KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- As the losses mount to historically bad proportions for a proud Tennessee women's basketball program accustomed to winning at historically elite proportions, its embattled coach is determined to stand her ground and stand by her team.
Make no mistake. The Internet message boards and radio-talk shows on Rocky Top are bursting at the seams with restlessness and even some venom, everything from Holly Warlick is in over her head, that she has taken the Taj Mahal that the late Pat Summitt built and turned it into just another two-story home, to that it's simply time for her to go.
That's what happens when you lose six straight games for the first time since before Summitt launched her Hall of Fame career at Tennessee, and suddenly, not even making the NCAA tournament is a given after 37 straight appearances.
Warlick, though, was adamant Thursday night after watching her Lady Vols fight their way to a halftime lead over No. 1-ranked Notre Dame only to be overwhelmed in the second half in a 77-62 loss that her young team isn't going quietly.
And neither is she.
"I'm disappointed obviously in the outcome, but I will tell you this: Our kids didn't have anything left in their tank," Warlick said. "They fought and played hard. That's a great step for us and a good process for this team."
Tennessee (12-7) was playing without senior guard Meme Jackson, who was out with an ankle injury and remains day-to-day. At times, the Lady Vols had three freshmen and two sophomores on the floor against a veteran Notre Dame team that played like a veteran team in the second half with a 19-2 run that put the game away.
Tennessee, meanwhile, was guilty of youthful mistakes during Notre Dame's pivotal run. The Lady Vols committed eight of their 11 turnovers in the third quarter and also took quick shots, but Warlick saw a lot more that she liked in the loss to the defending national champions than she didn't like.
"Look, I thought they were very focused today. They played hard. Did they make mistakes? Sure they did, but you've got to go with it because you can make a mistake and your effort can cover up for a lot of things, and I thought their effort was solid," said Warlick, who signed an extension in August through the 2021-22 season and received a $25,000 raise.
"I'll continue to say that talent doesn't mean a lot if you don't have the heart, the effort and the grit, and I thought we had that tonight. And we're going to build on it. These kids have been thrown into the fire and they're young, but I have a lot of confidence in them. They're playing hard and make things happen."
That might be, but these next couple of weeks will be critical for the Lady Vols if they're going to dig their way out of this funk. Their next two games are at home against LSU and Florida, and then comes back-to-back road games against Vanderbilt and No. 7 Mississippi State. Florida and Vanderbilt both have losing overall records.
In other words, there's still time to make a run. But after six straight defeats, the Lady Vols can't afford many more if they're going to remain the only women's basketball team in the country to appear in every NCAA tournament.
Warlick, who guided the Lady Vols to three Elite Eights in her first six seasons, knows what the stakes are as well as anyone.
"Look, we need to win every game whether we were 23-0," Warlick said. "So we need to win every game, and it starts with our practice. These young ladies are focused, and I've just seen a different group and different feel. They understand that they battled hard tonight, and we didn't get it done. But we're going to keep doing what we've been doing.
"Now it's up to them to get themselves ready and to compete. They're all going to have a chance to play, and we're going to keep pushing them, staying on them, coaching them and putting them in situations where we can win the basketball game."
The trick will be taking their effort for the entire game against Notre Dame along with their execution from the first half and spreading that out over four quarters the rest of the way.
"If we come out the way we did for all four quarters, it's going to be really, really hard to beat us playing like we did (in the first half)," said Tennessee sophomore guard Evina Westbrook, who had 16 points against the Irish. "I really think this was a confidence-booster for this team, showing we can play like that."
Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw sounded like a believer, especially if the Lady Vols can get Jackson back in the lineup soon.
"They are a dangerous team, and they are young," McGraw said. "They are growing and learning and not quitting, and there's a lot to build on."