Basketball faces tough slate; volleyball to host NCAA

Maria M. Cornelius2MCsports

The basketball team got a much-needed top 25 win last weekend in a holiday tournament and now will face two more ranked teams in its next two games in Knoxville.

No. 20/22 Tennessee, 4-2, and No. 18/14 Notre Dame, 5-1, will play today, Nov. 29, in the inaugural ACC-SEC Women’s Basketball Challenge. The game is one of five between the two conferences on Wednesday with nine more set for Thursday, Nov. 30. Tipoff in Knoxville is set for 5:02 p.m. with a national broadcast by ESPN2.

Television contracts set the tipoff times for the challenges, apparently with little regard for fan convenience. A 5 p.m. tip time pretty much wipes out those who work during the week – unless they are OK missing the first half or take time off – and makes it harder for families to retrieve their kids and get to the arena. But schools have no control of that, so tip at 5:02 it will be. Ole Miss and Louisville get to tip at 9:15 p.m., so that may be worse. So much for the notion of student-athletes on a school night.

Note to future challenge organizers: Don’t tip these games any earlier than 6:30 p.m. or later than 8:30 p.m. and maybe add a weekend day, too. It would become much more fan friendly.

Both Tennessee and Notre Dame have played without a key team member in November – Rickea Jackson for the Lady Vols and Olivia Miles for the Irish. Jackson, the team’s leading scorer at 22 points a game, hasn’t played since Nov. 9. The boot on her right foot during the Thanksgiving tournament in Florida didn’t indicate a quick return. Miles has missed the start of the season after suffering a knee injury last spring but has been able to shoot lately.

The schedule doesn’t ease up to end the week as Tennessee will host No. 16/13 Ohio State on Sunday, Dec. 3. That game also will tip at 5 p.m.

Jackson was electrifying to open the season, and her teammates are still figuring out how to play without her on the court. She consumed so much of the opponent’s attention that players could be left with open shots. Those windows close fast now.

“This is obviously a tough stretch for our basketball team, and I think it’s a great challenge for us mentally, obviously physically,” coach Kellie Harper said. “But hopefully it’s going to be an opportunity for us to grow and I told them see what you’re made of. I want to see us go out and compete and really give ourselves opportunities to win basketball games.”

Tennessee celebrates in the locker room after the win over Oklahoma. (UT Athletics)

Tennessee played a pair of ranked opponents last week at the Elevance Health Women’s Fort Myers Tip-Off. After losing to Indiana, 71-57, on Thanksgiving evening, Tennessee defeated Oklahoma, 76-73, last Saturday. The turkey day game drew 1,118,000 viewers on FOX, the most-watched women’s college basketball game ever on FOX and the most-watched women’s college basketball game on any network this season.

“I thought that the win against Oklahoma was huge for our team mentally,” Harper said. “I was excited that we were able to find a way to pull out a win when it wasn’t pretty. Our team likes pretty, and it’s just not always going to look that way. That was really good for our confidence and for our morale.”

After the loss to Indiana, Harper noted that her team could be too nice. She was much happier after the Oklahoma game.

“I think we made some strides from game one to game two down in Fort Myers,” Harper said. “We weren’t as physical and as competitive as we needed to be against Indiana. I thought we showed a little bit more of that against Oklahoma and that’s something that we’ve got to keep working on.”

VOLLEYBALL: For the first time since 2011, the volleyball team will host the early rounds of the NCAA tourney, which will be held in Knoxville this Friday and Saturday, Dec. 1-2, at Thompson-Boling Arena at Food City Center.

Tennessee, which is ranked No. 8 in the country, earned the overall No. 10 national seed in the NCAA Tournament with a designation as the No. 3 seed in the Stanford bracket, the highest in program history. The Lady Vols will play High Point, the champions of the Big South, at 6:30 p.m. on Dec. 1 with Western Kentucky and Coastal Carolina playing at 4:30 p.m. The winners will play Dec. 2 at 6 p.m. for the right to advance the round of 16.

The full NCAA bracket is available HERE.

Including Tennessee, which finished second in a loaded conference, a total of eight SEC teams earned bids. The others are Arkansas, Auburn, Florida, Georgia, SEC champion Kentucky, Missouri and Texas A&M.

Eve Rackham Watt is first Tennessee volleyball head coach since 2011 and the fourth in program history to win SEC Coach of the Year honors. (UT Athletics)

Coach Eve Rackham Watt earned Co-SEC Coach of the Year – along with three others in the league – and graduate student Morgahn Fingall repeated as Co-SEC Scholar-Athlete of the Year. Fingall, freshman setter Caroline Kerr and graduate student Jenaisya Moore earned All-SEC Team honors, while Kerr also got a spot on the SEC All-Freshman Team.

Rackham Watt led the Lady Vols to one of their best seasons in program history with a 24-4 overall record and a 15-3 slate in the SEC.

Tickets for the Knoxville game can be bought HERE for $10, and parking is free. Make a trip to the arena. This team is fun to watch.

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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