all scores

Tennessee’s resurgence under Kellie Harper is not some fairytale

(Bryan Lynn/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

For longtime Tennessee basketball fans, it’s easy to place their hopes of a return to national title glory in the hands of third-year coach and Tennessee basketball alum Kellie Harper. That narrative has storybook ending written all over it.

Pat Summitt, one of the most iconic and successful coaches in all of college basketball, started out at Tennessee in the early 1970s and served as team coach, athletic trainer, tutor, driver and equipment launderer, as so many women of her era did. Eventually, Summitt built a dynasty at Tennessee, winning eight national championships between 1988 and 2008. In 2012, Summitt stepped down after the symptoms of early-onset Alzheimer’s started to impede her ability to coach. Over the next seven seasons, the women’s basketball community watched the program slowly slip down the ladder of national prominence, while also mourning the loss of Summitt when she passed away in 2016.

Tennessee’s hiring of Harper in 2019 ignited new hope around the team. Kellie Harper (then Kellie Jolly) had been a starting point guard for Summitt and was integral to the Vols’ national championship three-peat from 1996-98. After leading her new squad to a 21-10 record her first year at the helm, and following it up with a 17-8 season last year, Tennessee caught everyone’s attention by going 18-1 through the first half of this season and grabbing a top-four national ranking.

Supporters and media were abuzz with talk of Tennessee’s “resurgence.” Harper was fulfilling the promise she represented; Pat Summitt’s student was now the teacher, and a return to glory seemed imminent. Those who’ve watched women’s college basketball become more and more unforgiving, however, know there is no such fairytale.

Harper knows that as well as anyone, but it hasn’t stopped her from focusing on the little things. When she first took the job at her alma mater, there were certain aspects she wanted to focus on right away.

“Establishing how I wanted it to look, how I wanted it to feel was really important early on,” she recalled in a recent conversation with Just Women’s Sports. “For me, I know what it needs to look like to be successful and that we’ve gotta be gritty. We’ve gotta be tough. We’ve gotta be competitive, have a little chip-on-our-shoulder type of feel.”

Another important task for Harper has been to educate her team about Tennessee’s legacy, while not making it a burden for her players who may have been too young to have even watched Summitt on TV.

“When I was a player, Pat shared the history with us. It wasn’t forced. It was just important to her that we know who came before and what they did,” Harper said. “I think that’s important for our team. I think it’s important that they know the history and we’ve done different things to learn that. But at the same time, you can’t be successful off of your past. You’ve gotta be successful based on what you’re doing now. So, it’s important to carry on the tradition and the legacy of so many great people that came before, but also at the same time, they can still carve out their own piece in history.”

Keeping two feet planted firmly in the present moment has helped Harper maintain a level head during the past few weeks. In their Jan. 23 game against Georgia, grad student Keyen Green, a valuable leader and on-court producer, suffered a season-ending ACL tear. The Vols went on to lose three of their next four games and dropped from No. 4 to No. 13 in the AP Poll. Now at No. 12, Tennessee suffered more adversity Thursday night, falling to Alabama 74-64 in an SEC matchup despite a 20-point, 13-rebound double-double from Tamari Key.

When losses come in such bundles, an overreaction from those on the outside is all but guaranteed. Harper’s job has been to keep things in perspective for those on the inside.

“The mindset that we have to have is this isn’t catastrophic. It feels like it is because we haven’t dealt with it all year,” Harper said. “Another thing is that getting into the top five is maybe easier than staying there … there’s pressure there. The expectations are high, and our players have to learn how to live in that space. This is new for a lot of our players.”

It would be easy after the Feb. 6 loss to UConn to regret signing on for the marquee matchup in the middle of conference play, but Harper wasn’t letting their recent rough patch cloud her judgment of the bigger picture.

“There’s a lot of talk, a lot of attention on those games and I thought it was good. I think it’s a good situation to put a team in,” she explained. “It’s a loud environment, good crowd, really good for team discipline. If you want to be the best, you’ve gotta be able to perform in those situations.”

Heading into Storrs as the seventh-ranked team in the nation, and taking on the 10th-ranked Huskies, was definitely new for her players. Until this season, the Vols hadn’t outranked UConn since the preseason poll in 2012, causing diehard Tennessee fans to do an extra little jig when they surpassed UConn in Week 6 this year.

Although losing Green was a significant blow to the team both on and off the court, it’s 6-foot-2 junior Jordan Horston who leads the team in points, rebounds, assists and steals. She’s also second in blocks, behind 6-foot-6 center Key. Horston has played her way onto the midseason list for the Naismith Player of the Year Trophy and the top-10 list for the Ann Meyers Drysdale Award, given to the top shooting guard in the nation. Playing under a brighter national spotlight has been important developmentally for Horston.

“Jordan has really matured over her career here at Tennessee. She’s very competitive. She’s a great teammate. She wants to win,” Harper said. “You have to understand you’re going to make mistakes. You’ve gotta play through those mistakes. That’s mental toughness. I think that’s one of the biggest areas that Jordan has improved.”

With back-to-back conference wins against Missouri and Vanderbilt last week, Tennessee has shown it can weather the storms in an otherwise stellar season, lessons that could prove useful come tournament time. With big matchups ahead, including against top-ranked South Carolina on Sunday and Kim Mulkey’s LSU a week later, Tennessee has the chance to add ample fuel to the “resurgence” storyline before March.

Regardless of how the rest of the season plays out for the Vols, Harper will continue to shape the pieces that are essential for getting Tennessee back into national championship contention.

“One of the big things for me is our players have to actually love the game, because this is hard. What we do is hard,” she said. “And doing it at Tennessee is harder than most places because of the set of eyes on you.”

She’s not expecting the fairytale version. Kellie Harper is here for the real thing.

Tessa Nichols is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports.