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Tennessee turnaround lands Lady Vols in 34th Sweet 16

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Warlick talks about Tennessee win (2:24)

Tennessee coach Holly Warlick discusses how her team advanced past Arizona State into the Sweet 16. (2:24)

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Tennessee guard Andraya Carter assures you that you definitely would not have wanted to be on either trip. When the Lady Vols were returning from losses at LSU and Alabama in the last full week of February, they were accompanied by an almost overwhelming sense of frustration and dread.

Here was a program that had never missed the NCAA tournament, but was in danger of doing just that. They were a bunch of former blue-chip recruits with big expectations who had just lost to two teams at the bottom of the SEC standings. One of whom -- the Crimson Tide -- hadn't beaten Tennessee since 1984. It was, frankly, embarrassing.

On top of it all, for the first time in 31 years, the Lady Vols had fallen out of the Associated Press Top 25 on Feb. 22 after the loss to LSU. This was the legendary, eight-time champion Orange Crush? It seemed a little like a great castle that had begun to crumble before everyone's eyes, and no one could figure out how to stop it.

Except ... the Lady Vols actually did just that. They stopped it. And as Carter sat in the locker room at Arizona State on Sunday night after the No. 7 seed Lady Vols beat the second-seeded Sun Devils 75-64 to advance to the Sweet 16, she had to smile a little even when talking about the worst of it.

"In the beginning of the season, we were losing because we hadn't meshed," she said. "That was really hard because we knew we had so much potential, but it wasn't fitting together. We were all very confused because people were like, 'Are there problems internally?' And we were like, 'No, we all get along and have fun.' But it wasn't working.

"And then in the second half of the season, all of those losses had built up. So every game, the pressure was bigger. We'd say, 'This is the game that's going to turn the season around.' But then there would be a missed layup or a bad foul or something that didn't go our way, and it would be like, 'Oh, here we go again. We're losing it again.'"

But before their last game at Thompson-Boling Arena on Feb. 28, the fact that it was senior day gave the Lady Vols something else to focus on besides the usual pre-game worry-fest. They played well in beating Georgia 80-60; that was the most points they'd scored since late December. It was a chance to go into the SEC tournament on a good note. But even so, they thought they had to win at least a couple of games there to be completely sure they'd be headed to the Big Dance.

"All of those losses had built up. So every game, the pressure was bigger. We'd say, 'This is the game that's going to turn the season around.' But then there would be ... something that didn't go our way."

Tennessee's Andraya Carter on the second half of the season

They did that, and some fog really began to lift. Now after two victories here in Tempe, they are headed to the Sioux Falls regional semifinal, where they'll face No. 3 seed Ohio State on Friday.

If you're a Tennessee fan, you've been through the ringer this season with your team. But that's nothing compared to what coach Holly Warlick -- who has been "fired" countless times by cranks on Twitter in recent months -- her staff and the Tennessee players have been through.

It's a pretty difficult thing to be a college athlete with the legacy of one of the country's greatest women's sports programs in your hands -- and you feel like you've dropped it and broken it into pieces.

But what we saw during the SEC tournament in Jacksonville, Florida, and then again here in the Valley of the Sun was a Tennessee team that was no longer just waiting for things to go wrong. Instead, it was a team that was starting to successfully limit its mistakes -- and also be able to make up for them when they did happen.

"It's been a resilient battle for us," said Tennessee's Diamond DeShields, who led the way with 24 points Sunday. "And we're still not done. Yeah, we heard the negative things that people were saying about us, but we knew the type of team we were capable of being. We stood together and stood strong, and now we're proving a lot of people wrong."

She's absolutely right about that. How many of us wrote off the Lady Vols after that dreadful 54-46 loss at Alabama? Or even before that? How about the LSU game, when Mercedes Russell missed two free throws with 4.5 seconds left, then Carter inexplicably fouled LSU's Alexis Hyder? She hit both her free throws, and the Lady Vols lost 57-56.

Carter, a redshirt junior, received plenty of heat from fans and media (including this writer) for being an experienced player making such a critical error. And she felt that heat; it hurt.

"I felt like my leadership had been compromised, because it was such a dumb play," Carter said. "But my teammates pulled me aside and said, 'Look, stop blaming yourself. That's how our whole season has been. It wasn't like we played amazing and you blew it. We played terrible and didn't deserve to win.

"I had to do some sports-psychology stuff to re-frame it and learn from it. And my coaches said, 'It's over. The only thing you can do is to not do it again.' I felt like I had let the team down, but I wasn't going to keep doing that."

It's fair to say that every single Tennessee player, certainly not just Carter, has had moments this season where she felt she had failed. Yet the Lady Vols didn't give up on themselves or one another.

On Friday, against a Green Bay defense that was determined to take away the inside game, Tennessee shot poorly -- 38.2 percent -- but made enough key plays late to win 59-53. On Sunday, against Arizona's more aggressive man-to-man defense, Tennessee relied on its superior athleticism and size. Plus the Lady Vols limited their errors. They had just 12 turnovers, won the rebounding battle 36-30 and shot 51.8 percent (29-of-56).

It was a game in which every Lady Vol who was on the hardwood did something important to earn the victory. Along with DeShields, there were three other Lady Vols who scored in double figures: Jordan Reynolds and Russell scored 12 points each, and Jaime Nared had 11. Senior Bashaara Graves had eight points and led the Lady Vols with 11 rebounds.

Carter and the other reserves provided quality minutes off the bench and helped Tennessee hold the Sun Devils to 39 percent shooting from the field (23-of-59). And after scoring just 22 points in the paint against Green Bay, the Lady Vols had 42 against Arizona State.

"We struggled, we lost games, we were really, really bad. We couldn't finish the job. But right now, I think we're playing the best basketball of the year."

Coach Holly Warlick on Tennesssee's low points this season

And now, after prevailing through a near-wipeout of a season, Tennessee is going to the regional semifinals for the 34th time in 35 tournament appearances. (The lone exception was a first-round loss in 2009.)

"We struggled, we lost games, we were really, really bad," Warlick said of the lowest points for Tennessee this season. "We couldn't finish the job. But right now, I think we're playing the best basketball of the year."

And so the journey home from Tempe, then, was much different than some of the unpleasant trips the Lady Vols have had to take back to Knoxville this season. They deserved a happy flight. They've earned it. And they're not done traveling, because their season is still alive.