Tennessee opened the regular season with a win, welcomed a Lady Vol legend home as the opposing head coach and got 20 points from senior Jewel Spear in her debut in orange-and-white with junior Karoline Striplin matching the output.
The 93-64 win over Florida A&M wasn’t initially as smooth as the score indicated as Bridgette Gordon, making her debut as a head coach, is molding her team in her image – fearless and competitive. After the game, Gordon said she just wanted to make Pat Summitt proud.
The Rattlers briefly took the lead early in the first quarter, before Tennessee summoned its defense and shot-making ability and took a 46-30 lead into halftime. With a one-day turnaround before No. 11/12 Tennessee plays at No. 18/22 Florida State on Thursday, Nov. 12, coach Kellie Harper kept every player’s court time under 25 minutes.
“It’s great to start the season 1-0,” Harper said. “I told them in the locker room you don’t take any of them for granted.”
Rickea Jackson tallied 13 points for Tennessee, and Kaiya Wynn added 12 points. Ahriahna Grizzle led the Rattlers with 16 points, Hailee Brennan tallied 13 points, and Ivet Subirats added 12.
Spear, who transferred last spring from Wake Forest, hit five three-pointers, grabbed three boards and dished two assists in her first official box score at Tennessee. She needed less than 18 minutes to produce that stat line.
Her father, LeRonne Spear, graduated from Florida A&M, and she talked to him in Texas, where her parents now live, to ask who he was pulling for Tuesday night. He conceded that his loyalty was to his daughter.
Spear ended the first half on a corner three after a perfect pass from Destinee Wells, another senior transfer from Belmont, who protected the ball at the top of the key and eyed the clock. With 6.6 seconds left she drove to the basket. The defense collapsed on her, and Wells fired the ball to Spear, who was all alone behind the arc and swished her shot.
“That was beautiful,” said Harper, who, as a former point guard, could especially appreciate Wells’ poise. “I am so comfortable putting the ball in her hands. It was a beautiful play.”
A ticket sales crowd of 7,684 cheered loudly when Gordon was announced as the head coach of the Rattlers.
“It means that I played the game the right way,” Gordon said when asked about the reception. “It wasn’t just about the wins, the championships. It was just about everything that Pat stood for.”
The return was emotional for Gordon, who took her team to the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame where she has been inducted, to Summitt’s statute and throughout an arena loaded with Lady Vols history. When Gordon glanced toward the bench where Summitt stood for so long, she got emotional during shoot-around. Gordon played at Tennessee from 1985-89, won two national titles and twice was named a Kodak All-American. In between two championships in college in 1987 and 1989, she won an Olympic gold medal for Team USA in 1988.
Gordon hasn’t had much time with her team as she was hired in late July, relocated in two weeks from the state of New Mexico, where she was going to be an assistant for former Lady Vol Jody Adams-Birch, added seven new players, hired a staff and then had the campus shut down because of a hurricane.
Despite those challenges, Gordon brought a team into Knoxville that was scrappy, shot the ball well – the Rattlers made nine three-pointers at 47.4 percent – and did its best to keep a much taller Tennessee team out of the paint as best it could.
The Lady Vols ended up dominated on the glass, 47-25, and points in the paint, 42-24. The test gets much stiffer less than 48 hours after the FAMU game ended with a trip to Florida State, which like FAMU, is located in Tallahassee.
After Harper finished with media, she headed to her office in the arena to go over the scouting report for the Seminoles and prepare a practice plan for Wednesday.
“They’re extremely quick, and they do a great job of getting to the paint,” Harper said. “They’re going to play really fast. They’re hard to guard.”
Florida State is an ACC team, so Spear will be familiar with the venue and the team since she came from Wake Forest. Harper joked that she would welcome any input from Spear.
“I am completely fine with her sharing some info with us for the good of our team,” Harper said.
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.