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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.

USWNT to face Costa Rica in final Olympic send-off

uswnt sophia smith and tierna davidson celebrate at shebeilves cup 2024
The USWNT will play their final pre-Olympic friendly against Costa Rica on July 16th. (Photo by Greg Bartram/ISI Photos/USSF/Getty Images for USSF)

U.S. Soccer announced Tuesday that the USWNT will play their last home game on July 16th in the lead-up to the 2024 Summer Olympic Games in Paris.

The 2024 Send-Off Match against Costa Rica will take place at Washington, DC’s Audi Field — home to both the Washington Spirit and DC United — at 7:30 p.m. ET on Tuesday, July 16th. The friendly rounds out a four-game Olympic run-up campaign under incoming head coach Emma Hayes’ side, with the last two set to feature the finalized 2024 U.S. Olympic Women’s Soccer Team roster.

Hayes will appear on the USWNT sideline for the first time this June, helming the team as they embark on a two-game series against Korea Republic hosted by Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in Commerce City, Colorado on June 1st followed by Allianz Stadium in St. Paul, Minnesota on June 4th. 

The team is then scheduled to meet a talented Mexico squad on July 13th at Gotham FC’s Red Bull Arena in Harrison, New Jersey, where the Olympic-bound lineup will attempt to rewrite February’s shocking 2-0 loss to El Tri Femenil in the group stages of this year’s Concacaf W Gold Cup. And while clear roster favorites have emerged from both of this year’s Gold Cup and SheBelives Cup rosters, a spate of recent and recurring injuries means making it to the Olympics is still largely anyone’s game.

Broadcast and streaming channels for the USWNT's final July 16th friendly at Audi Field include TNT, truTV, Universo, Max, and Peacock.

Caitlin Clark’s WNBA start to serve as 2024 Olympic tryout

Clark of the Indiana Fever poses for a photo with Lin Dunn and Christie Sides during her introductory press conference on April 17, 2024
The talented Fever rookie is still in the running for a ticket to this summer's Paris Olympics. (Photo by Ron Hoskins/NBAE via Getty Images)

The USA Basketball Women's National Team is still considering Caitlin Clark for a spot on the Paris Olympics squad, says selection committee chair Jennifer Rizzotti. 

On Monday, Rizzotti told the AP that the committee will be evaluating the college phenom’s Olympic prospects by keeping a close eye on her first few weeks of WNBA play with Indiana.

The move is somewhat unconventional. While Clark was invited to participate in the 14-player national team training camp held earlier this month — the last camp before Team USA’s roster drops — she was unable to attend due to it coinciding with Iowa’s trip to the NCAA Women’s Final Four.

Judging by the immense talent spread throughout the league in what might be their most hyped season to date, competition for a piece of the Olympic pie could be fiercer than ever before.

"You always want to introduce new players into the pool whether it's for now or the future," said Rizzotti. "We stick to our principles of talent, obviously, positional fit, loyalty and experience. It's got to be a combination of an entire body of work. It's still not going to be fair to some people."

Of course, Clark isn’t the first rookie the committee has made exceptions for. Coming off an exceptional college season that saw her averaging 19.4 points, 8.7 rebounds, and 4 assists per game for UConn, Breanna Stewart was tapped to represent the U.S. at the 2016 Olympics in Brazil less than two weeks after being drafted No. 1 overall by the Seattle Storm. Eight years prior, fellow No. 1 pick Candace Parker punched her ticket to the 2008 Games in Beijing just two weeks after making her first appearance for the L.A. Sparks.

In the lead-up to Paris’ Opening Ceremony on July 26th, USA Basketball Women’s National Team is scheduled to play a pair of exhibition games. They'll first go up against the WNBA's finest at the July 20th WNBA All-Star Game in Phoenix before facing Germany in London on July 23rd.

While an official roster announcement date hasn’t yet been issued, players won’t find out if they’ve made this year’s Olympic cut until at least June 1st.

