KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee is breathing a sigh of relief after receiving one of the last at-large spots in this year’s women’s NCAA Tournament to remain the only school to play in every tourney in the event’s 38-year history.
Now that they’re in, the Lady Vols are looking to avoid an early exit.
That could be a challenge for Tennessee, which has the worst RPI of any team to earn an at-large berth this year. At one point, the Lady Vols were ranked in the top 10 before struggling through the second half of the season.
“We’re grateful for the opportunity,” Tennessee coach Holly Warlick said in a statement released by the school Monday night.
Tennessee (19-12) is the 11th seed in the Albany Region and faces UCLA (20-12) on Saturday at College Park, Maryland.
While the Lady Vols’ brand obviously still carries weight in the sport, to be relieved to get an at-large bid is stunning for a program that prides itself on its eight national championships and 18 Final Four appearances under former coach Pat Summitt.
It has been a year of dubious firsts for the Lady Vols.
— They finished below .500 in Southeastern Conference competition for the first time ever.
— Tennessee had its first six-game losing streak since 1970.
— The Lady Vols fell at home to in-state rival Vanderbilt for the first time. That Vanderbilt team finished 7-23, becoming arguably the worst team ever to beat Tennessee.
“I think it’s fair to wonder a little bit about their confidence,” SEC Network analyst and former Georgia coach Andy Landers said. “I would say that their confidence has taken a hit. Do they have that back? They’re talented. If they’re confident and they can be consistent, then this is a team that can have success in the tournament, no question about it.”
Tennessee seemed aware of its precarious postseason status. The school issued a news release that included comments from Warlick and three players after the brackets were revealed Monday instead of allowing the media access to the team during the selection show telecast.
“It definitely was a relief,” senior forward Cheridene Green said in the release. “I’ve been anxious thinking about it, being on the bubble. It’s definitely reassuring to know that we’re in, and now we can get back to work and really start preparing productively.”
Tennessee is 60th in the RPI . Central Florida, seeded 12th in the Portland Region, is the only at-large team with a lower seed.
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Last year, Nebraska also earned an at-large bid while ranking 60th in the RPI.
Rhonda Lundin Bennett, the chair of the NCAA Division I women’s basketball championship committee, said Tennessee’s brand and drawing power didn’t play a factor in the Lady Vols’ inclusion. Bennett cited Tennessee’s schedule strength and 11-2 nonconference record.
“We start over every year and really do look at a team’s body of work in the current year,” Bennett said. “Past tournament experience, past history doesn’t play any impact. The determining factors for getting them in the field were their significant wins. They had five wins versus top-50 teams.”
Those five wins included road victories at Texas (28th in the RPI), Missouri (30th) and Auburn (50th) plus home triumphs over Belmont (47th) and Auburn .
Charlie Creme, who conducts NCAA Tournament bracket projections for ESPN, said in a teleconference last week that Tennessee benefited from the fact that the teams on the bubble didn’t have very strong credentials this year.
“This Tennessee team would not be in the mix, I think, in a different year and in a different set of circumstances,” Creme said. “But there’s just not a lot else to pick from, quite honestly.”
Tennessee won 12 of its first 13 games and has shown in those wins over top-50 teams that it still has plenty of potential.
“I don’t recall anyone really questioning Tennessee’s capabilities all year long,” Landers said. “I think people acknowledge that they’re talented enough to be successful. They’ve proven that in some games. I think the question I would have is how consistent can they be as they start in the tournament.”
But the Lady Vols are limping into the NCAA Tournament, having gone just 7-11 since that strong start while relying heavily on underclassmen. Tennessee has six McDonald’s All-Americans on its roster, but they’re all freshmen and sophomores.
“We just want to seize the opportunity,” sophomore guard/forward Rennia Davis said. “I think that there was some concern going into the show, wondering if we’d make the tournament, but (now) we’re focused, and we’re grateful for the opportunity, and we want to make the most of it.”
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