By Dan Fleser
KNOXVILLE – Tennessee’s Jordan Horston took a step forward Thursday night. There was no debating the favorable review of the freshman guard’s play.
The only difference of opinion involved the pace of her progress.
“I feel like I slowed down a little bit and played my game,” she said.
Conversely, Central Arkansas coach Shandra Rushing saw a lot of pep in Horston’s step.
“We couldn’t keep up and we were sending two (players) back,” Rushing said. “A tremendous player. She’s fun to watch now.”
Horston scored 17 points, on 7-for-9 shooting from the floor, and dished out three assists in Tennessee’s 63-36 women’s basketball victory before an announced crowd of 7,278 at Thompson-Boling Arena. She committed zero turnovers as well. Her stat line amounted to a vast improvement over the season opener at East Tennessee State on Tuesday, when she scored six points and trumped six assists with seven turnovers.
Horston and fellow freshman Tamari Key put together an encouraging preview for the next four seasons, combining to score Tennessee’s first 14 points. Their collaboration came not long after finding out they were starting.
“Those two are really talented,” UT coach Kellie Harper said. “You can see the dynamic play Jordan had and the fundamentals Tamari has. This was a good step for them.”
The Lady Vols (2-0) also made strides on defense, allowing just 18 points during the final three quarters after surrendering 18 in the first 10 minutes. The Sugar Bears (0-1) suffered through a scoring drought of more than 11 minutes spanning the second and third quarters.
“We got after it at halftime,” Harper said. “I told them they weren’t giving us what we wanted defensively. I thought Central Arkansas was a little too comfortable. We changed that in the second half.”
In the process, Harper thought the Lady Vols were better in transition and upgraded their defensive awareness off the ball compared to Tuesday’s 72-68 season-opening victory, when they withstood 41 points by Bucs guard Erica Haynes-Overton and were outscored 18-11 in the final quarter.
“We handled the game a little better tonight,” Harper.
On the other hand, Tennessee’s rebounding dominance didn’t carry over from Tuesday. Smaller Central Arkansas considered tipping the ball out of bounds to be a worthwhile strategy against the taller, more physical Lady Vols. But that wasn’t necessary, as evidenced by UT’s meager 41-36 advantage.
“That’s such a big number for me,” Harper said. “I don’t want to just win. I want to dominate the boards.”
Tennessee also didn’t get as much from returnees Rennia Davis and Zaay Green, who combined for just 13 points after having 30 collectively on Tuesday.
“I think we’re going to continue to get better,” Harper said. “I think the players understand that we’re working for small increments every day.”
The work will be more challenging in their next game when the Lady Vols play at No. 16 Notre Dame (1-0) on Monday. The Fighting Irish, who lost all five starters from last season’s national finalist team, opened with a 60-55 win at Fordham on Tuesday.
“This will not be our first road trip; that’s big deal,” said Harper, alluding to the crowd of 5,881 at ETSU. “I fully expect it to be loud and tough but I think we have a little bit of that under our belt.”
In other news:
-Forward Jaiden McCoy, who started Tuesday, is out indefinitely with a left-hand injury.
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Dan Fleser is a 1980 graduate of the University of Missouri who covered University of Tennessee athletics for the Knoxville News Sentinel from 1988-2019. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org