Basketball season ends but curse blessedly continues

Maria M. Cornelius2MCsports

Tennessee’s basketball journey ended 2,500 miles from home in the Sweet 16 in a season that took everyone along for a ride.

The Lady Vols finished with 25 wins and 12 losses with five of those coming from three Final Four teams in South Carolina, LSU and Virginia Tech.

For Lady Vol fans, postseason also means tracking one other scoreboard and in 2023 it improved to Candace Parker, 6, Geno Auriemma, 0. The significance was explained a year ago in this space here. Essentially, ever since Auriemma managed to leave Parker off the U.S. Olympic team in April 2016 three weeks after UConn won a national championship, he hasn’t won another one since.

It was an underhanded move by USA Basketball and Auriemma, and Tennessee fans have reveled in his futility to win big in college ever since. Petty? Yes. Karmic? Absolutely.

Candace Parker and her son, Airr.

Tennessee went into this season with Kellie Harper’s best roster to date in her fourth season. A big hit came early when Tamari Key was sidelined in early December with blood clots in her lungs. The 6-6 center had not looked like herself for at least two weeks before the official diagnosis came as she struggled to breathe and run the floor.

But the Lady Vols also struggled to find their rhythm on the floor with multiple new faces in four transfers and two freshmen. The result was a 5-5 record after the first two games of December, and a team that had to embark on finding its identity.

That was a work in progress and Tennessee hit its stride in February, finished third in the SEC with a 13-3 conference record, reached the championship game of the SEC tourney and blasted through its first two opponents in the NCAA tourney in Knoxville.

Coach Kellie Harper after Jordan Horston went around her during practice in Seattle. (Kate Luffman/Tennessee Athletics)

The Seattle Region brought a rematch with Virginia Tech – the first game Dec. 4 was the last game Key played before her diagnosis – and the Lady Vols got way behind early. Tennessee trimmed an 18-point deficit to just one point in the fourth quarter, but the Hokies prevailed, 73-64.

Harper admired her team for its resilience and willingness to stay together despite considerable adversity and still respond to the coaches and each other. She was visibly emotional in the post-game presser conference.

“You don’t go into a game with this speech prepared,” Harper said when asked what she told her team afterwards. “At this point, you don’t talk about the game. You talk about the season.

“I told them I was proud of them. I told them that what they went through this year would have broken a lot of people – or a lot of teams. They were fun to coach. I love them. I really do.”

The trip to Seattle also meant a chance to see former Lady Vols whose homes or professional teams are on the West Coast. Rae Burrell, Mercedes Russell and Jordan Reynolds all made the trip to Seattle.

Coach Kellie Harper and Rae Burrell visit in Seattle.

The roster will look different next season for the usual reasons – some players are out of eligibility, while others have decisions about what’s next from pro considerations to the transfer portal.

Senior Jordan Horston is a projected early first round pick and announced Tuesday that she had declared for the WNBA draft. That story can be read here.

“Thank you Rocky Top for welcoming me into such an amazing environment,” Horston posted on Instagram. “The relationships I’ve built with you all I will cherish forever. This is the end of one chapter and the beginning of another. But one thing I know is I will always be a #LVFL and Rocky Top will always be home sweet home to me … good ole Rocky Top … You all know the rest!”

Horston played four seasons at Tennessee, and her lifelong dream has been to play in the WNBA, so she opted not to take the fifth year granted by the NCAA due to pandemic disruptions for college sports. (It should be noted that this season’s seniors, juniors or redshirt sophomores are the last group who will have that pandemic year as it phases out.)

Marta Suárez, a redshirt sophomore from Spain, left Tennessee in early January to return home for personal reasons and enrolled in online classes to finish the semester. Suárez announced Monday that she would enter the transfer portal. She had two major foot surgeries at Tennessee – one of which cost her a full season – and her mother had been undergoing treatment for cancer, which was a factor in returning to Spain. Suarez’ post on social media said she needed a “fresh start.”

“Since I first landed in Knoxville, I fell in love with the University and your people,” Suárez posted on social media. “The last three years have been full of ups and downs that wrote a beautiful story. I am so grateful for the opportunity to be a part of such a legacy. To my teammates and coaches, it has been a great ride and I will always be thankful for the support.”

Jordan Horston, Kellie Harper and Tamari Key prepare to board a flight to Birmingham for SEC Media Days in 2022. (UT Athletics)

Tennessee already is recruiting players in the portal now – and operating like ninjas to keep its moves under wraps. The portal window for college basketball closes May 11, and that is new as it used to be basically year-round. Any player who doesn’t enter by May 11 will have to sit out a full season at the new school unless the NCAA grants a waiver – and that is unlikely outside of extenuating circumstances such as an unhealthy environment or situation.

Roster movement is the new norm. Every team anticipates roster changes; some are expected while others aren’t. At this point, it should never be surprising. And while some fans immediately criticize a player for leaving, sometimes players are in the portal because a coach put them there by not renewing a scholarship or a player may see there is no path to ever play and realize it’s time to go.

The portal window will allow programs to enter the summer with a roster that is basically solidified. Key, who can take a medical redshirt year, already has said she will return in 2023-24. Rickea Jackson, a senior who just played in her first NCAA tourney, also is coming back – a move aided tremendously by NIL opportunities provided through the Lady Vol Boost Her Club. That same Boost Her club started a thank you gift page here for Horston to send her off to the WNBA. Staying or leaving, the Boost Her Club will support women athletes at Tennessee as much as possible.

The Lady Vols basketball team should be positioned well next season. As always, it will be a journey.

Maria M. Cornelius has been writing about the Lady Vols since 1998 for various publications. 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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