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VOL. 43 | NO. 41 | Friday, October 11, 2019

Harper embraces Lady Vols tradition she helped build

By Rhiannon Potkey

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Kellie Harper hesitated before walking onto the court at Thompson-Boling Arena.

Harper had been in the gym many times before since being hired as the new women’s basketball coach at Tennessee, but there was something different about this particular day.

It was the first official day of preseason practice, and Harper wanted to soak in the atmosphere.

She was back at her alma mater, leading a program that she helped win three consecutive NCAA titles as a player.

In her head, Harper thought, “this is really cool.”

“I am going to continue to have those moments for a while. It just shows how excited I am for this opportunity and how much it means to me,” Harper says. “And I get it. I know how much it means to a lot of people. We are the Tennessee Lady Vols. We are a big deal, and to be heading that up is something I do not take lightly.”

Harper is tasked with rebuilding the Lady Vols into the national power that has been synonymous with women’s basketball over the years.

The program has fallen on hard times lately, finishing 19-13 overall last season and below .500 in Southeastern Conference play for the first time in program history. After a first-round exit in the NCAA tournament, Holly Warlick was fired and Harper was hired away from Missouri State to become the next Lady Vol guard to assume the role that legendary coach Pat Summitt occupied for so long.

“I think the last five or so months have been the fastest five months in my life. It has been very fast,” Harper acknowledges. “The number of things that have happened in five months is enormous. The amount of things that we have been able to get done in five months is great.

“We have been able to do so much, whether it is being out in the community, or taking a trip to Europe, recruiting, having our camps, practicing; there is a lot that has happened.”

The Lady Vols have needed all the time together to learn and grow. Aside from a new coaching staff, they return only two of their top six scorers from last season – Rennia Davis (14.9 points per game) and Zaay Green (9.6).

Guard Evina Westbrook transferred to Connecticut, and Mimi Collins transferred to Maryland in the offseason.

Six players will likely be making their playing debuts for Tennessee this season, which begins at East Tennessee State on Nov. 5.

Freshmen Jordan Horston, Emily Saunders, Tamari Key and Jesse Rennie, junior college transfer Jaiden McCoy and Washington State graduate transfer Lou Brown.

Brown, a forward from Australia, arrived at Tennessee last year but sat out the season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament.

Horston is the decorated member of the freshman class. The 6-foot-2 guard was rated as the nation’s No. 2 prospect by multiple recruiting services.

With so many changes, Harper has been trying to instill the standards of the program to the Lady Vols.

“The first thing we are doing is telling our players what we want it to look like. We explain to them the effort is going to be there, how we act toward each other, our body language on the court and how they should be enjoying things,” Harper explains. “Every little detail we have talked to them about. We talked to them about stopping in our offices. Everything that we’re doing right now is intentional.”

Sophomore guard Jazmine Massengill can sense Harper’s passion for the program on and off the court. She’s enjoyed learning more about Harper’s time playing for the Lady Vols more than 20 years ago, when she was known as Kellie Jolly.

“She is absolutely a die-hard Lady Vol fan,” Massengill says. “She loves it. She loves all of this, and she loves everything that comes with it, so basically what she stresses to us is just to trust the process and that she’ll get us to where we need to be.”

Harper hasn’t made practices or workouts easy on the players. She wants them to be prepared for the reality of their upcoming schedule, which includes the long-awaited return of the UConn rivalry and the typically tough SEC slate.

“We will make our drills competitive with winners and losers just to emphasize that winning is important and competing in each drill is important to try to make each other better,” Harper points out.

“There will be some effort to make sure that we are watching closely: that we are sprinting the floor, doing what we need to do.”

Trying to find players to take leadership roles on the court and in the locker room remains a work in progress.

“But it’s not something that’s uncommon,” Harper adds. “I think we’ve got folks that are in position to lead and are doing a good job. But in terms of being great leaders right now, we’re still working on that. I think we’re in a pretty good spot.”

Amid the frenzy of hiring her staff, recruiting and meeting with boosters and administrators, Harper has made it a priority to strengthen the player-coach bond as much as possible.

She knows that aspect could factor heavily in the success of a program that’s always held a sentimental place in her life.

“I think one of the biggest things for us is spending time with our players and getting to know our players on a deeper level than just being their coach,” Harper says. “I think that’s been really important. We are still working on it, but I think we have done a pretty good job of getting to know them and building that relationship.”

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