Regular season winds down for Lady Vols

Maria M. Cornelius2MCsports

Don’t blink. The popular song by Luttrell’s own Kenny Chesney refers to lifespan, but it also gets a clean bounce for basketball. It seems like the Lady Vols just started and now just three games remain on the regular season schedule.

Tennessee drew a tough slate before postseason with LSU, Texas A&M and South Carolina. First up is LSU this Sunday, Feb. 25, at 12 p.m. Tickets have sold at a high clip, and the game also will be broadcast on ESPN. The defending national champs will seek to avenge the loss to Tennessee in the SEC tourney a year ago. The Lady Vols will seek to improve their postseason tourney seeding with a win.

After back-to-back losses to South Carolina and Mississippi State, the Tigers have won four consecutive SEC games for second place in the conference. Tennessee is in a tie for third place with a 9-4 record in SEC play.

“They have so much talent in that starting five,” Tennessee coach Kellie Harper said. “They have size, they have ability to score from the perimeter, the post, they do a great job rebounding, they guard. They do a really good job.”

After spending most of February on the road, Tennessee also will host Texas A&M on Feb. 29 and close out against South Carolina in Columbia on March 3. That will be followed by the SEC tourney on March 6-10 in Greenville, South Carolina.

The schedule makers in Birmingham may have been throwing darts at a board to pit Tennessee and South Carolina against each other twice in just over a two-week span across a season that lasts nine weeks. It was a situation that seemed to irk South Carolina coach Dawn Staley, who noted the two teams also could meet in Greenville for a third encounter just days after the second one.

“I don’t know how that happens,” Staley said. “I really don’t know how you can’t spread that out a little bit. It’s known that we’re probably going to be in the top half of the conference. So, spread it out a little bit, seriously, for both of our sakes. There are NCAA implications on the line. Our conference should be able to control that a little bit better.”

NCAA seeding is a mix of factors, but how a team plays down the stretch is taken under consideration. South Carolina remains undefeated but got tested to the max by Tennessee in the first game. Georgia, which is tied for last place in the SEC, led South Carolina at halftime last weekend. Teams are beat up and tired in late February.

Jewel Spear handles the ball for Tennessee (Kate Luffman/UT Athletics)

Tennessee has drawn three big and physical teams to close out the season in LSU, Texas A&M and South Carolina. The Lady Vols dominated Vanderbilt on the road last weekend, 86-61, with orange fans making themselves at home in Memorial Gymnasium.

Rickea Jackson kept making a solid case for SEC player of the year with 24 points, seven rebounds and four assists. Tennessee played three games last week with Jackson notching a total of 64 points.

The schedule did provide a bye this Thursday with Tennessee getting a bit of rest before having to get back on the court.

“When you’re winning like this, you want to keep going but at the same time it’s always good to have that rest,” Jackson said. “We are ready to play but our bodies need a little rest.”

The resurgence of Jackson, who missed nearly all of November and December due to a leg injury, has been key for Tennessee. Scouts from three WNBA teams, Phoenix Mercury, Washington Mystics and Los Angeles Sparks, have made trips to Knoxville in 2024 to see the 6-2 forward. Jackson returned strong in SEC play, dipped a wee bit when she worried about her leg and then surged again.

“I think it’s important for not only Rickea but for all of us to stay confident in themselves,” senior guard Jasmine Powell said. “She said before she was in her head a little bit, but she just needed to see the ball go through, she needed to get in the gym, to get back to what she normally does.

“When she can stay consistent and stay efficient it’s really good for our team because not only is she a good scorer, but she’s a great passer as well. When she’s on everybody else is on.”

Jasmine Powell has been steady at point guard all season. (Kate Luffman/UT Athletics)

Senior guard Jewel Spear also reestablished her stroke against Vanderbilt with 16 points after being shut out against South Carolina. Spear got some great looks against the Gamecocks and had a few shots rattle in and out. The remedy was as old as the sport.

“Credit to getting back in the gym, seeing shots go in, getting extra work in,” Spear said. “JP here, our PG, slicing and dicing, looking to skip passes, my teammates making an extra pass and then me just shooting it with confidence.”

That quote was basketball lingo for Jasmine Powell, point guard and a sharp pass tossed from one side of the court to the other that sails over the defense and sets up a shooter.

The Feb. 29 game will be Senior Night. Spear has an extra year if she chooses to take it as does Tess Darby. Tamari Key has the option for a sixth year, but that is unlikely for a player who had to work her way back from blood clots in her lungs to exit the game on her terms.

Jackson and Powell came back for a fifth year, so it definitely will be their final game. It’s worth a trip to the arena to tell these seniors good bye.

SOFTBALL: Weather has bedeviled Tennessee to start the season with four games already canceled due to rain in the first 10 scheduled. The team traveled to Florida for what was supposed to be five games and just two were officially played with one started and then canceled. It was a weekend spent waiting, watching downpours and then leaving with a 1-0 loss to Stanford and 2-1 loss to Texas.

Softball pitcher Karlyn Pickens (UT Athletics)

Tennessee is now 4-2 and still ranked No. 5 in the country. The bats will undoubtedly come around, and the performance by Payton Gottshall and Karlyn Pickens in the circle against two of the best teams in the country – Texas is No. 2 and Stanford is No. 12 – bodes well for the Lady Vols who no longer have ace and innings workhorse Ashley Rogers.

Kiki Milloy, as outlined HERE, continues to chase home run history at Tennessee. Her next shot is at the Mary Nutter Collegiate Classic in Cathedral City, California, on Feb. 23-25, with six games on the schedule. The good news is that, as of now, there is no rain in the forecast.

Maria M. Cornelius, a senior 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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