WNBA teams make history with 2024 season ticket sell-outs

Arike Ogunbowale on the wnba court for the dallas wings
The Dallas Wings are now the third team to sell out their entire season ticket allotment in WNBA history. (Michael Gonzales/NBAE via Getty Images)

For the first time in history, three different WNBA teams have completely sold out of season ticket plans well before the league's May 14th kick-off.

Call it the Caitlin Clark effect, attribute it to this year’s tenacious rookie class, or look to the skyrocketing visibility of veteran players across the board. But no matter the cause, facts are facts: Tickets to the 2024 WNBA season are selling like never before. 

On Monday, the Dallas Wings became the third team to sell out of season ticket memberships in the league’s 27-year history. The announcement from Arlington came shortly after the Atlanta Dream issued their own season ticket sell-out statement, also on Monday, and almost seven weeks after the back-to-back WNBA Champion Las Vegas Aces made headlines by becoming the first-ever WNBA team to sell out their season ticket allotment.   

According to the Wings, season ticket memberships will fill nearly 40% of the 6,251 seats inside their home arena, College Park Center. The club also said that their overall ticket revenue has ballooned to the tune of 220% this year, spanning not just season tickets but also a 1,200% increase in single ticket sales. There’s currently a waitlist to become a Dallas season ticket holder, a status that comes with extra incentives like playoff presale access and discounts on additional single-game tickets. 

In Atlanta, season tickets aren't the only thing flying off the shelves. The Dream also announced that they broke their own record for single-game ticket sales during a recent limited presale campaign. Sunday was reportedly their most lucrative day, with five different games totally selling out Gateway Center Arena. Individual tickets for all upcoming matchups will hit the market this Thursday at 8 a.m., while a waitlist for season ticket memberships will open up next Tuesday at 10 a.m.

"Excitement around women's sports, particularly basketball, is at an all-time high and nowhere is that felt more than here in Atlanta," Dream president and COO Morgan Shaw Parker said in the team’s statement. "We’ve continued a record-setting growth trajectory over the past three years under new ownership — both on and off the court — and 2024 is shaping up to be our best season yet."

As of Tuesday, season ticket sales revenue for Caitlin Clark’s hotly anticipated Indiana Fever debut haven’t yet been announced by the club. But if these numbers are any indication — not to mention the explosive demand for Fever away games felt by teams around the country — it won’t be long before we see some scale-tipping figures coming out of Indianapolis.

Nelly Korda ties LPGA record with fifth-straight tournament win

Nelly Korda of the United States celebrates with the trophy after winning The Chevron Championship
Nelly Korda poses with her trophy after acing her fifth-straight tour title at The Chevron Championship on Sunday. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

25-year-old American pro golfer Nelly Korda secured her spot in LPGA history on Sunday, notching her fifth-straight title at this weekend's Chevron Championship in The Woodlands, Texas.

Ranked No. 1 in the world by Rolex Women’s World Golf Rankings, Korda joins Nancy Lopez (1978) and Annika Sörenstam (2005) as just the third LPGA player to rack up five consecutive tour wins. She is also the third No. 1-ranked player to capture The Chevron Championship victory since the rankings debuted in 2006, accompanied by Lorena Ochoa and Lydia Ko.

The Florida native shot three-under 69 in Sunday's final, besting Sweden's Maja Stark despite Stark's valiant come-from-behind attempt in the 18th. Korda finished with a four-day total of 13-under 275, celebrating her two-stroke win by cannonballing into Poppie's Pond, much to the crowd's delight. She left The Club at Carlton Woods with $1.2 million from an overall purse of $7.9 million.

It wasn't long ago that the two-time major champion's current winning streak seemed unimaginable. After maintaining her No. 1 position for 29 weeks, Korda underwent surgery to remove a blood clot from her left arm in 2022. She returned to the course not long after, but failed to win a single tournament in 2023 before seeing a surge in form during the first four months of 2024. As of today, she hasn't lost a tournament since January.

Korda will attempt a record sixth-straight win at next week's JM Eagle LA Championship at Wilshire Country Club in Los Angeles, where she'll vie for a cut of the $3.75 million purse.

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