Dan Fleser: Kellie Harper Reflects On Surreal End To Lady Vols Season

  • Thursday, March 19, 2020
  • Dan Fleser

KNOXVILLE – Lou Brown stopped by Kellie Harper’s office earlier this week on her way out of town and then out of the country.

Tennessee’s redshirt senior forward, who’s from Australia, wanted to say good-bye to her women’s basketball coach. Harper said that they both commented on the awkward, unusual nature of their shared moment.

There’s been other moments like that since last week, when the postseason portion of the Lady Vols season was canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Harper said that a team meeting last Friday combined the prevailing circumstances with a tribute to Brown and fellow senior Kamera Harris.

“Everything has happened so abruptly,” Harper said on Wednesday. “I haven’t had a lot of time to sit and reflect.”

When she does, Harper will note some quantifiable characteristics that distinguished UT’s 21-10 season (10-6 in SEC play).

For example, Charlie Crème, who projects the NCAA tournament bracket for ESPN, pegged the Lady Vols as a No. 11 seed, the same as last season. They played nine other teams projected to make the 64-team field and went 1-10 in games against them. The lone victory was against No. 9 seed LSU, which also beat Tennessee.

Virtually all of the Lady Vols victories came against teams that, on paper anyway, they were supposed to beat. They deserve credit for that feat. Their inability to do so last season factored into the coaching change that brought Harper back to UT last spring to replace Holly Warlick.

Forward Rennia Davis blossomed during her junior season, averaging a team-leading 18 points per game. She set a new career scoring high with 33 points against Notre Dame and led UT in scoring in 20 games.

Davis met with Harper before going home for spring break and spoke only of next season and making personal improvements. The subject matter was noteworthy, considering Davis meets the criteria to enter the WNBA draft.

“I think as she still finds ways to improve her game, her demeanor will change,” Harper said. “As a player gets better, the more confident she becomes.”

Zaay Green also projects to be back next season. The season-ending knee injury suffered by the sophomore guard in November was a significant blow to a team lacking backcourt depth and experience. Without Green, UT was missing four starters from the previous season and five of its top six scorers.

Harper has had time to do the math on Green’s absence and said, “that’s a pretty big blow to take.”

Green’s absence resulted in a bigger role for freshman guard Jordan Horston. Her team-leading 143 assists were the most by a Lady Vols freshman in eight years and reflected UT’s overall improvement to a per-game average of 16.3, which led the SEC.

Conversely, Horston’s team-high 134 turnovers were part of the Lady Vols’ most vexing problem. Their per-game average of 17.2 countered their assists. They averaged three more turnovers per game in their losses (18.7) than they did their victories (15.7).

“I think she will be better as a sophomore,” Harper said. “A lot of her turnovers were knee-jerk reaction type decisions. I think as the game slows down for her, she will be able to process things better.”

In other matters:

-Harper’s most immediate team concern is making sure the players handle online classwork, as mandated by UT to finish the spring semester.

“I was a good student and I think I’d struggle right now,” Harper said.

-Despite travel restrictions, Harper is open to adding graduate transfers for next season.

“Maybe it’s somebody we know or somebody who’s recommended them that we trust,” she said. 

* * *

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 danfleser3@gmail.com


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