Spokane, WA -- The scene was set. Tennessee held Maryland to its lowest scoring output of the season in their Elite Eight matchup, just one huge final step away from three Lady Vol seniors appearing in their first Final Four.
At times throughout the game it seemed that Holly Warlick's driven squad, playing yet again without projected first-round WNBA draft pick Isabelle Harrison, had enough in them to put an end to Maryland's 27-game win streak to advance to the holy ground of Tampa, Fla.
Cierra Burdick and Ariel Massengale connected on long range three-pointers, following literally in each other's footsteps in the span of a minute and ten seconds, to give the Lady Vols a one-point lead. The 5-foot-7 Massengale even hauled in a rebound and took it coast-to-coast for a layup to push it to 44-41, in favor of her team with less than 10 minutes left in Spokane Arena.
However, the fire and season came to an excruciating end for the two seniors on the court in the final minute of regulation, which Maryland captured with seven free throws. After the weekend's 21-for-22 performance from the free throw line for Tennessee, they just couldn't muster anymore without Harrison, and also with Bashaara Graves having a poor shooting night from the field.
Maryland was just the better team in the end of a hard fought game, which showed how much each team wanted to make it to the next round.
While the goal from day one, for all three seniors, was to make it to the field of play they had never reached before, they did not feel as if their careers could have been lessened, by not reaching one of the toughest points in the tournament for any team.
"I wouldn't of wanted to been a part of any other program," senior forward Cierra Burdick said. "We may not have gotten to a Final Four while I was here. But the person I've become as a person and a player couldn't have been done anywhere else. These coaches and teammates are my family."
From the first morning after Isabelle Harrison went down, with a season-ending knee injury, there were doubters that said Tennessee would struggle to make it past the Sweet 16 -- and even have a chance to compete for the SEC crown.
However, playing with a chip on their shoulder, the Tennessee team battled for a share of the SEC crown on the last day of the regular season, and also were a few calls and shots away, from making it to the Final Four they cared so much about.
"I can't say enough about how they battled this entire season," third-year head coach Holly Warlick said of her seniors. "They have carried us all year and when Isabelle went down Ariel and Cierra realized they needed to step up. They did everything in their ability they could do and I'm proud of them. They've had to deal with a lot."
Massengale in the closing moments fell to the court with her head down and was surrounded instantly by teammates, while Burdick stood on the sideline with the support from all her teammates and coaches, with the final clock ticking to a close.
"Losing at this stage hurts," Massengale said, who scored a game-high 16 points in her final go as the starting point guard for Tennessee. "We felt like we had a really good chance and we wanted it more than anything in the world. Not being able to accomplish your ultimate goal and being a senior and understanding this was our last time hurts."
While the second straight loss to Maryland hurts not only the seniors, but the current players as well, their seniors will leave them with a motivation that will carry on and they will remember for the years to come.
"They need to take advantage of every single day," Burdick said after the game with tears still fresh on her face. "They can't take it for granted. I think you see it with Isabelle. Her season was cut short and our season was too. You have to enjoy every season and make the most out of it."
Despite not returning to Knoxville with a piece of the net they had so hoped for, Burdick and her fellow seniors will not leave the University of Tennessee ashamed of how their career ended.
"Every team is special," Burdick said. "Every team brings something different. The way this team overcame adversity and proved all the naysayers and doubters wrong, that means something."
Next season could be a special one with Diamond DeShields and Mercedes Russell making their emergence and a re-emergence to the court. They will try and take the heart and character with them that they learned from their seniors they were able to see from the sidelines this season.