With a wealth of new and returning talent, the Lady Vols aim for the Final Four.
In a November visit to the Rotary Club, Lady Vols Coach Kellie Harper noted that the excitement of the football season had reminded her of the late 90s. “Our football players are getting to experience what I experienced in the late 90s,” said Harper. She was referring both to the 1998 football championship and to her seasons as a French braid-pony-tailed point guard for three Pat Summitt national championship teams and a fourth that made it to the Elite 8.
In the offseason, Harper—now in her fourth season as coach at UT—landed the nation’s top transfer-portal class, adding four strong players to her already talented mix. “This did not happen by accident,” Harper told the Rotarians. “Once players enter the portal, they will decide very quickly. With portal recruiting, you’re cramming.”
“You have to do your research and be ready,” Harper said, “so you know if the player is someone who will hit the program and contribute.” The portal additions were—
• Jasmine Franklin, a 6’1” graduate forward from Missouri State. “I coached Jasmine her freshman year,” said Harper. “She’s a rebounding machine.”
• Jillian Hollingshead, a 6’5” post player from Georgia who handles the ball like a guard. (You get a gold star if your subconscious mind filled in the words “… like Candace Parker.”)
• Rickea Jackson, a 6’2” senior forward who played in three seasons at Mississippi State, leading the team and the SEC in scoring. “She’s fun to watch,” said Harper. “She’s a gamer. She loves to play and can play multiple positions. She fits right into what we’re doing.”
• Jasmine Powell, a 5’6” senior point guard from Minnesota. “She is explosive to the rim,” said Harper.
The Lady Vols also welcomed McDonald’s All-American freshman Justine Pissott from Toms River, New Jersey. She made 182 career threes at Red Bank Catholic and won gold with the US U18 national team in the Women’s Americas Championship in Buenos Aires last summer. “She’s got a little Jersey in her,” noted Harper. Like a 6’4” Meadow Soprano, Pissott boxes out and defends with attitude. Her twin sister, Georgia (Gia), plays for the Naval Academy.
So how did Harper go about mixing these five players in with eight solid returnees from a team that went 25-9 and made the Sweet 16 last season? “You have to work at team chemistry,” Harper told Rotary. “Rooming lists, where they sit in the film room, what group they’re hanging around with. We went to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute in Alabama—all to try to help that chemistry.”
At an early practice, Harper stopped play because the players weren’t yelling encouraging words to their teammates or trying to pick each other up. “We talked about being one with each other, so we have to do those little things—be there for each other, pick each other up when we’re down, talk,” Rickea Jackson told News Sentinel beat writer Cora Hall.
At game-time, the richness presents an unusual problem. “We’ve got players who can play so many positions,” Harper told Hall. “There’s probably not a combination on paper that I couldn’t make work. The hardest part is paring it down to five at any moment.”
On the Floor
At point guard, newcomer Powell alternates and plays alongside 5’8” Jordan Walker, who started last year and led the team in assists (115) and steals (38). She played two seasons at Western Michigan and earned her degree in political science with a minor in communications before transferring to UT in 2020. A member of the SEC Academic Honor Roll for the past two seasons, Walker got her MBA with a concentration in entrepreneurship and innovation from the Haslam College of Business and is now working on another masters—in agricultural leadership, education, and communication.
On the wings, newcomer Jackson starts, along with Tess Darby and Jordan Horston.
Darby, a 6’1” junior from Greenfield, Tennessee, makes about 40 percent of her threes. “We play well when she’s on the court,” said Harper after a victory over UMass game in November. “She communicates well.” (Her little sister, Edie, is a 5’7” freshman walk-on who can also drain threes.)
