Top-seeded Lady Vols primed for Final Four, national-title run

Meighan Simmons (SEC Player of the Year) and the top-seeded Lady Vols (27-5 overall) have won 13 of their last 14 games.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Holly Warlick figured the Tennessee Lady Vols had done enough to earn a No. 1 seed in the NCAA women’s basketball tournament, which starts this weekend.

After all, third-ranked Tennessee has won 13 of 14 games, including sweeping through national powers LSU, Texas A&M and Kentucky, to win the SEC tournament for a record 17th time.

However, the second-year coach has been around long enough, including 27 years as assistant coach to legendary Tennessee coach Pat Summitt, to never be surprised when it comes to seeding and bracketing the 64-team NCAA tourney field.

"I felt good about it," Warlick said of being the No. 1 seed of the Louisville Region, "but I don’t know if we are ever confident about anything that we think is going to happen. It’s good to see us in a bracket (as) a No. 1 seed," she added. "That’s what we were hoping for."

The Lady Vols (27-5) open against No. 16 seed Northwestern State on Saturday afternoon at Thompson-Boling Arena, Tennessee’s regular home court. The nightcap in the opening-round doubleheader pits No. 8 seed St. John’s (22-10) against No. 9 Southern Cal (22-12).

The winners meet at 9 p.m. EST Monday in the Round of 32 (in Knoxville).

It’s Tennessee’s first top seed since the 2011, the first of three straight NCAA tourneys that resulted with losses in the regional final. Before that, the eight-time national champion Vols had No. 1 seeds for 2006 and ’07 — both championship seasons.

Overall, the Lady Vols have received a No. 1 seed a record 22 times.

"It’s an indication of how we finished our season and how hard we played," Warlick said, "and hope it is about respect for this team. It’s difficult to get into the tournament, and we haven’t been a No. 1 seed in a while."

Warlick and the Lady Vols understand the program’s standard of success lies with the number of Final Four appearances and national titles. That’s especially true this year, with the Final Four taking place in nearby Nashville.

"We talk about it," said senior guard Meighan Simmons, the SEC Player of the Year. "We know the expectations for Tennessee. Our goal is to make the Final Four and win a national championship every year."

Indeed, that is why high school All-Americans choose Tennessee. But Warlick doesn’t want her team obsessed with upholding a tradition, but rather focus on making a name for itself by what it does this season on and off the court.

"We’re just living in the presence," said Warlick, who took the Lady Vols to a regional final in her head coaching debut last season. "We just know what we’ve tried to accomplish this year. It’s about this team and what we’re doing now."

The Lady Vols finished runner-up to South Carolina, the No. 1 seed in the Stanford Region, for the SEC’s regular-season title — in a league that collected eight NCAA tourney bids. But they became championsh in the conference tournament, besting three good teams in three days.

"It’s just an unbelievable, athletic, physical conference," Warlick said. "I’m very proud of the SEC and how many teams we placed."

While Simmons has been the steady scorer (16.2) and avowed team leader, the emergence of post player Isabelle Harrison, a first-team All-SEC pick, has given the Lady Vols a formidable inside-outside tandem. The 6-foot-3 junior averages 13.9 points per game and led the SEC in rebounding (9.4), field goal percentage (58.5) and double-doubles (17).

"We really understand that we’ve got to get the ball inside," Warlick said of the post play of Harrison along with 6-2 sophomore Bashaara Graves, 6-3 sophomore Nia Moore and 6-6 freshman center Mercedes Russell.

"We have to show an inside presence," Warlick added. "I think that’s what we’ve done. We’ve kind of played the game inside out. And that’s when I think that we are at our best, to get the ball inside, and we take good high percentage shots."

Especially Harrison, who set a team record this season with a stretch of seven games with double-doubles. She had another stretch of four straight.

"She wants the ball," Warlick said. "And when you have a post that wants the ball, you get it inside."

Northwestern State won the Southland Conference tournament and the NCAA tourney automatic bid after finishing fourth in the regular-season standings. The Lady Demons, co-coached by the husband-wife duo of Brooke and Scott Stoehr, are making their third NCAA tourney appearance, the last coming in 2004.

The Lady Vols have won 53 straight NCAA tourney home games and are 40-0 at home in the first and second rounds. They have lost only once in the opening two rounds while, playing in a record 33 NCAA tournaments.

"Tennessee is one of the most storied programs in the history of women’s college basketball," said Brooke Stoehr, who played in four NCAA tournaments as point guard at Louisiana Tech.

"For our team to experience that is a great opportunity," she added. "Hopefully, we’ll not be in too much awe of it, and we’ll come out relaxed, compete and play loose like we have the last three weeks."

At-large invitee St. John’s is making its fifth-straight NCAA tourney appearance and ninth overall. The Red Storm finished runner-up in the Big East Conference.

Two-time national champion Southern Cal is making its first NCAA tourney visit since 2006 after winning the Pac-12 tournament.