AP Sports Writer
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The Tennessee coaches can't pinpoint why the Lady Volunteers are so up and down.
They will practice so well and beat one team resoundingly only to lose to the next opponent.
"I wish I could explain why we came out flat, but I have no idea why we came out the way we did," coach Pat Summitt said on her radio show following Tennessee's 72-71 overtime loss to Arkansas on Thursday. "The coaching staff wishes we had an answer."
The Lady Vols pledged at the beginning of the season that they would not go a fourth season in a row without reaching the Final Four — something they've never done — and would try to win a national championship to honor Summitt. The coach announced in August she'd been diagnosed with early onset dementia, Alzheimer's type.
Instead, they've put together the most inconsistent level of play associate head coach Holly Warlick says she's ever seen.
"We've got to get them working and convince them that they can do some positive things, because they can," Warlick said. "Time's getting short, but we still have the opportunity to do great things. We've just got to turn it around and put it all together."
Time, indeed, is short. The Lady Vols (20-8, 11-4 Southeastern Conference) host Florida on Sunday for the final game of the regular season. A win would likely mean a second-place finish in the SEC, but a loss could put Tennessee in peril of missing out on a first-round bye in the SEC tournament, something the program has done only twice.
The loss to Arkansas, a team Tennessee had beaten on Jan. 8 by 31 points, marked the Lady Vols' third home loss of the season, a program worst. Tennessee has also struggled on the road this season and hasn't managed to win a close game.
The Lady Vols trailed by as many as six points to the Lady Razorbacks and missed 4-of-6 key free throws in overtime. Arkansas snapped an 18-game losing skid to Tennessee and earned its first ever win in Knoxville.
"We weren't hitting shots that we should have hit," senior forward Glory Johnson said. "We had no energy at all. We had to go to our bench, and then all of a sudden they're outrebounding us. We were letting them penetrate in the paint, and they shouldn't be in the paint. We weren't playing our game, and you see that a lot with us.
"We're not a team that can play awful in the first half and pick it up in the second half. It just doesn't work out that way for us," she added.
Senior forward Shekinna Stricklen doesn't think the Lady Vols are caving under pressure, despite facing so much with their recent NCAA tournament struggles and with Summitt's public fight against Alzheimer's.
"We knew we were going to have pressure before we signed to come here. We do have a lot of pressure on us, but it's something that we just try not to look at. We know people talk, and that's something we're not worried about. We're focusing on this team. We know how to get there, we just have to do it."
The Lady Vols face the added pressure of Sunday's game against the Gators (18-10, 8-7) being the final home game ever for Stricklen and the four other seniors, a highly touted class of players who have been through some of the program's worst times.
Tennessee is expecting a large crowd of fans for the game, which will include a presentation of the AARP's Inspire Award to Summitt during halftime. The Inspire Award pays tribute to people who inspire action in others, according to the AARP.
The Hall of Fame coach said she would continue coaching as long as she was able while asking her assistant coaches to handle more of the day-to-day workload.
Freshman point guard Ariel Massengale still thinks the Lady Vols have a shot at winning a ninth national title in honor of Summitt and to send the seniors out on a positive note.
"There's still a lot of ball to be played," Massengale said. "I think we just have to go back and regroup and know that this season's not over yet and there's still a chance for us to win a national championship and keep our mindset on the big picture."
Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.
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