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Tennessee’s Rickea Jackson returns from benching: ‘She is committed’

Tennessee's Rickea Jackson shoots over Wright State guard Emily Chapman on Dec. 11. (Saul Young/USA TODAY NETWORK)

Rickea Jackson made a statement in her first game back for Tennessee women’s basketball, and coach Kellie Harper took notice.

Jackson, who missed her team’s last two games because of a “coach’s decision,” was back in action as Tennessee defeated Wright State 96-57 on Sunday. The senior forward finished with 17 points and 4 rebounds in 15 minutes of playing time.

“I thought it was where she needed to be,” Harper told reporters Saturday. “I thought she bounced back after mistakes. I thought she was a great teammate.”

Harper didn’t give a reason for Jackson’s absence, but her benching took place after a particularly difficult stretch for the Vols that included losses to then-unranked Gonzaga and UCLA. The team was struggling to find a leader, and after the loss to Gonzaga, Harper wracked her brain when a reporter asked who her team’s “vocal leader” was.

While she mentioned Jackson and Jordan Horston as players the Vols respected, she stopped short of calling either an on-court leader.

Whatever her concerns with Jackson, Harper clearly was pleased with her efforts against Wright State. The senior was Tennessee’s leading scorer in her first game back, though she came off the bench instead of going right back to her usual starting position.

“She did some really good things and I’m proud of that,” Harper said. “I thought working her in the way we worked her in was a positive thing. She’s unbelievably talented, she’s fun to watch.”

Jackson’s skills have never been an issue.

She came to Tennessee as the most sought-after transfer in her class. After two and a half seasons and three coaches at Mississippi State, Jackson entered the transfer portal. She played 15 games for the Bulldogs before choosing to come to Tennessee and sit out the second part of the 2021-22 season.

At Mississippi State, Jackson led her team in scoring each season, averaging 16.2 points, 5.3 rebounds and 1.4 steals per contest. But the stresses of three different coaching changes got to be too much for Jackson, so she made the decision to transfer.

Her basketball acumen translated easily to Tennessee, as Jackson is leading the Vols in scoring with 17.6 points per game, and in rebounding with 6.3. But as a whole, the Vols have struggled to start the season.

Harper challenged her team with a tough out-of-conference slate, and the Vols responded by going 6-5 and falling out of the AP Top 25. They started the season ranked No. 5.

Things went from bad to worse when the team announced senior Tamari Key would miss the remainder of the season due to blood clots found in her lungs.

Jackson’s return is a positive as Tennessee looks to get back on track. The Vols take on No. 2 Stanford on Sunday and start SEC play on Dec. 29 with a game against Florida.