Tennessee women’s basketball got what it needed most Tuesday night in a win, but the roster remains shorthanded for a variety of reasons. The season hasn’t started the way the Lady Vols anticipated, but the team has responded each time it got hit.
The Lady Vols are now 5-5 after the 69-39 takedown of Chattanooga, which had played a close game three days ago against SEC foe Alabama but got undone by Tennessee’s size.
“I think this is the first time all year – I told them this in the locker room – that we got hit in the mouth a little bit, and it was hard to find our footing after that,” Chattanooga coach Shawn Poppie said.
It was the second-year players for Tennessee that had a particularly good showing, and the sophomores will be needed going forward as the roster has taken some hits.
Sophomore post Jillian Hollingshead returned to the court after missing the last game under program concussion protocol, graduate post Jasmine Franklin remained in concussion protocol, and senior post Tamari Key missed the game for medical reasons.
Key’s absence was more concerning – Franklin was on the bench and would seem to be on the road to being back for the next game this Sunday – but Harper, who seemed somewhat subdued after the game, said about Key: “I will update you guys when I know more.” That would indicate Key is unlikely to play in the next game, either.
Poppie said his team had prepared for the 6-6 Key, who patrols the paint like a defensive anchor and makes it hard for opposing teams to get to the rim. Instead it got the 6-5 Hollingshead, whose nickname is “Big Guard,” and who can range all over the court and guard on the perimeter. Senior Rickea Jackson remains on indefinite suspension – since it’s an internal team matter, no details are released – but she is on the sideline with her teammates.
With all those missing pieces, and youngsters being asked to step up in bigger roles, senior Jordan Horston was her usual steady self with 14 points in an efficient 12 minutes on 6-8 shooting.
“It’s not always easy, but that’s where having the adversity of missing players, we’ve had other people really step up,” Harper said. “Someone asked me at radio (after the game) about adversity … great teams don’t become great without adversity.”
The Lady Vols have faced a lot of adversity just 10 games into the season after falling out of the top 25 and getting tagged with five losses. However, Tennessee also has the No. 1 strength of schedule in the country and has three more games before SEC play begins with plenty of time to get back on track to the kind of season that fans expected. To Harper’s credit, she said in preseason that the hype was on paper only, and the team hadn’t done anything yet. A lot of time remains to do a lot.
Sophomore Karoline Striplin made her first career start with Key out of the game – and found out she would be on the court for tipoff right before the game started.
“It meant a lot, just kind of seeing my hard work pay off and being able to step up when my team needed it,” Striplin said.
Practice has been brutal for the past week, and Harper didn’t let up Monday even though it was the day before a game.
Sophomore Sara Puckett took a deep breath and smiled when asked how hard practice has been.
“We were just tired of losing, honestly,” Puckett said. “We found out why we were, and that is what we focused on.”
Puckett had eight points and two blocks. Striplin had seven points and one. Hollingshead added nine points and two blocks. Sophomore Brooklynn Wynn had three assists. Sophomore Kaiya Wynn had five points. The contributions of the youngsters filled the box score – and those players will be needed all season.
Harper purposely put together a tough schedule to expose any vulnerabilities and weaknesses with her team. While the start has been rough, the end result is what matters.
“Our players have to understand that this is a moment that can define who you are,” Harper said.
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.