Lady Vols outperform preseason expectations but fall short of first Final Four since 2008

Tennessee has served notice it will remain nationally relevant in the post-Pat Summitt era.

The next step is to become elite again.

After being picked to finish as low as fifth in the Southeastern Conference, Tennessee instead won the league's regular-season title. But the Lady Vols believe they squandered a golden opportunity Tuesday by falling 86-78 to Louisville in the Oklahoma City Regional final.

"We thought we had a good year, but we didn't have a great year," said Tennessee coach Holly Warlick, who replaced Summitt this season after serving as her assistant for 27 years. "That's just the nature of our program and expectations, whether you're Pat Summitt or myself, it's just what we're all about. It's in our blood. It's in our makeup."

Tennessee won consecutive national titles in 2007 and 2008, but the Lady Vols haven't returned to the Final Four since. That represents Tennessee's longest Final Four drought since the NCAA started running the women's tournament in 1982.

Consider it a testament to the standards Summitt set that the Lady Vols could feel disappointed at the end of a season in which they outperformed national expectations.

Summitt stepped down as Tennessee's coach last April after announcing in 2011 she had early-onset dementia, Alzheimer's type. She won 1,098 games at Tennessee and led the Lady Vols to eight national titles and 18 Final Fours.

Warlick took over for Summitt and inherited a roster that didn't include a single player who had started an NCAA tournament game last season.

Tennessee was fourth in the SEC preseason media poll, while the league's coaches predicted the Lady Vols would finish fifth in the conference. The Lady Vols were ranked 20th in the preseason Top 25. After getting stunned by Chattanooga in their season opener, they dropped to 24th, their lowest ranking since 1985.

"Quite frankly, I was wondering what did I get myself into," Warlick said. "And the first person I saw (after the Chattanooga game) was coach Summitt, and she just assured me things would get better. 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.'"

The Lady Vols also encountered plenty of injuries. Freshman guard Andraya Carter underwent season-ending shoulder surgery after starting five of Tennessee's first seven games. Sophomore center Isabelle Harrison missed 10 games with injuries to her right ankle and both knees. Sophomore forward Cierra Burdick sat out eight games with a broken right hand.

Yet the Lady Vols finished 27-8 and reached a regional final for the third consecutive season.

The Lady Vols "believed in each other," senior guard Kamiko Williams said. "Our coaching staff believed in us. And we just stuck together. It was a family. And we just bonded, and I love that about my teammates and our coaching staff. Like I told them in the locker room, I'll take this team over the past three teams I've been on, because I've never seen so much fight in a group of girls."

Williams and Spani, the Lady Vols' only two seniors, exemplified the team's tenacity.

Spani briefly fell out of the starting lineup early in the season. Williams played fewer than 10 minutes in each of Tennessee's first two games. By the end of the season, they arguably were Tennessee's two best players.

Wiilliams scored a career-high 18 points in a victory over Texas A&M that clinched the SEC regular-season title. Spani had 20 second-half points against Louisville as Tennessee nearly came all the way back from a 20-point deficit. Each averaged 11.8 points in the NCAA tournament to tie for the team lead.

"They're tremendous leaders for us this year, and they put their heart and soul in the whole year," Warlick said.

The Lady Vols return everyone else next season, including third-team AP All-America guard Meighan Simmons and SEC newcomer of the year Bashaara Graves. Tennessee also adds a heralded group of freshmen that features 6-foot-6 post player Mercedes Russell, rated by ESPN's Hoop Gurlz recruiting service as the nation's No. 1 prospect in her class.

The way this season ended should give Tennessee plenty of motivation. Louisville's upset of defending national champion Baylor on Sunday appeared to give Tennessee a much easier path to the Final Four, but the Lady Vols couldn't capitalize.

"That's the great thing and the amazing thing about this program," Spani said. "No matter what the transition was, no matter what it looked like, no matter what excuse you might put out, if you're a young team or not, the bar is the Final Four.

"I think that's what makes this program special. So to come short of that is disappointing."