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Lady Vols hope better unity produces better finish

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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP)

The Lady Vols believe they have the leadership and team unity they need to reach the Final Four after three straight losses in the regional finals.

Tennessee hasn't reached a Final Four since its 2008 national championship, which represents the Lady Vols' longest absence since the NCAA started running the tournament in 1982.

''If it doesn't bother any of these players on this team, they don't need to have a Tennessee uniform on,'' Tennessee coach Holly Warlick said Wednesday during the team's media day event.

With the Final Four taking place in Nashville this season, the Lady Vols want to win a ninth national title in their home state. The cover of the Lady Vols' media guide has Warlick holding a plated steel object in the shape of the state of Tennessee with the slogan ''Grind for 9'' inside the borders.

Tennessee's appearance in the last three regional finals shows the Lady Vols aren't far away. Warlick took steps during the offseason to address areas where she thought the team needed improvement.

Warlick believed the team's leadership in the past was good, but not good enough. Coaches and players also wanted better team chemistry.

''I don't think we were as close as we could have been, and I think that really hurt us down the stretch,'' junior forward Cierra Burdick said. ''Unfortunately, I feel like if we would have been closer as a team in the past, we could have gone to those Final Fours.''

The Lady Vols say that won't be a problem this season.

All the players stayed on campus and lived in the same building this summer, though sophomore forward Bashaara Graves and junior guard Ariel Massengale left at one point to win gold medals with USA Basketball in different international tournaments.

The Lady Vols got to know one another better. They had cooking contests, which revealed senior guard Meighan Simmons is the team's top chef as well as its top returning scorer. They participated in a retreat that helped build teamwork.

''We did a ropes course,'' Graves said. ''I'm afraid of heights and they all just talked me through it and said it was OK. I just loved that. I had the support which I needed to do that because I definitely didn't want to do it.''

The Lady Vols believe those offseason activities will pay off when they open their schedule Nov. 8 at Middle Tennessee.

''The chemistry is completely different,'' said Simmons, the Lady Vols' lone senior. ''We are more together than anything. We focus on making one another better instead of just focusing on making ourselves better.''

Tennessee returns five of it is top six scorers from a team that went 27-8 and won a Southeastern Conference regular-season title last year. The Lady Vols also add perhaps the nation's most heralded freshman in 6-foot-6 center Mercedes Russell.

The Lady Vols are loaded in the frontcourt with Russell joining a talent-laden group that also features Graves, the 2012-13 SEC newcomer of the year. Warlick also expects to see improvement from her point guards.

Massengale has started 54 games over the past two seasons but now is being pushed by redshirt freshman Andraya Carter and freshman Jordan Reynolds. Warlick says Massengale benefited from her experience in the World University Games this summer and is thriving amid the increased competition.

''We always talk about how the point guard is an extension of the head coach,'' Massengale said. ''Coach Warlick and I, we watch film often, we're talking all the time and making sure that we're on the same page.''

The players and coaches are definitely in agreement regarding the team's major goals. While the SEC media have picked Tennessee to win a second straight conference title, the Lady Vols are setting their sights higher.

''We want to get over the hump,'' Burdick said. ''We're tired of going to Elite Eights. We want to hang up another banner.''

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