As the camera panned faces in the crowd in the closing moments of Tennessee's loss to Oregon State on Sunday, you didn't see shock. It was more frustration, irritation, sadness, even anger.
For the first time, the fans at Rocky Top had watched the Lady Vols lose an NCAA tournament game at home. Tennessee had been 57-0 in those games. Now, the "1" on the loss side seemed to say much more than that lone number usually does.
So the question will come again -- both from the Lady Vols fan base and women's college basketball observers: Is coach Holly Warlick the right person to keep leading Tennessee's women's basketball team?
But is it a question football-coach-turned-athletic-director Phillip Fulmer -- who took over for ousted John Currie after a fan-fueled coup last November/December -- would consider right now? Warlick currently has one year left on her contract. Will it be extended?
Fulmer told Tennessee reporters on March 1, "I'm not one during the season that's going to have those conversations. I never thought it was a good thing when I was coaching. I didn't even want to think about those things, and I really haven't spent much time [on that]. At the appropriate time, we'll have those conversations."
Tennessee football -- 4-8 overall, 0-8 SEC -- was a catastrophe last season. Currie's search for a new football coach turned into its own farcical disaster, and after just eight months, he was out of the job in which he thought he'd spend the rest of his career.
Vols Nation appeared pleased that Fulmer -- who, like Warlick, is as true-orange Tennessee as they come -- became captain of an athletic department that has been in plenty of rough waters over the past several years. Odds are, at least for now, Fulmer will stick with Warlick.
He probably feels a sense of loyalty to and from her; plus, Warlick is well-liked by most everyone. And even though Fulmer has been a fixture in Knoxville seemingly forever, he hasn't had a lot of time as AD to deep-dive evaluate the women's basketball program. Perhaps as important as anything, it seems unlikely he already has a home run replacement hire set to go.
Still, there is a section of the Lady Vols fan base that wants Fulmer to make a move. It's uncertain how big that section is, but it might have grown after Sunday's loss.
Tennessee was a team that relied a lot on freshmen this season. But there was experience on the squad, too, yet it wasn't enough to get the Lady Vols to the Sweet 16. Some of Warlick's remarks after Sunday's game -- about how Tennessee's players don't "deserve half the crap that's thrown at them" -- won't go over well, either, with those who think criticism comes with the territory when you're a program of this magnitude.
Warlick, who is from Knoxville, played for the legendary Pat Summitt from 1976-80, and then was an assistant coach at Tennessee for 27 seasons. This is Warlick's sixth year as head coach; she took over when Summitt resigned in April 2012. Warlick also was the acting head coach in 2011-12, Summitt's last season on the bench after learning of her diagnosis of early-onset dementia, Alzheimer's type.
During those seven seasons, the Lady Vols have gone 180-63 overall and 83-29 in the SEC. Their NCAA tournament finishes: Elite Eight in 2012, '13, '15 and '16. Sweet 16 in 2014. Second round in 2017 and '18.
That would be plenty good enough for most programs. But when you're Tennessee, winner of eight NCAA titles with 18 Final Four appearances, it's worrisome to feel like you're a good program that has devolved from enormously great.
But is that slide all about Warlick, or even the aching gap that remains after Summitt's death in 2016? No, it isn't. The elevation of women's basketball across the country was what Summitt and her program worked toward for decades. That's why she was willing to go to the most far-flung places to play and spread the women's basketball gospel. She believed Tennessee couldn't just pursue excellence in a vacuum; the orange wave had to be the tide that lifted all boats.
The sport has expanded and improved. Oregon State's advancing as far as the Sweet 16 for the third year in a row is evidence. The Beavers for a long time were barely relevant in their own conference. They've become a team that has gone to the Final Four and that we now have expectations of in March.
"I think the women's game is closing the gap on parity," Warlick said Sunday with the sting of the loss still fresh. "Regardless of where you're seeded, you've got to play."
That's how it is in the men's NCAA tournament. The Vols men, after a terrific season under coach Rick Barnes, lost in the second round to Sister Jean's team, Loyola-Chicago. Big names such as North Carolina, Michigan State and No. 1 overall seed Virginia are already out of the men's tournament in the first weekend. That's March Madness, right?
The thing is, for so long, Tennessee women's basketball was largely immune to upsets. The program mostly ruled the SEC and won the league tournament 17 times. The Sweet 16 was automatic. The Elite Eight almost the same. The Final Four was frequent.
But most of the "firsts" that have occurred with the Lady Vols the past few years have not been the good kind. Things such as the first loss to Mississippi State (2016). The first NCAA tournament second-round loss (2017, to Louisville). The first loss to Alabama in Knoxville (in February).
Now, here are more bad firsts: the first NCAA tournament loss at home, and the first time there have been back-to-back Sweet 16s without Tennessee involved.
The beginning of Tennessee's slip from dominance, however, can be traced back even before Summitt's illness was diagnosed. In 2009, Tennessee suffered a first-round NCAA tournament upset to Ball State. It happened in Bowling Green, Kentucky, during the period when the NCAA tournament was at predetermined sites for early-round games, so it was on a neutral court.
It was the season after Tennessee won its eighth NCAA title, but it had lost all its starters, including superstar Candace Parker, so the Lady Vols were a No. 5 seed. Still, Ball State was not the kind of foe that had ever dented the Lady Vols' armor before, especially not in the postseason.
In 2010, Tennessee was back to a No. 1 seed, but No. 4 seed Baylor, led by then-freshman Brittney Griner, upset the Lady Vols in the Sweet 16. In 2011, Tennessee was a No. 1 seed again but lost in the Elite Eight to No. 2 seed Notre Dame, the Irish's first win over the Lady Vols.
Then, in August 2011, came the announcement of Summitt's diagnosis. Tennessee has been seeded as high as No. 1 and as low as No. 7 in the NCAA tournament since.
The Lady Vols have been passed in the SEC by South Carolina, which has won the past four SEC tournament titles and last year's NCAA title, and even Mississippi State, which was national runner-up last year and the regular-season SEC champ and a No. 1 seed this year.
Today's recruits don't remember watching Tennessee in the Final Four; that was a decade ago. They've never seen the Lady Vols battle UConn in what was once the marquee matchup in women's sports; that last happened 11 years ago.
The monster program that Tennessee was under Summitt is very likely unachievable again. But is what Tennessee has been under Warlick -- a team that's sometimes very good, sometimes very frustrating and frequently hard to predict -- enough for even the most realistic Lady Vols fans?
Is there reason to think another year or two or three or more under Warlick will be anything different? Is Tennessee afraid of sliding permanently into being just another pretty-good-most-of-the-time program? And is there any guarantee a different coach can change that?
Those are the issues Fulmer at some point will have to seriously consider.