Tennessee went to Missouri without all-purpose guard Jordan Horston and came home with a 68-65 women’s basketball victory that honored the senior in how it was achieved.
Horston, who was ill, has a knack for stuffing a stat sheet and doing the work of multiple players. So, it was fitting that several Lady Vols were involved with the steals, defensive stops, rebounds and baskets that erased a five-point deficit inside the game’s final minute. Transfer Rickea Jackson capped the comeback by converting a driving basket while bracketed by two defenders and being fouled to boot. She made the and-one free throw with 1.1 second left.
“Our team never flinched, they never flinched,” Coach Kellie Harper said. “They had great confidence down the stretch. Didn’t play nervous. Didn’t play scared. Didn’t play intimidated. You want to see that.”
Vols’ coach Rick Barnes and his team could relate to both the sentiment and the result. They won at Mississippi State 70-59 last Tuesday without starters Santiago Vescovi (shoulder) and Tyreke Key (illness), overcoming a nine-point first-half deficit for what Barnes called “a great character win.”
In some ways, the two victories were quite different in nature. The Vols’ defense and rebounding bought them time to recover. The Lady Vols, on the other hand, missed Horston’s rebounding as much as any of her usual contributions. Furthermore, their defensive breakdowns factored into Missouri’s Hayley Frank hitting five 3-pointers and scoring a game-high 26 points. Her trey gave the Tigers a 65-60 lead with 1 minute, 25 seconds left.
“I haven’t even seen a stat sheet,” Harper said on her postgame radio show, “but I’ll tell (the players) that doesn’t matter. The only stat today that matters is the fact we’ve got more points.”
Actually, there is another stat that matters, both in the moment and long term. It’s the ability to make shots under pressure. NCAA tournament fates rise and fall on this crucial variable.
Much like the Vols need freshman Julian Phillips to be more like the 18-point scorer he was against State, the Lady Vols need more of what Sara Puckett did against Missouri. The sophomore wing scored a team high and personal season-best 17 points, shooting 7-for-9 from the field. She had eight points in the final quarter, including two 3-pointers. As a scoring prelude to Jackson’s heroics, she banked in a game-tying trey from the top of the key with 40 seconds left.
“It was straight on so I’m ‘OK it’s going in,’ ’’ Puckett said. “I just didn’t realize it was going to bank, but the bank is open today.”
Puckett hit one of the most important shots of last season, swishing a 3-pointer with 18 seconds left in an NCAA second-round game against Belmont to erase a two-point deficit and point the Lady Vols toward the Sweet 16 for the first time in six years. But she’d been a relatively quiet scorer so far this season, reaching double figures just twice.
In this column space last week, Puckett was encouraged to take a cue from teammate Tess Darby, who’s emerged as a more productive scorer this season. Darby pump faked a defender Sunday and then hit a 3-pointer a moment after the Missouri player flew past her. It was a neat trick and a good highlight.
In the end, the Lady Vols needed more. Puckett and Jackson delivered.
Dan Fleser is a 1980 graduate of the University of Missouri, who has covered University of Tennessee athletics since 1988. He is a 2022 inductee to the Tennessee Sportswriters Hall of Fame. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.