No. 15 Lady Vols seeking to end slide before postseason

FILE - In this Jan. 28, 2018, file photo, Tennessee guard Meme Jackson (10) and center Mercedes Russell (21) walk by LSU's Jaelyn Richard-Harris (13) as she celebrates with guard Raigyne Louis (11) in the closing moments of LSU's 70-59 win in an NCAA college basketball game in Baton Rouge, La. After getting off to a 15-0 start, No. 15 Tennessee has split its last 12 games to fall to its lowest ranking of the season. A two-game skid has dropped the Lady Vols to a tie for sixth place in the Southeastern Conference. They're spending the final week of the regular season trying to sort out their problems and regain the momentum they had earlier this year. (AP Photo/Bill Feig, File)

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) Tennessee is moving in the wrong direction as it approaches the end of the regular season.

The 15th-ranked Lady Volunteers are tied for sixth place in the Southeastern Conference after losing consecutive games to Alabama and Missouri. They have split their last 12 games after a 15-0 start and now have their lowest ranking of the season.

Tennessee coach Holly Warlick says the recent struggles haven’t affected her team’s confidence. The Lady Vols (21-6, 9-5 SEC) visit Florida (11-16, 3-11) on Thursday before closing the regular season Sunday by hosting No. 7 South Carolina (22-5, 11-3).

”I think it’s made us more focused in practice, understanding there’s not an easy game, not that they thought there was, but you’ve got to play hard all the time,” Warlick said. ”They’re realizing that. Every possession matters. We’ve really been focusing on that.”

Tennessee’s slide puts the Lady Vols in a precarious position as it seeks to become one of 16 hosts for the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament. Tennessee didn’t host last year and lost in the second round at Louisville , just the second time the Lady Vols have ever failed to reach a regional semifinal since the NCAA started running the tournament in 1982.

The NCAA Division I Women’s Basketball Committee released a mock bracket Monday that showed Tennessee as the No. 12 overall seed if the selections had occurred that night. That would have been good enough to keep the Lady Vols at home for the first two rounds of the tournament. Tennessee owns a 44-0 record in NCAA Tournament first- and second-round games on its home floor.

But the Lady Vols won’t maintain that status if they allow this slide to continue. In its last two games, Tennessee blew an early 10-point lead in a 72-63 home loss to unranked Alabama and fell 77-73 at No. 11 Missouri .

”We just have to get back to work,” senior guard/forward Jaime Nared said after the Missouri game. ”We know we’re a good team. We showed glimpses of it this season. As a whole, we just have to clean some things up.”

Warlick noted that opposing teams have adjusted in the way they’re defending Tennessee. Now the Lady Vols must adapt as well.

”A lot of teams are running sagging zones against us right now,” Warlick said. ”Earlier they ran a lot of man-to-man, and we were successful at that. Now we just need to get as comfortable with sagging zones as we are man-to-man. We’re going to get there.”

Warlick also said Tennessee must improve its ball movement on offense, its one-on-one defense and its rebounding. Tennessee ranks 12th among all Division I teams in rebound margin but has won just one of the four games in which it was outrebounded.

The Lady Vols must take better care of the ball, as they’ve averaged 16.7 turnovers per game. Vanderbilt’s the only SEC team with a higher turnover total .

Tennessee’s inconsistency over the last month could stem from its youth. Tennessee’s two leading scorers are seniors (Nared and Mercedes Russell), but freshmen Rennia Davis, Evina Westbrook and Anastasia Hayes are playing at least 24.5 minutes per game.

The Lady Vols’ two freshman point guards are dealing with late-season struggles. Hayes has twice as many turnovers (12) as assists (6) over her last three games. Westbrook has shot 6 of 39 from the floor over her last six games.

”It just continues to be a learning process for us,” Warlick said. ”We’re really still young. We’ve got two seniors that play a lot, but the rest are still learning and they’re going to continue to learn.”

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