CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. — In Tennessee's first season without Pat Summitt, the Lady Vols soon could drop out of the Top 25 for the first time in over a quarter-century.
The No. 20 Lady Vols began the post-Summitt era Friday with a stunning 80-71 loss at Chattanooga. Now they don't have much time to recover from their first season-opening loss since 1999, as they continue their road trip Sunday at No. 22 Georgia Tech.
A loss to the Yellow Jackets likely would drop the Lady Vols out of the Top 25 for the first time since February 1985.
“That's just the nature of this game and the nature of our schedule,” said Tennessee coach Holly Warlick, who stumbled out of the gate in her head coaching debut after spending the last 27 seasons as an assistant on Summitt's staff. “It's extremely hard. With five new players, it is what it is. There's nothing we can do about it. We've got to roll up our sleeves and get back to work.”
Summitt, who announced last year she had early-onset dementia, stepped down in April after collecting 1,098 wins, eight national titles and 18 Final Four appearances in 38 seasons. Summitt remains on staff as head coach emeritus, attends most of the Lady Vols' practice and watched Friday's game from the stands.
The transition figured to cause some growing pains.
Tennessee's No. 20 preseason ranking was its lowest position in the Top 25 since 1985. The Lady Vols don't return a single player who started an NCAA tournament game last season during their run to a regional final. Their roster includes five newcomers - four freshmen and a junior-college transfer.
But nobody expected this kind of start.
Tennessee committed 26 turnovers and had only six assists against Chattanooga. The Lady Vols had 17 turnovers in the first half alone. They never led in the second half and never cut Chattanooga's advantage below six points over the last 13 minutes.
“We have to learn from this,” said Tennessee junior guard Meighan Simmons, one of only three upperclassmen on the roster.
The biggest lessons came when Tennessee was on defense.
Tennessee spent the preseason adjusting to an uptempo style designed to utilize Tennessee's speed and compensate for its relative lack of size. The Lady Vols believed their energy would harass opposing offenses and force turnovers.
“We're not going to outscore anybody,” Warlick said. “We're not going to outshoot them. We've got to get them to turn the ball over to get easy looks.”
That didn't happen Friday.
While Tennessee struggled to take care of the ball all night, Chattanooga collected 17 assists and committed only 13 turnovers. The Lady Mocs scored 52 points and shot 56.3 percent from the floor in the second half.
“Our defense was non-existent,” Warlick said.
That defense will have to play much better for the Lady Vols to avoid their first 0-2 start since 1970. Georgia Tech went 26-8 and reached a regional semifinal last year and should get an emotional lift Sunday from playing the first women's game at the new McCamish Pavilion. The Yellow Jackets had to play their home games off campus last season.
“As long as we learn from this, it's OK,” Warlick said. “If we keep making the same mistakes, we're not going to get any better.”
There's one history lesson that could encourage Tennessee. When the Lady Vols last dropped a season opener back in 1999, they lost only three more times the rest of the season and went on to reach the NCAA final.