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New-look Tennessee set to battle No. 16 Notre Dame in South Bend

New coach Kellie Harper and freshman Jordan Horston highlight a Lady Vols team that is putting the past behind them and heading in a new direction.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: NOV 07 Women’s - Central Arkansas at Tennessee
Kellie Harper coaching in her second game as Tennessee’s head coach.
Photo by Bryan Lynn/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Tennessee women’s basketball team is still clinging to its streak of 37-straight NCAA Tournament appearances — the Lady Vols have made it every year since the tournament’s inception. But they also are trying to catch up to UConn, whose ninth NCAAW Tournament win in 2014 put them at No. 1 all-time in national championships.

The Lady Vols remain stuck in second place with eight titles while UConn has claimed their 10th and 11th Final Four wins in 2015 and 2016, respectively. Now, new Tennessee head coach Kellie Harper is tasked with returning the program to glory and her first big test comes tonight at 7 p.m. ET against No. 16 Notre Dame.

Previous success and current controversy

Since Pat Summitt retired following the 2012 season, Tennessee has yet to make a Final Four appearance and it hasn’t won a title since its back-to-back championships in 2007 and 2008 when forward Candace Parker was leading the way. Holly Warlick took over for Summitt in 2013 and, at the time, many thought it was unfair to put too much pressure on her to achieve what Summitt had achieved. But things turned sour over the past three years as the Lady Vols finished in the NCAA Tournament’s second round in 2017 and 2018. In 2019, the Lady Vols were bounced from the first round by UCLA.

It was also the first time since 1976 that Tennessee (19-13) won fewer than 20 games. After the loss to UCLA, Tennessee’s Evina Westbrook expressed dissatisfaction with Warlick and eventually transferred to UConn after Warlick was fired.

Harper, a former Lady Vol player from the late-90s, has taken over, seeming to infuse new energy into the program. Prior to Tennessee, Harper coached at Missouri State.

It all starts with the point guard

Tennessee has welcomed into its folds the espnW No. 2 player in the nation — 6-foot-2 freshman guard Jordan Horston, who will join sophomores Zaay Green and Jazmine Massengill at the point guard position. All three could be on the court at the same time as combo guards, according to Harper.

A point guard herself, Harper is really stressed the importance of that position at her team’s media day, stating:

For me, I want our point guards to know what I see, and sometimes I’ll back them up and I’ll say, ‘Do you see this?’ I want them to look at the court the way that I do as their coach, so sometimes that takes a little bit of extra communication. One of the things I like to do is grab my point guards more than anybody, pull them to the side, just for little tidbits of knowledge. It’s not that I’m yelling at them so much as just giving them more. They’re going to get a little bit more information than most people because I just think they need more information. At some point, we will talk about holding them to a higher standard, because they have to get everybody in the right position, no one else has to do that. I think there’s a lot going on at point guard, and right now I’m just trying to be there for them, trying to be a strong supporter and educator for them

Rebuilding

Green was the team’s fourth leading scorer a year ago, with 9.6 points per game. Rennia Davis, the only other returning starter, averaged 14.9 points. Davis, a preseason first-team All-SEC selection, was tied with Westbrook as the team’s leading scorer in 2018-19. Starters Meme Jackson and Cheridene Green were both lost to graduation.

So, this year’s Tennessee team is definitely looking a lot different than last year’s. It has four freshmen and a new head coach who is laying down the law. At media day, Harper said the following when asked about which players will be vocal leaders for the team:

A lot of people have asked me, ‘Who is your leader?’ You’re looking at her, first of all. We’re still establishing that. They need me more than anybody right now. They need me to help guide them and show them the way.

First test

The Lady Vols are used to dealing with pressure and high expectations, which have amplified over the past three years. In Harper’s head-coaching debut, they barely defeated East Tennessee State (perhaps indicative that there were some early-season jitters). But in the second game this season, Tennessee soundly defeated Central Arkansas and moved to a 2-0 season start.

Tonight, the Vols are facing a perennial national power in Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish are two years removed from winning the national championship and they appeared in the title game last year, finishing second to Baylor. But Notre Dame lost all five of its starters to graduation and the WNBA, making them more vulnerable to upsets.

Through two games, Zaay Green (13 points) and Horston (10.5 points) are the top two scorers for the Lady Vols and the only two averaging double-digit scoring. Horston leads the team with nine assists. The other three freshmen (Jessie Rennie, Tamari Key and Emily Saunders) have all seen playing time as well. Key, a 6-foot-5 post player, is the No. 47 recruit in the nation, according to espnW.

Game information

Tennessee Volunteers vs. No. 16 Notre Dame Fighting Irish

When: Monday, Nov. 11, at 7 p.m. ET

Where: Purcell Pavilion, Notre Dame, IN

How to watch: ESPN2