Lady Vols to host Team USA; patches memorialize two players

Maria M. Cornelius2MCsports

The basketball team will bookend this week with two exhibition games that could not possibly be at more opposite sides of the spectrum. First up was Carson-Newman on Monday, a game the Lady Vols won handily, as expected. Second up, the goal will be to just compete. The opponent will be the U.S. Women’s National team with a roster full of Olympians and WNBA All-Stars.

The second exhibition game is set for Sunday, Nov. 5, at 6 p.m., and the SEC Network will carry the broadcast from Food City Center, formerly known as Thompson-Boling Arena. USA Women’s Basketball added two exhibition games this month – the second one is at Duke – as the team opened the first training camp in Atlanta to prepare for the 2024 Olympics in Paris.

Thus, Sunday’s game is not part of the Lady Vols season ticket package, so all fans must buy a ticket in advance HERE or at the venue on game day. Lower level seats are available for under $20. The good news for all fans is a rarity – all on-campus parking garages will be free for this game.

The U.S. Women’s National team celebrates a gold medal at the 2000 Tokyo Olympics, which actually was played in 2021 due to the pandemic. (Getty Images for USA Basketball)

The 10 U.S. players being sent to Tennessee are Brittney Griner, Aliyah Boston, Diana Taurasi, Rhyne Howard, Kahleah Copper, Sabrina Ionescu, Jackie Young, Allisha Gray, Betnijah Laney, Azurá Stevens and Ariel Atkins. The head coach for the national team is Cheryl Reeve of the WNBA’s Minnesota Lynx. The total training camp roster is 14, and Dearica Hamby, Angel McCoughtry, Arike Ogunbowale and Kelsey Plum are assigned to the Duke game on Nov. 12, along with overlap from the ones at Tennessee, including Boston, Griner and Taurasi. Other players are expected to be added to the pool in 2024.

“We’ll find out who will compete,” coach Kellie Harper said. “I want to see grit and for us to have some toughness about us. Try to execute and just really get out there and fight. That’s what I want to see.”

Rickea Jackson handles the ball against Carson-Newman. (Emma Corona/Tennessee Athletics)

Harper is not preparing for Sunday’s game as a typical matchup because it isn’t one. This week in practice, the focus for her team doesn’t need to be a specific scouting report for Team USA but instead getting ready to open the regular season when the wins and losses count.

Two days later, Tennessee will host Florida A&M on Nov. 7. Two days after that, the Lady Vols will play play No. 18 Florida State on Nov. 9 in Tallahassee.

When asked after Monday’s game about going from one extreme to the other in exhibition games this week, Harper laughed.

“I’ll never forget my first game,” she said. “My first college game ever was against the 1996 Dream Team, Team USA. I’ll make sure to share this with our team: I had the ball thinking ‘I’ll throw it to the post,’ because I was very much a rule follower and Pat (Summitt) told me to throw it to the post so I was going to throw it to the post.

Pat Summitt and Nikki McCray (Tennessee Athletics)

“As I was looking to the post, Nikki McCray, the best defensive player in the world, took the ball from me and went and shot a layup. I got an introduction though. Hopefully the players will have a more positive one than I had. It’s something that’s going to stick with them forever. What an unbelievable opportunity for them.”

The mention of McCray was bittersweet. The Tennessee players are wearing patches on their warm-up shirts that say TB for Tasha Butts and NM. Nikki McCray-Penson died July 7 at the age of 51 from breast cancer. Butts died Oct. 23 at the age of 41 from breast cancer and will be buried Nov. 4 in her hometown of Milledgeville, Georgia. Both are former Lady Vol players who had entered the coaching ranks.

Rickea Jackson was among the trio of players who came to the post-game press conference after the Carson-Newman game. All three were wearing the warm-up shirts. Jackson had played for McCray-Penson for one season at Mississippi State before transferring to Tennessee. When asked about the significance of the patches, Jackson tried to answer, started crying and then couldn’t speak.

Teammate Sara Puckett comforted Jackson and then spoke. Puckett also got emotional, and the video can be seen below. It’s been viewed nearly 90,000 times and counting as of Nov. 1. It was retweeted by South Carolina women’s basketball – McCray-Penson was an assistant there for years – with the words: This is the power of Nikki McCray-Penson – a deep connection to everyone she touched. Her loss will be felt across our game but her legacy will live forever through all of us.

“We love our own,” Harper said. “We love the Lady Vol family and love the people that have come before us. It’s been a really tough time to be honest with you. It’s been tough for our alums. It’s been tough for both Nikki and Tasha’s teammates in particular. Just way too soon.”

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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