The GrindFor9 — winning another national title this season in their home state— is over.
The Lady Vols dug themselves into a hole that they couldn’t climb out of Sunday in losing the Louisville Regional semifinal to Maryland 73-62.
“I thought we came out just nervous, a little scared for whatever reason,” Tennessee coach Holly Warlick said. “We didn’t have that fight back at the beginning, and then we got ourselves in a hole.”
Tennessee (29-6) led only once at 3-2 and couldn’t get closer than eight in the second half. The Lady Vols turned it over 22 times, many with the ball just slipping out of their hands.
“Those are the worst ones, the ones you just can’t control,” freshman guard Jordan Reynolds said. “I’d blame it on nerves, but that’s never an excuse.”
Meighan Simmons scored 19 of her 31 points in the second half trying to rally the Lady Vols, but she wound up concluding her career in the same arena where she played her first collegiate game in 2010.
Tennessee had won 10 of the first 14 games with Maryland, including the one previous NCAA tournament game at the 1989 Final Four. The Lady Vols also came into this game having won nine straight and 15 of their last 16, including three times at the Southeastern Conference tournament where they rallied from double digits in all three games in winning the title.
Now they finish a game less than a year ago when they lost in a regional final to Louisville. Tennessee remains stuck on eight national titles and 22 Final Four berths with their last Final Four appearance six years ago. This was the third time in that span the Lady Vols have been a No. 1 seed, and they couldn’t close the gap to get them the 179 miles from Knoxville to Nashville — site of the 2014 Final Four.
“We’re Tennessee, and we’re not happy that we’re not playing for a national championship,” Warlick said. “That’s in our DNA.”
The Terrapins (27-6) reached their ninth regional final and first since 2012 with coach Brenda Frese firing them up before tipoff.
Alyssa Thomas scored the most points allowed to a single player by Tennessee this season with a career-high 33, and she grabbed 13 rebounds to extend her school record with her 65th career double-double. Lexie Brown added 14 points, Laurin Mincy had 11 and Shatori Walker-Kimbrough 10. Warlick said Thomas hurt them the most with Tennessee unable to find a way to stop her.
“She did just about everything she wanted to do,” Warlick said.
The Terps haven’t been to a Final Four themselves since winning the national championship in 2006, and they had lost earlier this season to UConn, Notre Dame and Duke. Brown credited those losses with helping them now.
“We have a lot to prove in this tournament and to get a big win over Tennessee is just giving us a lot more momentum going into our next game,” Brown said.
Jasmine Jones also had 11 points for Tennessee.
“Just knowing that we’re not going to make it to the Final Four is kind of heartbreaking,” sophomore forward Bashaara Graves said.
Maryland dominated with a 38-28 scoring edge in the paint, and the Terrapins also outrebounded Tennessee 38-28. The only place the Lady Vols dominated was at the free throw line, hitting more there (20 of 27) than from the floor (19 of 53).
Maryland led 41-27 at halftime, the biggest deficit Tennessee had faced all season. That put the Lady Vols needing their biggest comeback since Jan. 3, 2009, when they beat Rutgers after trailing by 23.
The Terrapins pushed their lead to as much as 18. Tennessee finally put together its best stretch of the game but couldn’t get closer than eight with Simmons scoring 17 in the second half trying to spark the rally. Each time the Lady Vols scored, Maryland, or rather Thomas, responded with bucket after bucket.