Louisville coach Jeff Walz is expected to start: Shoni Schimmel, 5-10 junior guard, No. 23 (14.2 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 3.5 apg), hails from Mission, Ore., was 5-8 from the arc against Baylor, First Team All-Big East this season, went over the 1,000-point career mark in third game of the season, nickname is "Shake 'em,' also ran cross-country, played softball in high school; Bria Smith, 5-10 sophomore guard, No. 21 (8.3 ppg, 4.1 rpg), hails from Massapequa, N.Y., had a career-high seven steals against Rutgers and career-high 21 points against DePaul this season, one-time Virginia commit reopened recruitment after Debbie Ryan retired, visited Tennessee; Antonita Slaughter, 6-1 junior guard, No. 4 (10.0 ppg, 5.0 rpg), hails from Louisville, Ky., was 7-9 from the arc against Baylor, Second Team All-Big East this season, sister Toni played for Louisville, brother AJ played basketball at Western Kentucky; Sara Hammond, 6-2 sophomore forward, No. 00 (10.7 ppg, 6.5 rpg), hails from Mt. Vernon, Ky., had seven points, four boards against Baylor, tallied career-high 22 points vs. St. John's in Big East tourney, was the 2011 Kentucky Miss Basketball; and Sheronne Vails, 6-4 junior center, No. 3 (4.0 ppg, 2.7 rpg), hails from Odenton, Md., has started 25 games this season, grabbed 10 boards against Tennessee State, sister Latavia played basketball at Robert Morris, mother Pearl at South Carolina State.

Key players off the bench for Louisville are: Jude Schimmel, a 5-5 sophomore guard from Mission, Ore., and sister of Shoni, was 2-2 from arc against Baylor; and Monique Reid, a 6-1 senior forward from Louisville, Ky., hit the game-winning free throws against Baylor with 2.6 seconds left.

NAYSAYERS SILENCED: Holly Warlick knew the season opening loss to Chattanooga was a rough start - she said Monday she went back to her hotel that evening in November, looked at the schedule and had to just turn it over - but the words of comfort came from Pat Summitt.

"Quite frankly I was wondering what did I get myself into, and the first person I saw was coach Summitt, and she just assured me things would get better, and she told me that she lost her first game, and I thought, well, you know, coach Summitt lost her first game, I'm going to be OK," Warlick said.

The loss, while surprising, wasn't a shock because the Lady Vols opened on the road - it was an in-state game but fans of the Lady Mocs were the majority - with a revamped starting lineup and a young team that got rattled.

Still, it wasn't the start Warlick wanted, because she would be judged on her record. Fortunately, the Lady Vols went on a seven-game win streak, including three victories over top 25 foes.

"It was a little scary," Warlick said. "But we turned it around. But yeah, to lose your first game to an in-state school, it didn't fare too well with myself and I'm sure a lot of fans. They were ready to get rid of me after the first game."

The team that ended the winning streak in December was Baylor in Waco, the opponent the Lady Vols anticipated seeing again if they made it to the Elite Eight in Oklahoma City.

Instead, both Big 12 teams exited early, and Louisville and the Lady Vols will meet for the right to go to New Orleans.

The semifinal outcomes will render the arena a neutral site, unlike Sunday when Oklahoma fans overwhelmingly outnumbered orange ones.

"One of our coaches made the comment, ‘I guess this is how people felt when we were playing in Knoxville in TBA,' " Tennessee post Isabelle Harrison said.

The support of conference didn't carry over for Oklahoma. The Sooners watched the Baylor-Louisville game in the restaurant of their downtown hotel and openly cheered for the Cardinals over their sister school.

Tennessee fans are hoping the Oklahoma-area fans will switch to orange support on Tuesday.

PAINT POINTS: Louisville coach Jeff Walz has become a fortune teller in Oklahoma City after correctly predicting the Cardinals would hit 16 threes against Baylor. He was joking during that Saturday press conference, but then Louisville went 16-25 from the arc.

So, Walz was asked Monday for his game plan against the Lady Vols.

"Layup, layup, layup," Walz said to laughter. "If they're going to guard the three, we're going to shoot layup, layup, layup."

Walz then seriously answered that Louisville would play inside-out.

"If we can go in the post and have an opportunity to score, we will," Walz said. "But if we've got to get inside and kick the ball out, we'll shoot the three, too."

The return of Isabelle Harrison to the post has been vital for Tennessee, because, while the sophomore has been coming off the bench after recovering from two knee injuries, she is vital to the game plan.

"I'm just really thankful," said Harrison, who has spent the past month in rehab with Jenny Moshak. "I feel that all this happened for a reason and is a blessing.

"I feel like I came back at the right time, and God prepared me for something like this and I'm just happy I can be back for our team."

MEDIA LINKS

The transcript of Tennessee's press conference on Monday can be read by CLICKING HERE.

INSIDE TENNESSEE VIDEO COVERAGE

Andraya Carter

Ariel Massengale

Taber Spani

Cierra Burdick

Jasmine Jones

Isabelle Harrison

Nia Moore

Jolette Law

Holly Warlick


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