The Tennessee Lady Vols will host 5th ranked UConn in Knoxville this week and for the first time in the history of the series, Tennessee isn't ranked in the top-25 women's poll. Oh, they were ranked at the beginning of the season....fifth in most polls but a 2-4 start to the season will drop you out of the top-25 quickly. This was supposed to be the year that Kellie Harper finally succeeded in restoring the Lady Vols relevance in women's college basketball. After all, it's been fifteen years since Tennessee won its last national championship, led by the late Coach Pat Summitt and All-American Candace Parker.
The 2023 team was loaded with talent, led by returning starters and big name transfers. After a solid third year at Tennessee, Kellie Harper started thinking national championship or at least a final four appearance for her 2022-2023 squad. That was before senior center Tamari Key was lost for the year after blood clots were discovered in her lungs. It was also before talented newcomer Rickea Jackson was suspended for two games by Harper last month.
Things are looking up for the Lady Vols as they've won 14 of their last 16 games and started the SEC portion of their schedule with an 8-0 record. Even though they're unranked, they've made enough noise that teams all over the country have taken notice. So far this season, Tennessee has yet to beat a ranked team but they will get their chance against the Huskies and then 4th ranked LSU on Monday night in Baton Rouge. The Lady Vols should be ready because the early portion of their schedule was one of the most brutal in the nation.
It's really hard to think about the 15 years since Tennessee's last national title. The Lady Vols were living their best life in 2008. Pat Summitt was healthy and in her prime as a head coach. When Coach Summitt announced she had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease in 2011, things started going downhill quickly. When she retired, she was replaced by her long time assistant Holly Warlick but Warlick just couldn't get it done.
Enter Kellie Jolly Harper and things have certainly changed for the better. Harper knows what it takes to win titles. She won three national championships as a player for Coach Summitt. At least one win in the next two games would place Tennessee back in the polls where they belong. But Kellie Harper isn't thinking about polls right now. She's thinking this team should be a final four squad, riding the wave of their big winning streak. After all, you're expected to win championships at Tennessee, and to quote what Coach Harper tells her players...."If you're not coming to Tennessee to compete for national championships, then you're at the wrong place."
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Randy Smith can be reached at email@example.com