DULUTH, Ga. — History won’t pull on a white uniform with orange and blue trim and take the court for Tennessee today.
Too bad, since the top-seeded Lady Vols could assemble an army on their behalf just from their last three year’s worth of experience at the SEC women’s basketball tournament.
They open against No. 9 seed Florida (18-13) in the first of four quarterfinal games at Gwinnett Arena (TV: SportSouth, noon). The Gators beat Arkansas 64-59 in a second-round game on Thursday.
Tennessee (23-6) has won the tournament three consecutive years in dominant fashion. The average margin of victory in the nine games has been 17.4 points.
The tournament’s most valuable player award has been handed like a baton across the years from former Lady Vols Alyssia Brewer to Shekinna Stricklen and finally to Glory Johnson.
Junior Meighan Simmons played on two of those teams and recalled the teamwork. Sophomore Cierra Burdick remembered how well last season’s
team followed each day’s game plan and prioritized such staples as defense and rebounding.
“We have players on this team who have lived through that and done it and done it well,’’ assistant coach Dean Lockwood said. “We’re going to rely a lot on their leadership.”
Tennessee also can draw upon similar motivation. The team that won here three years ago still was distancing itself from the 11 losses of the 2008-09 season. First-year Coach Holly Warlick thinks this team still hasn’t forgotten the preseason predictions, which placed it as low as fifth in the SEC standings.
“I think this team is motivated by people still doubting if they’re legit,” she said. “So in the back of their minds, they’re still out to prove that they’re where they’re supposed to be. I love that. I think it’s great for us.”
Last Sunday’s 78-65 loss at Kentucky might work to UT’s advantage as well. While it doesn’t add up like four regular-season conference losses did for last year’s team, the embarrassment caused by 31 turnovers against the Wildcats has lingered.
“We’re capable of doing much more than what we showed,” Burdick said.
What the Lady Vols really need, however, is a few more experienced players. The past three UT teams had depth on their side. Two years ago, nine players logged double-figure playing minutes in the tournament championship game.
Tennessee likely will have just nine players available today. Warlick said on Wednesday that center Isabelle Harrison (knee) is doubtful.
“This is just facing adversity; we have to be resilient,” Burdick said. “I think we’ve done this the entire season. So we just have to continue to play with the cards we’re dealt.”
As she’s done before, Warlick said she will consider using seldom-used reserves Nia Moore and Jasmine Phillips.
“It’s going to be valuable to try to sneak them in for a couple of minutes,” Warlick said. “I think we’re going to have to try to get them some minutes.”
Florida played just eight players against Arkansas, but the Gators’ backups accounted for a 26-11 edge in bench scoring. Florida’s other statistical advantage was 12-7 in second-chance points.
“They don’t stop playing,” Lockwood said. “They play so hard. They’re physical. They’re quick on the perimeter, very good offensive rebounders They’re doing the things we’ve had trouble with.”
They did enough to force overtime when the teams met in Gainesville, Fla., on Jan. 13. Tennessee prevailed 78-75.
“This (Tennessee) team can’t look ahead; we can’t prepare ahead,” Warlick said. “We have to stay in the moment.”
Dan Fleser covers Tennessee women’s basketball. Follow him at http://twitter.com/FleserKNS and http;//blogs.knoxnews.com/fleser.