The Lady Vols proceeded to sleepwalk through a win against Mississippi State and slogged through an excruciatingly slow win against Mississippi, but hardly showed any signs of much bigger things to come. Then the Lady Vols suffered a 72-71 loss to the Arkansas Razorbacks on Thursday, which Omni Rankings rated as arguably their biggest.upset loss of the season.
Yet rather than a letdown after the Kentucky blowout, the loss was just the latest in a series of disappointing firsts for the Lady Vols this season, as David Hooper of SB Nation's Rocky Top Talk described on Thursday night.
1. Tonight marked the first time Tennessee lost to Arkansas at home.
2. Earlier in the season, Tennessee also lost to South Carolina at home for the first time ever.
3. Neither Stricklen nor Johnson scored in the first half.
4. Kentucky won their first regular season SEC title ever.
That's not to mention that the loss was the third at home this season, another program first.
In a sense, the Arkansas loss itself was just a microcosm of a season already marred by disappointing losses and lackluster wins. The team's stars were almost irrelevant in the first half while Arkansas' stepped up, Arkansas controlled the tempo for most of the game, and ultimately - and most importantly - it was easier to root for Arkansas as not only the underdog but plainly the team that just seemed to want it more.
As the program gets set to honor its seniors today against a Florida Gators that has been hungry to make its mark on the SEC all season, the Lady Vols' firsts from this season will unavoidably hang over the heads of these seniors as a bitter reminder of failed expectations, unrealized potential, and a team led by All-Americans and soon-to-be WNBA draft picks that still struggles to translate practice into game day production.
That's not to say that this crew Lady Vols can't make the Final Four this year - clearly they have the talent and as Robinson said, if Shekinna Stricklen decides to turn it on in the tournament a deep run would hardly be surprising despite their disappointing firsts this season. Maybe the light bulb will finally go off, they'll peak at the right time, and avoid another first by becoming the first Lady Vols class never to reach a Final Four. However thus far this season, the Lady Vols have done little more than realize the lowest of their expectations and shown an inability to flip that switch when it was necessary for them to do so.
A loss against Florida today wouldn't result in another historically disappointing first, but would be further evidence of underachievement: Tennessee would risk dropping into a tie for third place and possibly missing out on a first round bye in the conference tournament for only the third time in program history. If any extra motivation is needed on Senior Day, perhaps that will help.
But with their backs already against the wall, the ongoing question for motivation in the face of disappointment is exactly part of the problem.
The Lady Vols will face the Gators at 3:30 p.m. EDT on ESPNU/ESPN3.com while the #16 Georgia Bulldogs will host the LSU Tigers at 5 p.m. EDT on ESPN2/ESPN3.com in a game that could have implications for the Lady Vols should they lose.