Lady Vols' Warlick preparing for high expectations

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Tennessee's Holly Warlick feels the difference a year of head coaching experience makes.

She doesn't have to answer as many questions about replacing Pat Summitt, whose 1,098 career wins are the most of any Division I men's or women's basketball coach ever. She doesn't worry about whether she can make the transition from assistant to head coach.

Although Warlick insisted she didn't feel any extra pressure last year as Summitt's successor, she acknowledges she went into her debut season with something to prove.

''I obviously felt I had to prove my worth and that they made the right choice, but I just never got focused on that,'' Warlick said in an interview with The Associated Press.

Warlick made her case by leading Tennessee to a 27-8 record that included a Southeastern Conference regular-season title and a third straight appearance in a regional final. Before the season, SEC coaches picked Tennessee to finish fifth in the conference.

Athletic director Dave Hart said Warlick did a ''tremendous job'' of navigating the Lady Vols into the post-Summitt era.

''It's extremely difficult,'' Hart said. ''If you look at the history of coaches who've followed legends - and certainly that's what Pat Summitt is - it's certainly a difficult task from a lot of perspectives. ... It's very tough to follow a legend, and she's done a very good job to this point in doing just that.''

Warlick now faces a different challenge. After thriving as an underdog last season, Warlick must help Tennessee deal with higher expectations.

Tennessee, which hasn't reached a Final Four since its 2008 national championship, returns five of its top six scorers from last season. The Lady Vols also signed highly touted 6-foot-6 post player Mercedes Russell. But Tennessee took a hit this month when Warlick announced another recruit, guard Jannah Tucker, would not be playing for the Lady Vols or attending Tennessee. Warlick did not go into detail about Tucker's decision, only saying it was based on personal reasons.

The 2014 Final Four takes place in Nashville, less than 200 miles from Tennessee's campus.

''That's always been our goal, to compete for national championships,'' Warlick said. ''We've come up short. That's a huge goal for us. We talk about it. We talk about how it's in Nashville. We're not worried about it. We're excited about it.''

Warlick has passed that message along to her players.

''She's said to us that Nashville is (three) hours away and there's a reason why the Final Four is going to be in Nashville,'' senior guard Meighan Simmons said. ''It's because we're going to have a great year, and anything's possible for us right now. There's no reason why we shouldn't be there this year.''

Tennessee succeeded last year by feeding off the skepticism surrounding the program. When the Lady Vols suddenly were favored to reach the Final Four after No. 5 seed Louisville stunned top-ranked Baylor in the Oklahoma City Regional semifinal, they couldn't handle prosperity and lost 86-78 in the regional championship.

''I thought we were more nervous than (we'd been) the whole year,'' Warlick said. ''We were the hunted instead of hunting people. I thought it affected us early in the game. .... It was a different feel, I think, plus it was a game to get to the Final Four so the magnitude of the outcome was even bigger. It's just something we hadn't been accustomed to all year really.''

Tennessee historically has been very accustomed to those situations.

The Lady Vols won eight national titles under Summitt, who stepped down in April 2012 after announcing a year earlier she had early-onset dementia, Alzheimer's type.

Summitt remains on staff as head coach emeritus. Summitt attended most practices last season and watched most home games from the stands, though she only went to a couple of road games while devoting plenty of time to the foundation she established to fight Alzheimer's disease. She also made some trips to watch her son, Tyler, an assistant women's basketball coach at Marquette.

''We still love Pat being around,'' Warlick said. ''She's there at practices. I thought she would travel with us more last year and she just chose not to travel. I think Pat was very gracious in she thought it was important for her to step away a little bit more and make sure that I had a chance to do my own thing.''

Warlick, who played for Summitt and worked as an assistant on her staff for 27 seasons, expects her former boss to have a similar role this season.

''She still enjoys coming to practice and loves being around our players,'' Warlick said. ''The coaching staff loves her being there. I particularly love her being there. But if she travels, I think she'll go see Tyler's games a bunch.''

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