DULUTH, Ga. — Tennessee left suburban Atlanta on Sunday morning lugging some familiar baggage.
The Lady Vols made no secret about what weighed them down the most.
“Defense,” forward Cierra Burdick muttered after a 66-62 loss to Texas A&M on Saturday in the SEC women’s basketball tournament semifinals. “We’ve been saying this from the beginning of the season. Maybe it took this loss to realize it. Maybe Kentucky wasn’t enough. Maybe we needed to lose here. If this is what it takes to be better in the NCAA tournament, then let it be a blessing in disguise.”
After squandering a 10-point lead over the final 12½ minutes against the Aggies, a few other attributes could’ve been reviewed with similar disdain.
For example, ball-handling — which has been inconsistent throughout the season — was shoddy throughout the tournament.
Texas A&M converted 15 Tennessee turnovers, 11 of which were Aggies steals, into 25 points. While Florida wasn’t as disruptive, the Gators still managed a 12-11 edge in points off turnovers.
Counting a 78-65 loss at Kentucky to end the regular season, Tennessee has surrendered 70 points off its turnovers during the last three games.
Another tournament issue was the battle around the basket. The Lady Vols commanded the high ground the majority of the regular season, but not over the weekend. Florida softened them up on Friday with 42 paint points. Texas A&M added 34 more, plus a 42-31 advantage in rebounding.
“(The Aggies) kind of pushed us around a little bit,” UT guard Kamiko Williams said. “We battled. You can’t say we laid down or nothing like that. We definitely did battle. We just didn’t make the stops when we needed.”
Williams didn’t suddenly lose her train of thought in circling back to defense. The topic was popular throughout the locker room as a means of guarding against any and all calamity.
Against Texas A&M, the Lady Vols did more than talk a good defensive game as well.
Saddled with first-half foul trouble and forced to deploy a smaller lineup, they held A&M to 3 for 10 shooting and came up with three turnovers during the final 4½ minutes of the half.
The trend continued after the break when the Aggies shot 3 for 15 for nearly nine minutes to start the second half.
They finished, though, by scoring points on nine of their last 11 possessions.
“I keep saying it’s lapses,” UT senior Taber Spani said. “I don’t know how to fix that, but we have to figure it out. We have to put our heads together as a team and a coaching staff and figure it out.”
Tennessee’s cause will be helped by the return of center Isabelle Harrison, who leads the team with 42 blocks. She might have returned during the SEC tournament but suffered a setback in her recovery from an injury to the medial collateral ligament in her right knee.
“We had a practice on Thursday and somebody ran into her and tweaked her knee again,” coach Holly Warlick said. “That kind of set her back. I think we’ll have her for the NCAA tournament. I think the next two weeks will be huge for her to rest and for her to rehab and get her knee solid.”
Tennessee vs Texas A&M, March 9, 2013
Tennessee doesn’t play its first NCAA game until March 23 at Thompson-Boling Arena. The tournament selection show is next Monday and the Lady Vols likely will receive no worse than a No. 3 seed.
In the meantime, the break should do them all some good — lighten their load for awhile.
Dan Fleser covers Tennessee women’s basketball. Follow him at http://twitter.com/FleserKNS and http;//blogs.knoxnews.com/fleser.