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With streak behind them, Lady Vols must focus on the present, future

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Lady Vols' 31-year run in AP poll comes to end (2:42)

espnW bracketologist Charlie Creme discusses the impact of Tennessee falling out of the AP poll for the first time since 1985 and why the team needs to find an identity. (2:42)

The day has been coming for a while; there are those, in fact, who insist that it should have come weeks ago. Tennessee, for the first time in 31 years, is not in the Associated Press women's basketball poll.

After a dreadful loss at LSU on Sunday that was a microcosm of this season -- offensive droughts, poor shooting, a comeback that went for naught because of critical mistakes late in the game -- the Lady Vols are not ranked for the first time since 1985. After having dropped out briefly, they returned Feb. 17 of that year, and had remained in the poll ever since.

That predates me by about a decade as an AP voter. This week was the first time I didn't have Tennessee on my ballot. That the Lady Vols hung in the rankings this long in this up-and-down season reflected respect for their history, but also the fact that enough teams near the bottom of the rankings also kept losing.

The way things have been going in 2015-16, though, this was a matter of "when" not "if." Tennessee is 16-11 overall and, at 7-7, is in ninth place in the SEC. Tennessee is averaging 65.6 points per game, ninth-best in the SEC. Their 41.2 field goal percentage is eighth-best in the league.

As mentioned, some women's basketball fans and media have complained that it took until now for Tennessee to drop from the Top 25, and that "history" should have nothing to do with voting. But the reality is, polls are always a manufactured and imperfect gauge of programs whose past tends to play some role in how they are evaluated.

If it was hard for voters to eliminate the Lady Vols from the rankings, it's because decades of success made it hard. Tennessee's 18 NCAA Women's Final Four appearances and eight NCAA titles, plus the program's leading role for so many years in the SEC, are legendary feats in women's athletics.

But Tennessee really has not been able to fix the things that have plagued the team all season. Back in late November, after a loss at home to Texas, Tennessee guard Andraya Carter said, "It shows that while you can beat some teams not playing the way you're supposed to, you can't beat the top teams. This is a lesson we needed to learn."

However, two and half months later, the Lady Vols just lost to a team nowhere near the top; it was just the third league victory for LSU this season. Tennessee had a 56-55 lead with 5 seconds left with center Mercedes Russell at the line. She missed both foul shots, and then Carter inexplicably fouled LSU's Alexis Hyder, who got the rebound. Hyder made both her free throws, leaving Carter with only a desperation heave that didn't come close.

Afterward, Tennessee coach Holly Warlick said, "I don't know why she fouled or what she was doing, but she fouled her."

Carter is a redshirt junior, and Russell a redshirt sophomore. They are not freshmen who don't have experience. They are players at an age to make plays at the end of game to secure a win.

The thing is, that very trait -- being able to finish off victories -- was Tennessee's hallmark for decades. Most of the time, the Lady Vols were playing with the lead. Not for nothing did I typically refer to them as the Orange Crush.

But even in those times when they were trailing, they were known for their epic comebacks that seemed inevitable. Just consider three of their national championship seasons when they trailed by double-digits during NCAA tournament games.

They came back from down as much as 18 to Virginia in the 1996 Elite Eight. They trailed North Carolina by 12 with about 7 minutes left in both the 1998 Elite Eight and the 2007 national semifinal. All three times -- and many other similar occasions -- Tennessee prevailed.

It might seem unfair and unimportant at this point to bring up "ancient" history, but there is a broader picture to see here. Past success can be a great motivator and building block -- or it can be a millstone. And right now, the Lady Vols appear to be playing as if it's the latter, something heavily weighing on them.

"I've tried to stay supportive, and I think a lot of alums have," said Tamika Catchings, who won a title with the Lady Vols in 1998 and has been one of the most successful pro players out of Tennessee, with a WNBA title and three Olympic gold medals.

"Everybody who goes through high times at some point is going to hit some lows. It's just how life is. One thing I have challenged them with is to play with pride. No matter what, you still have to work and take pride in your game."

