Lady Vols land in familiar place for March Madness

Maria M. Cornelius2MCsports

The Lady Vols will start the NCAA tourney by taking a trip to North Carolina to play a team from Wisconsin in a very familiar place for the head coach.

No. 6 seed Tennessee, 19-12, will play No. 11 seed Green Bay, 27-6, on Saturday, March 23, at noon at William Neal Reynolds Coliseum with the broadcast on ESPN. The subregional is hosted by No. 3 seed NC State, 27-6, and the Wolfpack will play No. 14 seed Chattanooga, 28-4, in the second game of the afternoon. The winners will meet Monday, March 25, in the second round at a time to be determined.

Kellie Harper used to be the head coach at NC State, where Wes Moore is now at the helm for the Wolfpack. Moore previously was the head coach at Chattanooga and hired Harper as an assistant coach before she embarked on a head coaching career at Western Carolina, NC State, Missouri State and Tennessee after winning three national titles as Pat Summitt’s point guard when she was known as Kellie Jolly.

Kellie Jolly and Pat Summitt. (UT Athletics)

Moore remains great friends with Harper – and still vacations with her husband and assistant coach, Jon Harper, as both are avid golfers – has bachelor’s and master’s degree from Tennessee in physical education and worked summer basketball camps for Summitt in the late 1980s.

“Wes is a great guy,” Kellie Harper said. “I know we’ll be treated well when we go over there. I do know that for a fact.”

The coaches and players gathered Sunday inside their film room to watch the brackets be unveiled and cheered when Tennessee’s name slid in as a six seed. It was higher than national pundits predicted – this writer said it would be on the 6/7 line after the way the team played in the SEC tourney and being ranked No. 1 in strength of schedule. The women’s selection committee has been transparent about teams needing to play better opponents in the non-conference slate, and Tennessee repeatedly answers that bell.

“They’re just excited to play,” Harper said. “At this point, there’s a lot of lead up to the tournament and what your seed is going to be, but at this point, it’s all about your matchups. They get to see themselves on television and hear their name called and it’s an exciting time of year and you shouldn’t ever take it for granted. I understand the expectations here, but you really shouldn’t take it for granted.”

Jackson, the Harpers’ 10-year-old son – wearing a green shirt on St. Patrick’s Day – could be seen cheering when Tennessee’s name appeared and ESPN went live to Knoxville. Jackson has been a vocal supporter of Tennessee since he arrived in 2019. During the 2020-21 season when the pandemic limited arena capacity to 4,000 in a facility designed to hold 21,000, he sat with his little sister, Kiley, and sang “Rocky Top” as loud as he could.

Jackson Harper, top middle in green shirt, reacts during the bracket reveal. (UT Athletics)

“Jackson’s pretty ingrained in our program, and he knows more about what’s going on than I usually give him credit for,” Kellie Harper said. “He knew how to also get on television. He understands how to put himself in position to be on television, but he’s excited and he’s the ultimate optimist, so he’s a fan right now.”

SOFTBALL: The Lady Vols have a 14-game winning streak, including a sweep of Missouri to open SEC play, and are now 22-4 overall and 3-0 in the SEC. The streak is a product of a barrage of home runs and stellar pitching, especially Karlyn Pickens, who just earned back-to-back SEC Pitcher of the Week honors.

Pickens took the circle twice against Missouri and finished with complete game shutouts, striking out 16 batters in 12 innings – one was a run-rule win in five innings – and allowed just two walks and five hits. Her shutout streak is now 46 innings dating to March 2. Teams also are hitting just .099 against Pickens over that streak.

Karlyn Pickens keeps delivering for Tennessee. (UT Athletics)

Pickens has always thrown heat – see an earlier column for a comparison to Monica Abbott – but she has a much-improved off-speed pitch that can freeze batters after the fire flies by. Pickens also can get even better than she is now as she is just a sophomore.

No. 7/8 Tennessee added a game this Thursday, March 21, at Western Carolina because of all the rainouts earlier in the season and then will step back into SEC play with three games at South Carolina on March 23-25.

“We have played one SEC series, and we did some really good things,” coach Karen Weekly said. “But it’s about us staying focused on our process and being hungrier to be more and more focused on our process every single day.”

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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