Back Pat? Boost the Lady Vols!

Maria M. Cornelius2MCsports

The day after the NCAA tourney brackets are revealed – that happens this Sunday, March 17 – the transfer portal officially opens, and another chaotic and shortened college basketball recruiting season will start.

Players from teams not selected for March Madness usually are in the portal first. The window is open for 45 days, and players must enter the portal by May 1 to be eligible to play without sitting out a season.

As teams get eliminated in the postseason tourneys, more players will enter the portal. Most do so on their own; some land in it because a coach didn’t renew the scholarship. Some announcements to transfer already are being reported of players whose teams won’t be in postseason or whose coach has been fired.

March already is madness for the coaching staffs that are in the postseason tourneys, whether NCAA or WNIT. Now, they have to multi-task getting their teams ready to play, tracking the portal and starting a new recruitment process that needs to be completed within weeks.

The portal moves fast – Tennessee coach Kellie Harper once compared it to whitewater rafting – and Tennessee basketball has had considerable success in it. For the Vols, it was Dalton Knecht who was just named SEC Player of the Year. For the Lady Vols, Rickea Jackson, Jewel Spear and Jasmine Powell have been difference-makers this season. Jillian Hollingshead, another portal addition, is poised for a breakout season.

The Lady Vols have rocked the portal precisely because it moves so fast. High school recruiting takes years to develop relationships, and the negative recruiting against Tennessee is relentless. The Lady Vol coaches move like ninjas in the portal and get players on campus before competitors have much, if any, time to interfere.

But Tennessee needs help. Specifically, Tennessee need donors to the Lady Vols Boost (Her) Club.

Karoline Striplin, far left, and Tamari Key, far right, meet with fans at a Lady Vols Boost (Her) Club event.

Anyone who watched the SEC tourney saw a Lady Vols team that nearly toppled No. 1 South Carolina despite the disparities in depth and talent.

The Lady Vols have two high school All-Americans in Jackson and Hollingshead who played this season. The third one is Talaysia Cooper, a transfer from South Carolina who sat out this season after entering the portal last summer outside the official window. All three arrived in Knoxville via the portal.

South Carolina has eight high school All-Americans. Only two were transfers, and all eight can return in 2024-25 with two more high school All-Americans on the way.

The Lady Vols played the Gamecocks three times this season and pushed South Carolina until the end each time. Tennessee was one of just two teams in 32 games to lose by single digits to the Gamecocks. Saturday’s one-point loss on a banked three by a senior who had never scored from the arc in her career gutted the Tennessee players, many of whom were distraught in the locker room afterwards. The full video of the post-game press conference can be watched HERE. Harper is devastated for her players; she wanted it for them. (She also won’t throw anyone under the bus for being out of defensive position at the end.)

Rickea Jackson looks for an opening against South Carolina in the SEC tourney. (UT Athletics)

A lot has been written about the ending of that game. Here is a condensed version from someone (me) who was courtside in Greenville.

Jasmine Powell missed the free throws, but Tennessee never gets to that point without her. After the second missed free throw, the South Carolina player who rebounded the ball double dribbled with three seconds left with the official looking at her and no whistle. Game should have been over then.

Tennessee wisely fouled the speedy player who can get to open space in nanoseconds and hit deep threes as she sprinted down the sideline. Before the first half ended, an official put .1 second back on the clock on a highly questionable foul call that gave the Gamecocks two free throws. Tennessee had reason to be leery of being whistled if anywhere close to a player shooting in the final seconds.

That foul forced an in-bounds play with South Carolina having no timeouts. But the officials allowed South Carolina to huddle. Once the Gamecocks broke the huddle and set up, the ball had been handed to the in-bounder. Tennessee can’t call timeout at that point. It doesn’t have possession of the ball.

Tamari Key stayed in the paint to protect a lob at the rim. Tennessee covered the corner shooters and hedged the wing. The ball went to the 6-7 center who stepped out and made her first career three. It was a hell of a clutch shot. Had she missed it, the second-guessing would have been brutal because South Carolina had its best shooters in the game.

But the officiating, which has been horrid at times throughout the season, set up a sequence that never should have happened from the missed double dribble to an impromptu timeout that a team didn’t have. Officials do affect outcomes. And Harper can flat out coach. A team doesn’t come back from 23 points down to take a two-point lead against the No. 1 team in the country without leadership and savviness on the sideline.

The short video below shows the missed double dribble. It’s egregiously bad.


Back to the portal. Tennessee fills gaps via the portal and that takes NIL funds. That helped Tennessee compete to get Jackson and Spear. That is how Tennessee will compete for players who are about to enter the portal and can be difference makers next season.

Part of Tennessee’s success in the portal is that the players tend to be older, have fewer people in their ear than in high school, know what they want and are aware of their worth. Cooper went to her home state of South Carolina after high school. It took one year for her to reverse course and go to the school she almost chose in the first place in Tennessee.

Donations can be made HERE, and monthly donations start as low as $15 for fans. Corporate sponsors are needed, too. Members can engage with Lady Vols in all sports through clinics, meet-and-greets, video conferencing and dinners. Other special events also occur for a one-time ticket price. Call 865-414-6255 or email with any questions.

A lot of fans are doing their part as best they can. It’s time for more donors, especially those with deep pockets, to do their part, too.

Kellie Harper, Jackson Harper and Pat Summitt in 2014. (Family photo)

The late Pat Summitt last coached a game 12 years ago and has now been gone for nearly eight years. The Lady Vols last appeared 16 years ago in the Final Four, yet the brand remains strong, and the fans keep coming to the arena.

Because of Summitt’s legacy, Tennessee remains the mothership of the sport.

But it doesn’t sell itself to recruits like it did in Summitt’s era. Conference networks and livestreaming arrived. The fact Tennessee was on TV a lot didn’t matter when all games could be streamed or broadcast. The sport grew, high school and summer levels got better, salaries regularly hit six and seven figures for coaches in major conferences, national coverage increased and, what Summitt most wanted actually happened. Parity arrived.

Last January, I moderated a panel of coaches and players for a Boost HER Club event. Each one said how important the club is to the success of female athletes at Tennessee. The coaches especially noted how NIL has changed everything about recruiting.

I encouraged those in attendance, who already were supporting the athletes, to keep donating. I specifically said don’t say you back Pat and her legacy if you don’t support the Boost HER Club in some way.

Summitt adapted to how the game changed over four decades. She would have figured out NIL, too, and let it be known that she needed donors to step up, or Tennessee would get left behind. Don’t let it happen. Give the Lady Vols a boost.

Maria M. Cornelius, a writer/editor at MoxCar Marketing + Communications 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.


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