Horston, a 6’2” preseason All-SEC senior from Columbus, Ohio, can drive and score. She was leading the team in scoring and rebounding last season when she dislocated and fractured her elbow and missed the last eight games, including the NCAA tournament. Over summer she worked with the strength and conditioning coach and increased her vertical leap by four inches. In a practice she tried to tip in a rebound but tipped it too hard. “You don’t know what to do with your new hops, do you?” asked Harper. “I told her, if you get a breakaway, as long as it’s not a two-point game in the fourth quarter, go ahead and try to throw one down. Because I think she’s pretty close to being able to do that.” The idea of being one of the few women to dunk in a game appeals to Horston. “Might as well take a chance, try it out, see how it goes,” she told Cora Hall.
At center, 6’6” preseason All-SEC senior Tamari Key from Cary, North Carolina, was diagnosed with blood clots in her lungs in December and lost for the season. She had been is an imposing presence on the floor, and an essential element in the Lady Vols offense near the basket. Last year she led the NCAA by blocking 199 shots (3.5 per game) while averaging 10.5 points and eight rebounds.
Throughout the challenging November and December schedule, Harper made a point of giving meaningful playing time for the other eight players on the bench, who could comprise a strong rotation in their own right. Newcomers Franklin and Hollingshead tend to get into the game early, as do sophomore wings Marta Suárez and Sara Puckett.
Suárez, a 6’3 redshirt from Oviedo, Spain, sat out last season with a foot injury and makes slightly under 30 percent of her threes. “She’s very crafty with her passes or finishes, ball fakes,” Jordan Horston told Cora Hall. “But the main thing I really notice about Marta is how efficient she is. She can get a rebound, she can hit a three – open three, contested. She’s just good around the basket, good with her finishes.” Suárez and Tess Darby went on a service trip to Rwanda in July as the culmination of their yearlong experience with the VOLeaders Academy leadership-development program.
Puckett, a 6’2” from Muscle Shoals, Alabama, hit thirty percent of her three-point shots as a freshman, including a go-ahead shot with 18 seconds to go against Belmont the NCAA tournament that helped the Lady Vols make the Sweet 16.
Along with freshman Jersey Girl Pissott, sophomore guards Brooklynn Miles and Kaiya Wynn and 6’3” forward Karoline Striplin add a spark when they get minutes. Miles, a 5’4” defensive specialist from Frankfort, Kentucky, can play point. “She brings a lot of energy and toughness,” said Harper. Wynn, a 6’0” rebounder from Richmond, Texas, grabbed six boards in just 17 minutes on the floor against Kentucky in last year’s SEC tournament.
In her first career start, Striplin, from Hartford, Alabama, had seven points—including a three-pointer—three rebounds and a block, a steal and an assist in a 69-39 win over UT Chattanooga in December.
Growing from Adversity
Like Pat Summitt, Harper makes sure to expose the Lady Vols early to the level of teams they will face in the NCAA tourney. “We have the best schedule in the country,” Harper said at Rotary. “We want to challenge our players. Our goal is to be the best basketball team we can be. You don’t get better on a sailboat. Great teams have to have some adversity.”
In the season opener at Ohio State, the Buckeyes obliged with a withering full-court press. All cohesion fell apart as the Lady Vols had 29 turnovers and lost 87-75. After a 74-65 win over UMass, the Lady Vols were dominated in a 79-67 to Indiana. In a tournament in the Bahamas, they beat Rutgers 94-54 then lost to UCLA 80-63 and Gonzaga 73-23.
After wins over Colorado (69-51) and Eastern Kentucky (105-71), the Lady Vols were edged 59-56 by Virginia Tech, as Key held 6’6” ACC Player of the Year Elizabeth Kitley to six points while scoring 11 herself. “We just have to keep working hard and getting better,” said Key afterward.
After traveling to Palo Alto to meet Stanford on December 18, the Lady Vols started their SEC schedule at Florida on December 29 and at home against Alabama on January 1.
Mighty UConn visits Thompson-Boling Arena on January 26, re-sparking an iconic rivalry. On February 26, UT has its showdown with national champion South Carolina, which last season beat UConn for the national title.
“They’re good,” said Harper. “They return almost everyone from a good, deep team. But we have an established culture and system. We feel confident that we can go toe-to-toe with and beat anybody.”