It’s officially fall when basketballs start bouncing in Pratt Pavilion. The women’s basketball team took the court this week for the season’s first practice amid high expectations to be a national contender.
That’s rarefied preseason air for Lady Vols basketball, which is seeking its first Final Four since 2008. Since then, Tennessee came close several times, but injuries and roadblocks torpedoed the quest.
“We’ve talked about it openly as a team,” Coach Kellie Harper said. “We talk about what is being said. I think we all understand that’s excitement, but it’s on paper.”
The Lady Vols reached the Sweet 16 last spring with the team’s best player, Jordan Horston, sidelined for the final six weeks of the season with a dislocated fracture of her elbow, but the senior guard has returned and used the summer to get stronger and improve her skills. The season opener on Nov. 8 will be in Horston’s hometown of Columbus against Ohio State, so extra motivation is built in for a player eager to be back on the court.
“She’s looked really good,” Harper said. “Physically, right now she is jumping better than she has ever jumped before. This is somebody that was an unbelievable rebounder last year, but you watch her, and she stands out, and she stands out on a very athletic and impressive basketball team when she is in there jumping and rebounding.”
Tennessee is 16 strong this season with 15 scholarship players and one walk-on. Harper added two freshmen and four transfers, two of whom are Rickea Jackson, a 6-2 senior forward, and Jillian Hollingshead, a 6-5 sophomore forward. Both are former high school All-Americans.
With a deep roster, the team has two themes this season: “All for one, one for all” and “strength in numbers.”
Championships in any sport are won in the off-season when players work on individual skills and strength and conditioning. Some players need no help finding the court. Others have to be pushed in the right direction. Apparently, this team didn’t need any guidance to the gym.
“Jordan has had another good summer,” Harper said. “I think she took more steps forward. I think Tamari (Key) has had a good summer. Rickea Jackson looks terrific. Sara (Puckett) has had a good summer. There really is not anyone that I can say, ‘I do not know if they have done well this summer.’ I think everyone has taken advantage of the time that they have been given this summer.”
Another transfer on the roster needed no introduction to Harper. Jasmine Franklin, a 6-1 forward, played as a freshman for Harper when she coached at Missouri State before taking the Tennessee job. Franklin sustained a torn ACL last December and used the off-season for knee rehabilitation.
“She has recently been full-go in practice,” Harper said. “I don’t think she is 100 percent herself, but she is still extremely explosive. She finishes so well around the basket, she is experienced, she knows what she’s doing. You walk in there, and even though she is one of the smaller post players on our team, she stands out.”
Key is a 6-6 senior post. Hollingshead can play inside or take her lengthy 6-5 frame to the perimeter to shoot. The rangy and athletic forward played at Georgia as a freshman, but when her coach left for Texas A&M in the off-season, Hollingshead entered the transfer portal to explore her options and chose Tennessee, which also had recruited her out of high school.
“Jillian is very skilled; our players love to call her ‘Big Guard,’” Harper said. “She can put the ball on the floor. She can shoot out on the floor. She can post up. Again, you will hear this recurring theme of versatility. We have a lot of versatility on this team. Jillian is a big piece of that.”
Last weekend, Harper and her players attended the Tennessee vs. Florida football game in one of the loudest environments ever at Neyland Stadium and watched a 38-33 win. When Harper was cutting championship nets at Tennessee, the football team was in its glory days with the Vols winning the 1998 national title. The upcoming football home games in October against Alabama and Kentucky already are sold out.
“You feel the excitement; not just your own team but for other teams,” Harper said. “This past week was so amazing, and I kept telling our players about when I was them, when I was a student going to football games, and how wonderful that was that they got to experience what I got to experience.
“I was at the Alumni Gala the other day and listened to former Vols, not just athletes but students as well, talking about this university and what it has done for them. I’m just on a high from all this; it’s just been so, so good, and it’s exciting. I love this place.”
Saturday Reminder: Since it’s an open date for football, Lady Vol and Gentlemen Vol fans can make their way to Orange Mountain Designs for the store’s official opening at The Gallery of Knoxville, located at 7240 Kingston Pike, Suite 192, on Saturday, Oct. 1. The new store is a partnership between Terri Holder, who started Orange Mountain Designs in 2008 – there’s that year again – and Alumni Hall.
The ribbon-cutting is at 10 a.m. under cover – the effects of Hurricane Ian are likely to reach Knoxville Saturday with rain – and players from various women’s sports will be inside the store from noon-2 p.m. to meet with fans. Coach Kellie Harper also will be in attendance as will Karen Weekly, head coach of softball, and Joan Cronan, emeritus women’s athletics director at UT.
Maria M. Cornelius, a writer/editor at Moxley Carmichael since 2013, started her journalism career at the Knoxville News Sentinel and began writing about the Lady Vols in 1998. In 2016, she published her first book, “The Final Season: The Perseverance of Pat Summitt,” through The University of Tennessee Press. She can be reached at [email protected]