Offseason arrives too soon for Lady Vols

Maria M. Cornelius2MCsports

The ending is always a jolt unless a basketball team is playing in the championship game, and Tennessee walked off the court for the last time this season in Raleigh.

A six seed, Tennessee was playing on a three seed’s home court in NC State as the underdog, but the 79-72 loss stung even more after the Lady Vols wiped 18 points off a 20-point lead to the Wolfpack and then stumbled in the final minute Monday. For the second time in postseason, the Lady Vols also fell victim to poor officiating.

With 46 seconds left, Jewel Spear banked in a three-pointer and swiped the in-bounds pass under the rim. But a whistle blew, and officials granted NC State a timeout. Replays showed the ball was already in play when the official’s arm went up, so a timeout should never have been awarded. Coach Kellie Harper, who was gobsmacked, as were her players, pleaded her case to no avail.

“I was told the whistle got blown before the ball was inbounded,” Harper said. “I don’t know if they checked it. I asked them to check. I’m not sure if they could. For us, the games aren’t just singular. We had that same situation earlier this year, and it was the reverse. I was calling a timeout, whistle blew, but they didn’t give it to us.”

That happened at South Carolina when Harper called timeout, the ball was in-bounded, a Gamecock guard stole it and scored. The basket stood.

Coach Kellie Harper talks to Jasmine Powell at practice in Raleigh. (UT Athletics)

In a rematch against South Carolina, an official, despite staring at the play, didn’t whistle an obvious double dribble with 3.8 seconds left that should have given Tennessee the ball in the SEC tourney. Make that call, and the South Carolina three-pointer doesn’t happen.

This writer told Harper in the media conference via Zoom on Monday that a replay showed the ball was in-bounded by NC State before the timeout was granted. Harper dropped her head, and when she looked up, her eyes filled with tears.

“In these games, these teams are really good,” Harper said quietly. “One mistake, one missed shot, one missed assignment at any point in the game can change it.”

For anyone wanting a lengthy recap and the media conference videos, click HERE.

While bad calls happen, the NCAA has a credibility issue with how poor officiating has been in women’s basketball this season across the country. For Tennessee, one no call and one bad call cost the Lady Vols a signature win against South Carolina and a shot at the Sweet 16 in the span of three weeks. For a head coach who has wolves hounding at the door, it’s even more brutal.

The officiating isn’t an easy fix, either. The NBA and its development league plucked the best ones and offered much better pay. Some of the ones left have been thrust into positions and games they aren’t ready for, and the workload is heavy. The solution is better pay and more training, and that costs money. It’s also an issue in the WNBA because the same crews work those games, and the poor officiating was a topic of concern for coaches, players and fans last summer.

Rickea Jackson wears Summitt Blue in her final Lady Vols game on March 25, 2024.

On a lighter note, like nearly all of the great players at Tennessee, including Candace Parker, Alexis Hornbuckle and Shannon Bobbitt, Jackson is an excellent trash talker on the court as outlined HERE by The Next, a site that covers women’s basketball. Jackson posted 33 points and 10 rebounds in her final Tennessee game and had the swagger and skill throughout her career to back up any talk.

Jackson also had some tips: “You can’t be losing my 40, and be like ‘and-one!’ You just gotta be quiet . … If no one is talking back to you, just stop talking. That looks embarrassing. They normally start with me. And then I always finish it.”

The next step for Jackson will be to hear her name called at the WNBA draft, which will be held on April 15 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, known as BAM, in New York. Jackson played two years at Tennessee after transferring from Mississippi State and finished her college career with 2,259 points, which places her sixth all-time among Lady Vol scorers.

“I’m going to remember the good times at Tennessee, the way that Tennessee molded me into the woman I am today,” Jackson said. “I’m just grateful to have come here, and I feel like I made the right decision, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”

SOFTBALL: Tennessee has started 6-0 in the SEC with a three-game sweep of South Carolina with the Gamecocks only scoring one run in three days, and Tennessee crossing the plate 17 times. Payton Gottshall notched career strikeout No. 1,000 in the tune-up game at Western Carolina last week before making the trip to Columbia, and got two wins and one save to earn SEC Pitcher of the Week honors.

Before the team departed, senior outfielder Rylie West was surprised at practice by UT Chancellor Donde Plowman with the presentation of the Torchbearer Award, the university’s highest student honor.

“I am overjoyed for Rylie,” coach Karen Weekly said. “She exemplifies everything it means to be a Torchbearer. She has grown so much as a servant leader during her four years at Tennessee and embraces every opportunity to positively impact those around her. She has a heart for people and her generous spirit is infectious.”

Her father, Troy West, made the trip from Eastvale, California, and his daughter became emotional at the sight of him.

“Karen asked me one time, ‘Are you comfortable with her being here?’ ” Troy West said. “I said yes, and I think that was the best thing I ever said.”

“Coming to Tennessee was the best decision I could have ever made,” Rylee West said. “This was literally the biggest shock ever, so I’m  really emotional right now.”

The video is worth a watch.

Senior outfielder Kiki Milloy earned the award last year, so it marks the first time since 1957 and 1958 that a team has had back-to-back Torchbearer Award winners, and the first time that the recipients were still teammates.

No. 4 Tennessee will be back on the road for a three-game series at Auburn on March 29-31. The Lady Vols will be at home April 5-7 to host Georgia. Take a trip to Lee Stadium to see two Torchbearers on the field at the same time.

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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