World travelers find team chemistry

Maria M. Cornelius2MCsports

Jewel Spear and Rickea Jackson spent a good portion of the summer in Italy, Greece and Mexico. Their feet are finally planted now in Tennessee with a schedule of classes, weights, workouts and basketball.

For Jackson, who is entering her second season at Tennessee after transferring a year ago, the international excursions allowed her to see the beauty of Italy and Greece. For Spears, who just transferred from Wake Forest, the trip provided a chance to get to know her new team. The pair, who quickly have become friends, chatted with the media Tuesday.

The Lady Vol coaches, staff and players spent 11 days in Europe in June. Jackson and Spear had enough time to unpack, repack and get back on a plane to report to training camp with USA Basketball in Colorado Springs and then fly to Mexico for the FIBA Women’s AmeriCup, which was held in early July.

“Sorrento and Capri, those are my two favorite places,” Jackson said. “It was just beautiful. You look up and thank God for even being able to be in this opportunity. I have a lot of gratitude and gratefulness. It was breathtaking. I was amazed that something like this even existed.”

Spear spent one week in Knoxville after a whirlwind recruitment in May and then flew to Italy with her new team.

“That was a good experience to spend time with my coaches, my teammates and really build bonds off the court as well as on the court,” Spear said. “I was blessed to be able to go to Mexico as well with Rickea and compete in Mexico, and we ended up getting silver.”

Rickea Jackson opened a lot of eyes with her stellar play at the AmeriCup in Mexico. (USA Basketball)

The various USA basketball teams that compete at international events across the world assemble players from high school and college – the U.S. National Team at the Olympics is the exception as the players are pros – that gather for tryouts and then a short training camp. They often face older teams that play together year-round. The United States made it to the final against Brazil, which won gold.

Jackson and Spear held their own on the court. Jackson especially opened eyes as she averaged 14.6 points and 4.9 rebounds over seven games. Jackson’s scoring average was fourth among the 109 players competing in Mexico, and she earned a spot on the AmeriCup All-Star Five. Her 102 points were the second-most in USA AmeriCup history behind the legendary Lisa Leslie who scored 129 points in seven games in 1993.

“My confidence has grown even more playing against former pros and former WNBA All Stars and doing pretty well against them,” Jackson said. “It gave me a glimpse of how it will be in the WNBA and overseas. They were very, very physical and the calls that we would normally get in the U.S., they’re not calling that. I knew I had to be quicker, smoother and smarter.”

Spear led the United States in made threes at 10, but it was her ability to defend that stood out at times.

“I think defense wins championships and defense can take you a long way,” said Spear, channeling the late Pat Summitt. “I can shoot the ball, score the ball, but I know to be on the court and to stay on the court, I have to be top notch on defense.”

The Lady Vols played two exhibition games in Italy, but the bulk of the trip was for cultural and educational experiences from visiting The Colosseum to swimming in the Aegean Sea.

“That was my first time going on a foreign tour,” Spear said. “Going to Sorrento and Capri were definitely the best trips to me because there was a lot of walking areas and shopping areas and then we were able to go on a private boat tour.”

Jewel Spear competes for USA Basketball. (USA Basketball)

Tennessee has three new players via the transfer portal with Spear, Destinee Wells and Avery Strickland. Taking an 11-day summer trip accelerated team chemistry as the players spent hours together with plenty of time to talk. The full video interviews with Spear and Jackson can be watched HERE and HERE.

“We got a head start on that bonding,” Jackson said. “It felt good because we had time to have fun and let loose.”

The trip especially for beneficial for Spear as a newcomer.

“Whenever you’re a transfer coming into a new school, you’re trying to feel everything out and pick everybody’s brain and not step on toes, but when you’re on a trip in a different country, you’re trying to bond with people and learn about them on a personal level, where they come from and their values as well,” Spear said.

Since Jackson and Spear spent most of June and early July together, they quickly became close, something both attributed to being Pisces. Their paths had not crossed before they teamed up in Knoxville. Jackson is from Detroit, while Spear hails from The Colony, Texas, near Dallas.

The Lady Vols visit the Acropolis in Athens, Greece.

“We’re really good friends off the court, and we’ve only been together for a month,” Spear said. “We’re both Pisces, so we kind of joke about that, too. This is a family atmosphere. I felt welcome. I feel like I’ve been here longer than a month because I’ve been able to click with different people and teammates and coaches. The environment makes me feel like I’m at home.”

The AmeriCup also allowed Jackson’s mother, Caryn, and Spear’s father, LeRonne, to get to know each other as both made the trip to León to see their daughters and meet the other parents who had traveled, too.

“They definitely had more fun than we did, they had a party,” Jackson said. “But it was pretty cool to have that support come all the way to Mexico and just always have them after the game to give a hug.”

Still, both players also were happy when the plane landed in Knoxville, and it was time to be a college student again.

“I was pretty homesick,” Jackson said. “I’ve never been away from home for a whole month straight, so that was hard for me, because I just wanted to get home to my dogs.”

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.


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