In a sense, it's a luxury to complain about a Final Four drought.
Tennessee played a close, tight game against Maryland for most of the night. At halftime, Maryland led by a 21-20 margin. Tennessee held the lead for most of the second half. With a minute to go, Maryland led only 51-48. Some missed shots and intentional (but not "intentional") fouls let Maryland stretch the lead to a final of 58-48, but it was an incredibly close game between the two teams that had virtually equal arguments for the final #1 seed in the tournament.
What caused the loss?
Honestly, it was self-inflicted. In the first half in particular (but still evident in the second half), the Lady Vols were simply short-arming their shots. They'd get open looks and (a) defer to shoot, looking for a perfect shot rather than take a good one, or (b) shoot hastily and end up off-target. They had plenty of good chances and ended up 32% from the field. It was self-inflicted.
On a second-order, they couldn't stop Maryland's drives. if Maryland had a fast break, it was zugzwang: do you let the driver finish the layup, or do you defend and take a guaranteed foul when they lean into you? It's partly the fault of the way rules are interpreted, partly the fault of overeager referees, and partly the bad spot of defending a fast break, but Maryland scored about 20% of their points on completely undefendable fast breaks (even when it was a 2-1 advantage in favor of the defense). In a related note, Maryland was effective on the dribble-drive, exploiting tight Tennessee man defense and putting defenders into a no-win situation.
There's a theme here: the refs (in the second half) will call touch fouls against the defense when the dribbler is driving. During rebounding situations? It's full Thunderdome. But it's been that way all year long: Maryland's offense was better built to take advantage of the refs than Tennessee's, but it's not like they haven't had plenty of games to figure out Lisa Mattingly.
So where do the Lady Vols go from here?
Set aside the Final Four drought for a minute: Tennessee was without 4 players (Harrison (!!!), Russell, Jones, and Tucker) and had one waiting out a transfer year (DeShields). The absence of Harrison and Russell meant that Graves was stranded in the post for most of the NCAA tournament. Against teams like Pittsburgh, that's manageable. Against Elite Eight/Final Four teams like Maryland and UConn, that's a death knell.
Set aside the refs. Yes, women's basketball refs are atrocious. The philosophy of swallowing the whistle in the first half only encourages players to be physical. in the second half, that means that players get whistled for things they think are alllowed. It's a Pavlov's dog problem in the most horrific of ways. But it's a known quantity, and other teams are figuring it out and adapting.
Focusing on UT:the Lady Vols were guilty of two things tonight. First, they played tight. it was evident on their shots, where they either passed up good looks hoping for perfect ones, or they short-armed their shots, overthinking things that should have been natural to them. They had better looks than Maryland did, but only managed a 32% shooting night. That's on Tennessee, independent of anything Maryland did. Second, they never fully adjusted to Maryland's dribble-drive. With tight man defense, it's hard to react quickly enough to cover a fast driver. Rotations were just a bit slow (see: overthinking), and Maryland scored a large percentage of their points off of that weakness, as covered above.
Meanwhile, Burdick, Harrison, and Massengale are now gone. They were the final players officially recruited by Pat Summitt, meaning her era is now over. Let that sink in.
Next year, Jordan Reynolds is the lead point guard. She's been steadily growing in the position and is fully prepared to lead this team's offense. Te'a Cooper will be coming as backup PG, but she'll have the advantage of being able to learn (which is something Massengale never had). Russell will be back to replace Harrison. Graves will be back at the four. Nared looks to be a solid replacement for Burdick. DeShields will be eligible, which means there's a glut of guards available and the team will likely be running a 3-guard offense for most of the minutes of any game. (With 6 foot guards, that's not a bad thing.)
Make no mistake: Harrison, Burdick, and Massengale carried this team through the dark days of Summitt's departure. That's perhaps the toughest draw any women's basketball players have ever had. They didn't get to a Final Four, which i perhaps the greatest travesty any set of longsuffering elite talent has had to endure. But they carried this team across the divide. It's now Holly Warlick's Lady Vols, and they're in good shape to make a serious Final Four run next year.
In the face of coaching transition, many other teams have faltered. Louisiana Tech is now a byline. Stanford fell off the map when VanDerveer left the first time. Tennessee isn't going anywhere anytime soon under Warlick. We'll see how UConn fares when Geno leaves.
It's been fun, but it's over for this year. Go Lady Vols.