KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — During a season in which little else has gone according to plan for Tennessee, the Lady Volunteers are right where they usually are this time of year: Back in the Sweet 16.
Tennessee (21-13) set a school record for losses, fell out of the Top 25 for the first time since 1985 and posted its lowest seed ever in the NCAA Tournament. That’s unfamiliar territory for a program with eight national championships.
Yet the Lady Vols are in the Sweet 16 for the 34th time in the tournament’s 35-year history. The only year Tennessee didn’t get this far was 2009, when it lost in the first round to Ball State.
“We may be considered one of the worst teams in Lady Vol history to some,” guard Diamond DeShields said. “Some people are selling their tickets. Some people are just doing a lot of things that we see and that we can’t avoid. So, yeah, we are playing with a chip on our shoulder. Nobody expects us to win, yet we’re still here.”
The seventh-seeded Lady Vols face No. 3 seed Ohio State (26-7) on Friday in a Sioux Falls Regional semifinal. No. 1 seed South Carolina (33-1) meets No. 4 seed Syracuse (27-7) in the other semifinal.
If the Lady Vols can scratch out two more wins they would return to the Final Four for the first time since their 2008 national championship. Tennessee football coach Butch Jones gave the squad a pep talk before Wednesday’s practice as the Lady Vols prepared to head to South Dakota.
“We talked a lot about how we’re 0-0 beginning the NCAA” Tournament, Tennessee coach Holly Warlick said. “Your record, your ranking, all that doesn’t matter. … Did you learn from your experience in what you did and where you came from? I think we did learn from our experience.”
Tennessee’s disappointing regular season caused the Lady Vols to take a different path than usual to the regional semifinals.
The Lady Vols typically play the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament at home because they’ve been a No. 1 or No. 2 seed 27 of the last 30 years. Tennessee went on the road this time and upset No. 2 seed Arizona State on the Sun Devils’ home floor in the second round.
“Being an underdog is fun, especially in March,” guard Jordan Reynolds said.
Tennessee’s surge coincides with the emergence of DeShields, who has averaged 19.7 points over her last six games. The North Carolina transfer had been held scoreless in two of the three games leading up to that stretch.
DeShields has dealt all season with a leg injury that the team has described as shin splints, and she also acknowledges she put too much pressure on herself. DeShields said she benefited from a dinner conversation with assistant coach Jolette Law after going scoreless in a late-season loss to Alabama, the first time the Crimson Tide had beaten Tennessee since 1984.
“She just had a talk with me about how I just needed to get myself out of this box and just be Diamond,” DeShields said. “Ever since that night, I feel like I’ve been more myself. Not only coach Law, but all my coaches, they’ve kind of just allowed me to play through a lot of my mistakes and just kind of get back to playing freely like I usually do.”
Tennessee still faces a tough road to the Final Four as the lowest seed left in its regional. The Lady Vols have the difficult task of slowing down Ohio State’s Kelsey Mitchell, who scored 45 points Sunday against West Virginia.
If the Lady Vols win that game, they’d have a rematch with South Carolina or Syracuse. Tennessee beat Syracuse 57-55 at home on Nov. 20. The Lady Vols have lost three straight games to South Carolina over the last two seasons, including a 62-56 decision in Knoxville on Feb. 15.
“We still have our eyes set on a national championship, a Final Four,” DeShields said. “In order to do that, we have to continue to play the way we’ve been playing, which is with a chip on our shoulder.”