KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee's second consecutive NCAA Tournament second-round exit underscores how far the Lady Vols have fallen and how much progress they must make to reclaim their status as a national power.
The Lady Vols failed to reach the regional semifinals just once in the first 35 years of the NCAA Tournament, which started in 1982. Now they've fallen short of that benchmark two straight years.
Tennessee's latest exit came Sunday when the Lady Vols squandered an early 10-point lead and fell 66-59 to Oregon State , the first time they'd lost an NCAA Tournament home game after 57 consecutive victories.
"We didn't win today, so I guess the critics can say they were right," Tennessee coach Holly Warlick said after the game. "You can't take away what these kids have done throughout the year with a target on their back. They had to battle critics and everything all year long. I'll take them. I don't care if we lost. I'll take them to battle anytime."
It's a troubling trend for Tennessee, which likely will face more criticism in the wake of its latest second-half fade. After winning its first 15 games, Tennessee went just 10-8.
In the first three seasons of Warlick's coaching tenure, the Lady Vols won 81.1 percent of their games (86-20) and reached two regional finals with one Sweet 16 loss. Those tournament runs were similar to Tennessee's results in its last four years under Pat Summitt, who led the Lady Vols to eight national titles before stepping down in 2012.
But over the last three years, Tennessee has a .664 winning percentage (67-34) with one regional final appearance and two second-round losses. That would be fine at plenty of programs, but Tennessee fans remember watching the Lady Vols annually contend for titles in Summitt's heyday.
"You come here wanting to win championships, and the expectations are extremely high," said Warlick, who has one year remaining on her contract. "Sometimes the things thrown at these kids are unfair. They come wanting to learn and get better and just play the game. They get criticized quite a bit. These kids are tough and they're resilient. I'm tough and I'm resilient, but right now I'm hurting."
But Warlick knows the Lady Vols need to "figure out how this team is going to get better."
Tennessee faces a challenge trying to get better after losing Mercedes Russell and Jaime Nared, who were the Lady Vols' two top scorers as seniors this season. Russell produced her 46th career double-double Sunday to pass Candace Parker's career total and move into second place in school history, behind only Chamique Holdsclaw.
Still, there is reason for optimism.
Three of Tennessee's top five scorers were freshmen Rennia Davis, Anastasia Hayes and Evina Westbrook, who all should only get better. Tennessee's incoming freshman class features McDonald's All-America selections Amira Collins, Zarielle Green and Jazmine Massengill.
But a lack of upperclassmen on next season's roster could make it tough for Tennessee to improve in the short term. The only juniors on Tennessee's 2017-18 team were starting guard Meme Jackson and reserve forward Cheridene Green. The only sophomore was Kamera Harris, who hasn't played much at all her first two seasons.