How sweet it is (again)

Maria M. Cornelius2MCsports

Tennessee shut down the rockets of Toledo and soared into the Sweet 16 with withering defense, a barrage of three-pointers and dominance on the glass in a 94-47 win Monday night at Thompson-Boling Arena.

The Lady Vols and Gentlemen Vols – both of whom hit bumps along the way this season – are now both in the Sweet 16. The Lady Vols are headed to Seattle for a rematch with Virginia Tech, while the Vols will be in New York for a game against Florida Atlantic.

“So excited to be going back to the Sweet 16, and really proud of our team,” Tennessee coach Kellie Harper said. “I think we’ve played really well top to bottom, starters and our bench. Right now, a lot of excitement on Rocky Top obviously with our men in the Sweet 16 as well, just a lot of fun, great vibes. Love the crowd and the energy here.”

A crowd of 5,486 sounded much louder and never let up. The more Tennessee scored, the more points the crowd wanted, and the Lady Vols seemed happy to oblige as 11 different players scored.

Five Lady Vols reached double digits in scoring – led by Jillian Hollingshead and Sara Puckett with 13 points each – and Tennessee swarmed the glass for a 58-30 advantage on rebounds with Jasmine Franklin grabbing 10 boards. Jasmine Powell and Rickea Jackson notched 12 points each, and Jordan Horston tallied 10 points and eight rebounds.

Rickea Jackson and her teammates celebrate with the student section after the win. (Tennessee Athletics)

Before the game, Toledo coach Tricia Cullop said her considerably undersized team had to keep Tennessee off the glass and out of the paint.  Neither happened as the Lady Vols scored 40 points in the paint to 20 for Toledo. To make matters worse, Tennessee also hit 11 three-pointers with seven players finding the range from the arc.

“Well, we needed Tennessee to not shoot well from three because we needed to pack it in because of the size disadvantage,” said Cullop, a gracious coach all weekend in victory and defeat. “That didn’t work out so well. And we wish them the very best. They’ve got a great team playing very well right now.”

On Saturday, the Rockets, which were a No. 12 seed, scored 80 points to send No. 5 seed Iowa State back to Ames. Against Tennessee, lanes to the basket were hard to find, as were uncontested shots.

The Lady Vols unleashed their best defensive effort of the season against Toledo, which never found its groove. Pat Summitt used to say: “Be careful what you show me.” Tennessee has now shown coach Harper how it can play defense – and Harper will expect that from now on.

Sophomore Jillian Hollingshead and graduate transfer Jasmine Franklin, who both are in their first season at Tennessee, celebrate the win. (Tennessee Athletics)

The SEC, which had not received much national respect in the polls this season outside of South Carolina and LSU, now will account for 25 percent of the Sweet 16 with Tennessee, Ole Miss, South Carolina and LSU.

“Just love watching the tournament and pulling for the SEC teams, so I’m also proud that we’re one of four teams continuing on,” Harper said.

Horston set a bit of history with three assists against Toledo as she tied Harper, then known as Kellie Jolly, with 452 career assists at Tennessee. The player and head coach are now knotted at No. 7 on the Lady Vols’ all-time list and with one more in Seattle, Horston can have it to herself. With five more assists, Horston can pass former Lady Vol Kara Lawson, who had 456 career assists.

“I think that kind of has to happen, right? She’s got to get mine,” Harper said. “I’m proud of her. Obviously, she’s written her name in our record books here at Tennessee. Our tradition here of excellence is so unmatched, and there are so many talented players that have come before. So, for her to be able to put her name on lists of great players, I’m just really proud of her.”

While in high school, Horston signed with Tennessee and committed to play for former Lady Vol coach Holly Warlick. Two months before Horston was set to enroll for summer school, Tennessee parted ways with Warlick. Horston met Harper one time for a family dinner in Horston’s hometown of Columbus, Ohio, in April, kept her commitment and enrolled at Tennessee by the end of May in 2019.

Jordan Horston gets to the rim against Toledo. (Tennessee Athletics)

Four years later, she’s one pass and a made basket by a teammate from passing Harper in career assists. A relationship with a player is forged over two to three years during the recruiting process. Harper and Horston never got that, so they made up for lost time. Harper has said she has a special relationship with Horston and vice versa.

Tennessee reached the Sweet 16 last season with Horston watching from the sideline. She had suffered a dislocated fracture of her elbow in February 2022 and missed the rest of the season. On Monday, Horston’s fingerprints were all over the box score to send Tennessee back.

“I’m so excited for her to be able to go to the Sweet 16,” Harper said. “Last year, obviously, was so excited for our team to be there, but earlier today I was really thinking about her and wanted the opportunity for her – I wanted her to be able to experience that as a player as well. I’ll have fun with her on this assist thing, though. I will.”

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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