The basketball team ended 2023 in the best fashion with a convincing win on the road and answered the question of how much Rickea Jackson was missed.
Jackson, who made her first start since Nov. 9, looked like she had never walked off the court. But the WNBA sure-fire first round draft pick had been sidelined for nearly seven weeks, which also was timed to the toughest part of Tennessee’s non-conference schedule, and the losses piled up.
Tennessee is now 7-5 – it’s not a stretch to say the Lady Vols could have been 10-2 with Jackson – but the silver lining, if there is one, is how other players had to get ready amid heavy fire from opponents and elements of a fan base that got testy.
Karoline Striplin and Kaiya Wynn are in their third year at Tennessee. Striplin is getting every bit out of her ability and has held down the post with multiple starts. Wynn was a basketball and track star in high school, and the junior has settled into a significant role while blending her speed and basketball prowess.
The basketball gods didn’t allow Tennessee to enter 2024 at full strength. Point guard Destinee Wells suffered a knee injury in practice before Christmas and is out for the season.
Sophomore Knoxvillian Avery “Ace” Strickland hasn’t played since Dec. 6. She had just come out of concussion protocol, got swiped across the face against Middle Tennessee and had to go right back in it. (As someone who has sustained four concussions, most recently last fall that necessitated a CT scan, recovery takes time.)
Wynn, who had played limited minutes at point at Tennessee, proved to be a quick study and posted 12 points, seven assists and – pause for an hallelujah from Lady Vols fans – zero turnovers. Starting point guard Jasmine Powell, who is in her second year at Tennessee after transferring from Minnesota, has displayed maturity – she has become a go-to for sportswriters because of her ability to honestly assess a game – and consistency at the position.
Yes, the win on Dec. 31 was against Liberty, which is now 5-10. But it was 90-55 and that’s a step forward to dominate a team when Tennessee should. Liberty has a 6-6 center and has outrebounded its opponents this season, including Texas. The Lady Vols won the board battle, 52-43.
The Lady Vols also were coming off an 11-day break between games. Liberty had cruised to a win on Friday and was back in game mode after the holidays.
Flames coach Carey Green, a native of Louisville in Blount County, is in his 25th season at Liberty. He earned an associate’s degree from Roane State in 1976, bachelor’s degree from Coastal Carolina in 1979 and master’s degree in science education from Tennessee in 1981.
He loaded up the non-conference schedule with games against Texas, Gonzaga, Louisville, Alabama and NC State. Tennessee was the only Power 5 team that traveled to Liberty Arena, and Green said he appreciated Kellie Harper bringing her team to Lynchburg. More than 2,000 fans showed up on New Year’s Eve to watch the game, and the orange was visible across the arena.
What was the Jackson effect? She played 16 minutes in first half with 14 points, six boards and two steals. She finished with 21 points and was able to rest the fourth quarter in just her second game back to the court after playing limited minutes in the game before Christmas.
With Jackson back for tipoff, Tess Darby came off the bench and connected on 6-of-9 three-pointers for a career-high 18 points and is now eighth on Tennessee’s career three-pointer list with 148 after passing Taber Spani (143) and Shannon Bobbitt (147) against Liberty.
Coming off the bench is a relative term with Harper, who substitutes early. When Tennessee had three missed offensive opportunities in a row in the second quarter, Harper got Jackson and Darby back on the court, and the Lady Vols quickly extended the lead.
Depth has taken a considerable hit due to injury. Tennessee now has 10 scholarship players plus sophomore walk-on Edie Darby, who is now third on the point guard depth chart. Edie Darby deserves a shoutout, though. She turned down scholarship offers from other schools to walk on at Tennessee. She is fundamentally sound, always plays hard and can shoot from the arc.
The return of Jackson adds a proven scorer who consumes a lot of defensive attention. That means other players, like Tess Darby, will get more open looks at the basket.
“Going into this season, that’s what I felt like our strength could be, just the different options,” Harper said. “Now, everybody’s got to step up and produce. If we’re playing like we’re playing now and playing with great confidence and great poise, that’s really good for our basketball team.”
The schedule now enters the SEC slate of 2024, and the Lady Vols will open Thursday evening on the road against Auburn, 11-2. The Tigers are relentless on defense and force a lot of turnovers – including 29 against Clemson earlier this season in a 30-point win. Road wins aren’t easy in the SEC, and Tennessee will be challenged early.
“Everyone did their job, but we did it at a higher level, and I think that’s exactly what we need,” Tess Darby said after Sunday’s win. “It’s the momentum that we need to bring into the conference, because the SEC is no joke. Everyone does what they do, but they do it at a higher level, so let’s keep it rolling.”
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.