NASSAU, Bahamas – This week’s women’s basketball column comes from Paradise Island, where Tennessee departed with two losses – though better established its willingness to take punches – and this writer continues to soak up the sun.
After staking its flag in the sand with a 94-54 win over Rutgers on Saturday, Tennessee lost 80-63 to UCLA – which went on to the win the championship – and then 73-72 to Gonzaga. The Battle 4 Atlantis ended up being a trap for top 15 teams as Tennessee, Texas and Louisville, which were No. 11, No. 6 and No. 3 respectively, all went 1-2 over three games. Tennessee is now 2-4 overall; Louisville, 4-2, and Texas, 2-3.
Let’s get the officiating out of the way. It was brutal over three days. Tennessee lost its last game on a questionable travel call against Jordan Horston. In an earlier game, Horston was hit in the jaw – no whistle on the play – and had to have her jaw popped back into place on the sideline. As one Lady Vol fan surmised, the crews must have been found in the gift shop.
Of course, that’s also what postseason is like, and coach Kellie Harper frontloaded the team’s schedule precisely to get players ready and expose any weaknesses. The strategy may pay off as Tennessee has identified plenty of ways to get better.
The final game against Gonzaga was Tennessee’s to win – and it had three shots at the end in a scramble for offensive rebounds to flip a script of agony to elation. That line is razor thin in sports.
“That was a tough loss to handle,” Harper said. “I will tell you that everybody over there in the locker room feels like we just got punched in the gut.”
The Lady Vols played two teams in UCLA and Gonzaga who fired away from the three-point line. Tennessee couldn’t withstand the fusillade from the Bruins but did against the Bulldogs. Rickea Jackson, a special talent for Tennessee, earned a spot on the Battle 4 Atlantis All-Tournament Team.
Tennessee also found a way to get more production in the paint. Jasmine Franklin, who tore her ACL last December and has eased her way back onto the court, provided considerable toughness for the Lady Vols against Gonzaga with 11 points, nine rebounds and zero turnovers. While undersized at 6-1, she will battle inside. Tamari Key, the Lady Vols’ 6-6 center, struggled in The Bahamas and appeared to be under the weather.
The 2022-23 team remains a work in progress as Tennessee continues to work in multiple new faces from the transfer portal. The next step is cohesiveness – which is a nice way to say share the basketball – and getting used to each other on the court.
Against Gonzaga, a breakaway layup ended in a travel instead of getting the ball to a wide-open Jackson sprinting to the basket. On the last play, Horston and Jackson had scored at will at the rim – or gotten fouled – and didn’t immediately get the ball out of the timeout to set up a game-winner. The line between making a play and making good decisions is another thin one but needs to be delineated if Tennessee intends to be a championship-caliber team.
The Lady Vols returned home Tuesday and will host Colorado on Friday and Eastern Kentucky on Sunday in the first of six games at home. The losses can take a toll, and the Lady Vols need a successful homestand not just for their record, but also for team morale.
“This one is really hard,” Harper said after the Gonzaga game. “They put more into it, they left more out there, and it’s hard when you do that. I also asked them if they could do it again. Could they pour it out there again the next time out and again and again and again. And that is exhausting. It takes a lot but it’s worth it.”
Tennessee will get back to practice. This writer will extend vacation until Friday.
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.