KNOXVILLE – Tuesday holds a special distinction these days on the Tennessee women’s basketball calendar. Kellie Harper intends for it be a day unlike any other, a day when no Lady Vol enjoys herself.
“Our Tuesday practice needs to be tough; (the players) need to hate it,” the Lady Vols coach said. “They don’t need to feel good about themselves walking out of here on Tuesday. They cannot succeed on Tuesday.”
Harper was explaining the purpose behind her daily planner last Wednesday, a restoration day before Thursday’s game at Florida.
In this case, her approach yielded an impressive 78-50 victory.
The plan is about to be tested like never before. After navigating a largely soft nonconference schedule and a manageable start to SEC play, No. 24 Tennessee (14-3, 4-1 SEC) is heading into an nine-game stretch that includes five ranked opponents.
A date with No. 4 Connecticut in Hartford, Conn., looms next Thursday. But the Lady Vols can’t afford to overlook a visit from Alabama on Monday night. UT has lost five straight to the Crimson Tide, a run of frustration that puts the state of the program in a sobering perspective.
As Tennessee’s first-year head coach, Harper’s initial impression of her team is that it wants regular feedback and a big-picture grasp of her methods. Her strongest reply has been that they need their Tuesdays.
“I still think one of our biggest challenges is when things are going well, we’re real good,” she said. “When things get hard, that’s when we struggle. We have to keep looking for ways to give them that struggle in practice.”
Harper has concluded: “They don’t know what sheer mental toughness looks like.”
Harper has unpacked boxes in her new home that won’t be touched into this spring. She’s been more thorough in getting settled as a coach. She’s fleshed out her staff by adding former UT assistant Al Brown as a consultant. He was on the staff during Harper’s playing days here and she’s used him as a resource at her other three head coaching stops.
“Sometimes it’s good to have somebody you trust…to give me a different viewpoint,” she said. “He gives me little suggestions. Some I take, some I don’t.”
The most noteworthy change to date under Harper has been an upgrade in UT’s offensive execution. Despite an ongoing issue with turnovers, the Lady Vols lead the SEC in assists (18.2 per game) and have shot 50 percent or better from the floor in seven games this season. They did it three times last season.
These achievements reflect, to some degree, the competition. At least they have rewarded Harper for how she has divvied practice time.
“I felt we were more deficient there,” Harper said of UT’s offense, “so I put more emphasis there.
“The best teams I’ve had guarded, they absolutely guarded tough. But in today’s game you’ve got to be able to score. So I’ve been trying to trend toward putting more points on the board while continuing to guard.”
She sounded pleased after last Sunday’s 73-56 victory over Georgia. The Lady Vols shot 52 percent from the floor and six players contributed to their 20 assists. After running into ball screens and surrendering 20 points in the first quarter, they didn’t allow more than 14 in any quarter thereafter.
Harper’s outlook was diminished, though, by a video review of the game. She came away more mad than pleased. The Lady Vols didn’t play as well as she first thought. There were too many loose plays. As a prelude to another Tuesday, she told the players: “Oh my gosh, we can get so much better.”
The review of the Florida victory went better. She was encouraged with how they handled several strategic changes on defense.
“I don’t think that’s easy to do but this team has done that several times now,” Harper said on Friday. “It gives us a lot of confidence that we can make in-game adjustments and players can handle them.”
The Lady Vols’ play raised Harper’s expectations – and reaffirmed her daily planner.
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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 email@example.com