The We Back Game initiative, which started in 2012 with the legendary Pat Summitt still on the sideline, has become the narrative of a week of SEC women’s basketball games every season to honor her legacy and raise awareness of her foundation.
Fans, coaches and players have become accustomed to the purple attire of Lady Vols coaches and support staff, The Pat Summitt Foundation pins attached to clothing, the purple accents and Summitt’s name on the Tennessee jerseys and check presentations, including $250,000 from the foundation for The Pat Summitt Clinic at the University of Tennessee Medical Center during last Sunday’s win against Vanderbilt.
Throughout the game during timeouts, the scoreboard has photos and video clips of Summitt and testimonials from the current Lady Vols of what she still means to them. It becomes the backdrop of the basketball game – until the moment it hits home. For Kellie Harper, it was when she prepared to speak to her team, and she heard Summitt singing “Rocky Top.”
It was in 2007 to repay then Vols coach Bruce Pearl for painting his chest orange at a Lady Vols game and cheering from the stands with his players. In 2024, former Tennessee point guard Kellie Harper heard the voice of her late coach fill the arena.
“I thought I held it together pretty good when I heard her singing ‘Rocky Top’ over the loud speakers – you saw my face,” Harper told her players in the locker room. “I had a moment. It’s a great day. She would have been proud of you.”
It also was Harper’s 100th win at Tennessee, and it came against arch-rival Vanderbilt – which is off to its best start since the Commodores’ 1993 Final Four team – on an icy and frigid afternoon in Knoxville in which more than 9,000 fans made their way to the arena.
“To get any kind of milestone against a big rival is cool,” Harper said. “It wasn’t my goal. I didn’t know that was going to be 100.”
With the SEC expansion in the 2024-25 season and Texas and Oklahoma coming aboard, the home-and-home matchup with Vanderbilt every season will end. SEC programs will play every team once and have a rotating home-and-home matchup. With 16 teams in the league, it will take a while to cycle through the SEC.
Harper has played and coached in the rivalry. Tennessee fans don’t like Vandy, and Vandy fans don’t like Tennessee.
“Coach Kellie told us in any sport, Vandy wants to beat us,” said Jewel Spear, a senior transfer guard in her first season as a Lady Vol.
“Yes, it’s a big rivalry for me, personally,” Harper said. “It always has been. I get it. I’m from the state, so I understand that longstanding rivalry that you have. I have a great historical perspective of some of the battles that Tennessee and Vanderbilt have had throughout the years and obviously, I think you saw a pretty good classic one (Sunday).”
Tennessee prevailed 73-64 in a game with seven ties and five lead changes. The Lady Vols played the entire fourth quarter without Rickea Jackson, who had dealt with a bout of the flu and then had asthma issues on the bench that ultimately sent the senior forward to the locker room. The game was tied at 62-62 with four minutes to go, and Tennessee didn’t let the Commodores score for the final three minutes to secure the victory.
The Lady Vols are now 12-6 overall and 5-1 in the SEC with a well-timed bye on Thursday before playing at Ole Miss on Sunday, Jan. 28, at 3 p.m. Eastern (TV: ESPN). That is followed by another road game at Georgia, one at home against Missouri and then back on the road at Alabama. Upcoming are two games against No. 1 South Carolina, a trip to Vanderbilt, No. 9 LSU and a rematch with Texas A&M after a loss in College Station.
Tennessee played twice on the road last week at Texas A&M and Mississippi State – during this five-game stretch, the Lady Vols got one at home against Vandy with four on the road – and faced winter storms that impacted travel, led to an extended stay, unplanned bus rides to reach airports, delays and twice forced landings in Knoxville in snow and ice.
During last Sunday’s game, The Pat Summitt Foundation, which also provides grants to nonprofits that provide services for Alzheimer’s patients and caregivers, received payments from various fundraisers from Walgreens, Bowling for a Cure, Forget Me Not Race for Alzheimer’s, Race for the Summitt and Athens Distributing Company of Tennessee that totaled nearly $100,000.
A physically and mentally tired team took the court against Vandy and responded for Tennessee’s We Back Pat game, during which the players wore jerseys that all had Summitt’s name on the back instead of their own. We Back Pat week in the SEC started Jan. 21, so Tennessee will be a visiting team for the next one – but Summitt belting out “Rocky Top” isn’t likely to be played as it was in Knoxville last Sunday.
After an emotional win – Harper telling her team that Summitt would be proud of them was huge – the coach and players welcomed a schedule that puts a week between games.
“Considering we did not get our off day last week, this is going to come at a great time,” Harper said. “The other good thing is classes start this week and not having to get back in the groove of classes and play a game on Thursday is probably an OK situation for them right now.
“But we have to take advantage of this week, whatever that is, if that’s rest, if it’s practice, whatever we need in that moment, we’ve got to take advantage of it.”
LADY VOL CELEBRATION RESCHEDULED: The snow and ice shuttered a lot of events last week, and the celebration of Lady Vols athletics moved from Jan. 19 to this Friday, Jan. 26, from 7-10 p.m. at the Lower West Club at Neyland Stadium. Details of the event with coaches and players in attendance – Harper has been added as a speaker – are in last week’s column HERE, and tickets are still available.
Maria M. Cornelius, senior writer/editor at MoxCar Communications + Marketing, 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.