That said, Catchings understands that too much of the message of "Do you know the legacy you're supposed to uphold?" may be counterproductive for the current players.

"For me, when I talk to them, it's definitely a balance," Catchings said. "I don't want to overwhelm them. But I've practiced with them, too. I'm not just talking. If I'm in the gym there, I'll do whatever to help them. I don't want to just talk 'at' them. But you can't discount the alums who care and want to share their concerns and support. At the end of the day, though, I'd tell players, 'I can't give you my heart and what I play with. That's something you have to have on your own.'"

"Everybody who goes through high times at some point is going to hit some lows. ... One thing I have challenged them with is to play with pride. No matter what, you still have to work and take pride in your game."

Tamika Catchings on Tennessee

There's no overstating the obvious: This program has been through an extremely difficult thing with Pat Summitt's diagnosis of dementia in 2011 and her subsequent move to a coaching emeritus role after the 2011-12 season. Warlick is only six years younger than Summitt, and had been her assistant for nearly three decades. It seems unlikely that Warlick ever really envisioned herself being Tennessee's head coach. It took a tragic illness for that to happen.

A Tennessee alum and Knoxville native, Warlick is as loyal a guardian and protector of Summitt's legacy as anyone. It is no insult to Warlick -- or to anyone -- to say that trying to follow Summitt is ridiculously hard. Summitt is an iconic figure in sports history. Talk to people throughout women's basketball, pro and college, and everyone has empathy for the position Warlick is in.

For the 2011-12 season, Warlick was the de facto head coach but kept reminding people Summitt was still in charge. After that, Warlick took over during a tumultuous time at Tennessee, with a new athletic director in Dave Hart, the merging of the men's and women's athletic departments, and the layoffs of some long-term employees that left a lot of emotions raw and scars that remain unhealed. The Tennessee athletic department's legal issues -- including a recent lawsuit alleging "a hostile sexual environment and culture" -- have also impacted the Lady Vols.

Warlick has tried to carve out her own place as the program's head coach, while also dealing with her own grief over her mentor's illness. And it's not as if the rest of the SEC or women's college basketball has been standing still. Programs such as South Carolina -- which has won or shared the SEC title now three years in a row -- have challenged Tennessee's supremacy in its own league.

Meanwhile, the program that most Tennessee fans loathe, UConn, continues at the top of the sport. The Huskies appear well on their way to an 11th NCAA championship. They're undefeated, and it's difficult to envision anyone upsetting them this season.

UConn is ranked No. 1 again -- Monday marked the 200th week overall that the Huskies have been in that spot in their history -- and Storrs, Connecticut, is the site for a USA Basketball training camp that concludes on Tuesday. Team USA is coached by UConn's Geno Auriemma, and several former Huskies players are expected to make the team.

The juxtaposition of so much going right for the Huskies and the difficulties facing the Lady Vols is an unpleasant thing for Tennessee fans. There is no other way to put it. There was a time not so long ago when UConn and Tennessee were both ahead of the rest of women's basketball.

Since Tennessee ended the series after the 2007 season, the two programs haven't met. Tennessee won its eighth title in 2008, but hasn't been back to the Women's Final Four since. UConn hasn't missed a Final Four since 2007.

Alas, what Tennessee has to do now, though, is focus on trying to play as well as possible for the two games left in the regular season, the SEC tournament, and the NCAA tournament, which they still are projected to make.

It likely feels to Tennessee's players as if they are competing against the past as well as their present opponents, and always losing to at least one of those "foes." But to move forward, they will have to try to let go of the part of their history that now feels burdensome, and instead draw on the alums, the fans, and the spirit that still exists in Knoxville.

Easier said than done, admittedly. After 31 years, the Lady Vols are unranked. It's certainly not the end of the world. But it is the end of a remarkable streak. Which means, at some point, there will be a new one to start. Maybe that's the best way for the Lady Vols to approach it.