- Kate Fagan, Columnist, espnW.com
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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Before each game, the Tennessee Lady Vols stand in a circle just outside their locker room.
With tipoff just minutes away, the burnt-orange crowd standing in anticipation, the team begins a rhythmic clap -- one, one-two, one -- and then breaks into a sing-song chant, the lilt being exactly what you'd expect to hear in Bluegrass country. Junior Meighan Simmons and seniors Taber Spani and Kamiko Williams, the team's only upperclassmen, know the words without thinking -- just another part of being a Lady Vol, like pulling on an orange practice jersey or high-fiving Smokey.
And that confidence is a good thing, because the freshmen -- Bashaara Graves, Jasmine Jones, Andraya Carter -- don't quite know what they're supposed to be singing. "I still don't have it down yet," Graves says, laughing. "I have the clapping down, so I just clap, try to stay on beat, and maybe say a few of the words that I do know -- just go with it, you know?"
That's actually exactly what this year's Tennessee team is trying to do: Stay on beat. Just go with it. These Lady Vols are young and talented, impressively so -- Sunday's 102-57 win over North Carolina was evidence of that -- but they're also carrying an extra burden. They're the first Tennessee team in 37 years not officially coached by Pat Summitt. (Summitt retired after last season and now serves as head coach emeritus.) Under Summitt for all of those years, the Tennessee program developed a rhythm, a heartbeat. Of course, new coach Holly Warlick wants to keep as much of that rhythm as possible while at the same time guiding the Lady Vols into the future.
It's a future that looks bright, filled with championship potential. And possibly not as far away as some might think.
On Sunday, the No. 16 Lady Vols demonstrated why, come March, they could easily find their way back to the Final Four. (They haven't been since 2008, which for them must feel like decades.) North Carolina entered the game undefeated and ranked No. 22 in the latest poll, but by early in the second half, UNC coach Sylvia Hatchell could be seen frustratingly calling a timeout after watching her team commit yet another turnover. The Tar Heels finished with 30 of them, and this game was a yawner well before the final buzzer.
"What I love about this group is that we're getting better," Warlick, who has been on Tennessee's coaching staff since 1985, said immediately after the game. "We're focused on practice; we're getting better."
In an ideal world, the Lady Vols are a furious whirlwind of uber-talented freshmen and sophomores, all of whom are allowed to play through their mistakes because of the smart contributions and leadership provided by Spani, Williams and Simmons. From those three, Warlick must squeeze all of the leadership that exists in their bones -- all of the smart play, emotional maturity and timely baskets they can muster.
And on Sunday afternoon, Tennessee lived in a version of that ideal world, except this one also came with a dynamic, 33-point performance from Simmons, the total a career high and more than double her season average. The crowd inside Thompson-Boling Arena roared when Warlick subbed out Simmons in the final minutes.
Simmons settled onto the bench to watch a Tennessee lineup that included two freshmen, two sophomores and Williams. You could believe that these were just garbage minutes, a time to let the young guns shine, but you would be wrong. Because at tipoff, Warlick started a lineup of one freshman, three sophomores and Simmons. On the season, the Lady Vols' leading scorer and rebounder is Graves, who is relentless inside the paint. Sophomore Cierra Burdick is 6-foot-2, but at one point during the first half on Sunday she brought the ball downcourt against pressure, then raised her hand, calling the play. In this way, Burdick is also like a point-forward -- as though her smooth jumper weren't advantage enough.
Of course, there were also moments when you could see how this team lost to unranked Chattanooga and needed overtime to defeat Middle Tennessee. The Lady Vols are attempting to be an up-tempo squad: taking chances, forcing turnovers, pushing the ball in transition. And with that style, especially when employed by a slew of not-yet polished youngsters, come mistakes. Like the time in the first half when North Carolina ran a simple stack screen on a baseline out-of-bounds play, curling a guard around for a wide open layup. Or the few-minute stretch of the second half when Tennessee looked like it was about to let the Tar Heels back into the game and Warlick needed to call timeout.
"We want to get to a point where we stay consistent for every game," Spani said. "Middle Tennessee was a mini wake-up call, and I think our intensity and energy wasn't as consistent as we wanted it to be. Right from the get-go, everyone who started came in with intensity and energy. I think that's the difference between us playing a game like this and playing Middle Tennessee or Chattanooga."
Just before tipoff, a minute after executing the Vols' pregame chant that the freshmen are still learning, Spani jogged over to midcourt, to where Summitt now sits for all home games. At the start of the season, Summitt spent a few games watching from the first row behind the bench, but she felt too much like she was looking over everyone's shoulder. So she moved to this new spot, across from the team's bench, first row in the stands. Spani hugged the woman who helped recruit her to Tennessee, then jogged back to ready for the national anthem.
And after the final buzzer, Summitt made her way onto the court and met up with the coaching staff just outside the tunnel leading to Tennessee's locker room. Warlick spotted Summitt and wrapped her in a hug. "That was great," Summitt whispered to her former assistant.
Warlick smiled and nodded.
It's a season of change and unknown in Knoxville. But after Sunday's performance, Tennessee's championship potential might not be as far away as some think.