Mike Siroky's SEC Report: Still Reaching for the Summit
The most-experienced rookie coach has Tennessee once again atop SEC
By Mike Siroky
Guru National Columnist
Holly Warlick, it seems, has been at Tennessee forever.
One year after her mentor, Pat Summitt, stepped away, Warlick is officially the coach (she managed all the games last season) and the Lady Vols are back at the top of the Southeastern Conference, ranked No. 9 nationally.
She is the oldest rookie, in her 28th year at the school. “I could not have thought we’d be undefeated at this point,” she said.
Warlick was with Summitt, as a player and coach, for 949 of the coach's 1,098 wins. All the wins last season were credited to Summitt.
Tennessee is undefeated through six SEC challenges, having most recently whacked Auburn and Alabama.
They and defending regular-season champ Kentucky are the only 6-0 teams.
For some reason, they interrupt the SEC run on Jan. 28 for a renewal against No. 2 Notre Dame. That is not likely to happen again in future seasons. Warlick knows the importance of staying focused on league games
“You're undefeated and it's a tough league,” Warlick said. “Any win on the road, at home, it's huge. It's a huge win for us. It may not have gone the way we planned or liked it, but the bottom line is you get it done, then you go home and you get better and correct things that you didn't do right that night."
UT came back from five down the break to erase Auburn and then won crushed Alabama for the 39th straight time. Meighan Simmons scored 29 points in 30 minutes against Auburn and joined four other players in double figures against the Tide.
No one wants to follow a legend, though Warlick has trained her whole life to do so.
Warlick said the toughest part of the anticipated transition was the suddenness with which it arrived. Coach Summitt was diagnosed with early-onset dementia, Alzheimer’s type, and had to step down within a year of her diagnosis. She is still on campus in an advisory role.
“It is what I always thought would happen, not the way it happened,” Warlick said.
On campus, the women’s program has been remarkably consistent. On most campuses, the women’s teams have to be secondary to the men’s programs.
Warlick is magnanimous in sharing the credit for the women’s success.
“Our men’s team successes have made us better as well,” she said. In a college town, basketball has become the thing to do for families.
“People want to get out and see basketball here,” said Warlick, formerly the main recruiter.
She has recruited what she said is a good class for net season and “We got in on the kids we wanted for the ones after that.”
Part of recruiting at Tennessee remains as much finding the students of the game, the players who will commit to the traditions and continue to build upon them as much as simply skilled players.
Still, even Warlick, a participant in the game since its NCAA inception, was not sure this is what women’s basketball would become.
“It still amazes me to come out for a game and see all those people. Our fans are so loyal. They look at what Pat has established and appreciate such a hard-working, traditional basketball team,” she said
And that is what Warlick has in her first year. She knows, as does everyone else, who leads in scoring and other statistical categories.
Ever the point guard, she appreciates most the ones who work the hardest.
“Bashaara Graves (A freshman) is our most consistent player,” she said.
“That’s what I look for. Double-doubles are nice, but consistency and defense will win games. As we find our identity, we will rebound more consistently as a team and play solid defense.”
Among the changes this year is the assembling of her own staff.
“When I was an assistant I had a thousand ideas. They do, too, that is why I hired them. But as the head coach I have to pick which ideas to implement and hope those are the best ones.”
They close the season at Kentucky, a one-game event this season in the extended conference and likely to be a game that decides SEC seeding for the post-season league tournament. You would have had to be a genius to scheduled that one game then and know it would be important, Warlick said.
“And that is a tough game right before the tournament.”
So, no, she said, she wished they played twice and not at the end in order to evaluate themselves as well as the Wildcats.
As always, she will play on, trying to transfer intensity to the players.
The traditions seem to be in good hands.
THE OTHER SEC RANKED TEAMS
• The separation games continue; the best teams put space between them and everyone else. No. 4 Kentucky whacked Mississippi by twice the opponents’ score and then took out Auburn to set their record at 18-1 by starting with a 46-15 halftime advantage. With the nation’s best win streak at 17, 15 by 18 or better. UK increased its school-record for consecutive home wins to 33, with a school-record 14 consecutive SEC home wins.
Not only did the ’Cats extend their streak of 20 or more opponents’ miscues (steals and turnovers) to 136 games, they had 35 against State and 48 (30 steals) against Auburn.
UK takes on South Carolina this week.
•No. 14 Georgia now has two SEC losses but, coupled with 16 wins, have assured Andy Landers of another record entry into the post-season. The won at Arkansas then were blasted at home by No. 16 Texas A&M.
Against Arkansas, Georgia fought back from an 11-point halftime deficit.
They dug a bigger hole against A&M, 39-16. The Aggie bench players had 12 all by themselves as the visitors went on a 13-1 run to close the half. The A&M outside game was working as Courtney Walker scored 12 from the perimeter. The Aggies are the only league team with one loss. This is the one meeting between these two.
The ’Dawgs don’t have another tough test until they open February in a Sunday matinee at UK. A&M ought to continue winning the next five.
•No. 18 South Carolina is dealing with two SEC losses but won twice, at home against LSU and at Florida. Ieasia Walker scored 24, surpassing 1,000 for her career, in the LSU win. Khadijah Sessions had 15 points to lead them.
They went more than nine minutes near the close of the game without a point (and missed 14 straight from the field in that stretch) but, after all, this was Florida. Hitting 5-of-6 from the line in the closing seconds helped the escape. The Gamecocks need to up their game when they welcome in UK on Thursday in a last chance – even this early – to get back in the race.
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