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Kellie Harper: Tennessee players ‘hurting’ after fourth loss

(Saul Young/USA TODAY NETWORK)

A month ago, the Tennessee women’s basketball team entered the season ranked No. 5 in the country. With key returners in Jordan Horston and Tamari Key and highly-touted transfers in Rickea Jackson and Jasmine Powell, the ceiling seemed high for the Vols in coach Kellie Harper’s fourth season.

Just weeks later, that ceiling appears to be crashing down. Tennessee dropped to No. 23 in the latest iteration of the AP Poll, with a 2-4 record. And with its most recent loss to unranked Gonzaga, the Vols are likely to fall out of the rankings completely.

The Vols had one of the toughest schedules in basketball to start the season. They opened their nonconference slate by traveling to Ohio State (now the No. 4 team in the country), and followed that up at home with another tough Big Ten opponent in Indiana (now No. 6).

Tennessee has lost to Ohio State, Indiana, UCLA and Gonzaga, and has gotten its two wins against UMass and Rutgers.

The Vols are playing the kind of schedule designed to test a team, one in which a few losses are expected. But Harper certainly didn’t expect a 2-4 record, nor did she anticipate losing to two unranked teams – even if UCLA has since moved into the top 25, and Gonzaga is getting votes.

But Harper hopes this difficult stretch will pay off in the postseason.

“I still think that the best thing for this team is to play teams that are going to punch us in the mouth. I really think that is the best thing for us,” Harper said following the loss to Indiana on Nov. 14. “I would rather win, but I don’t want any false ideas of who we are. I know exactly who we are, and exactly where we need to go.”

But after two more losses, it seems this Tennessee team doesn’t know where it’s going.

The talent is clearly there.

Key holds the Tennessee block record after surpassing Candace Parker last season when she was a junior. Horston is considered a WNBA prospect and nearly averaged a double-double last season with 16.2 points and 9.4 rebounds per game.

Jackson was the top scorer at Mississippi State during her three seasons, consistently proving herself as the team’s best player. And even in the loss to Ohio State, no one could stop Powell from getting to the basket when she got down hill.

It sounds like a dream lineup. And yet the Vols can’t find any kind of rhythm.

After the team’s fourth loss, a gut-wrenching 73-72 defeat at the hands of Gonzaga in the Bahamas on Monday, the Vols felt the weight of their 2-4 record.

“They’re hurting right now,” Harper said.

Tennessee’s problems start with what appears to be a lack of leadership. Following the Gonzaga game, Harper was asked who the team’s vocal leader is. Harper paused and seemed to wrack her brain before saying, “Rickea Jackson and Jordan Horston are well-respected on the court.”

But well-respected player and on-court leader aren’t exactly synonyms.

And the issues don’t stop there. Two of Tennessee’s biggest problems are the two things that hurt teams the most: defense and turnovers. If you don’t defend, it’s hard to win. And if you don’t take care of the ball, it’s hard to win. If you don’t do either, winning becomes nearly impossible.

The Vols are giving up 73 points per game, which ranks 270 out of 361 in the NCAA. On offense they are averaging a whopping 18.5 turnovers per game (246th in the league), and they even had more turnovers (29) than shots (28) against Ohio State to open the season.

“I do think (the players) understand what we need to do and how we need to play,” Harper told reporters Monday.

Whether that belief is accurate or not, the Vols don’t have a lot of wiggle room in their schedule to figure themselves out. They play No. 11 Virginia Tech on Dec. 4 and then No. 2 Stanford on Dec. 18 before heading into SEC play. Sandwiched in between those top-25 opponents are Chattanooga, Wright State and UCF, which are all must-wins for the struggling Vols.

Harper wanted to play a schedule to prepare her team for the postseason, but right now – though it’s early and a lot can change – the Vols don’t look like a postseason team.

Esme Morgan Signs With Washington Spirit

Esme Morgan of England inspects the pitch prior to the UEFA Women's EURO 2025 qualifying match between England and France
The England national will join the Spirit in DC on July 15th. (Naomi Baker - The FA/The FA via Getty Images)

English defender Esme Morgan has signed with the Washington Spirit, the club announced Thursday. 

Morgan had been with WSL side Manchester City since 2017, with one year remaining on her contract. She’ll now make a move to the NWSL, with City receiving a fee for the move. 

"I wanted to join the Spirit because they have the ambition and tools to be the best team in the NWSL, and trying to achieve that will be a great but enjoyable challenge," Morgan said in a club statement.

"On an individual level too, the opportunity to work under Jonatan [Giráldez], one of the world's best coaches, is really exciting and I look forward to learning from him and pushing myself to become the best player I can be, hopefully helping the team to success."

According to ESPN, Morgan’s lack of playing time under City manager Gareth Taylor played a key role in her decision to leave the league championship runners-up. She’ll join the Spirit in Washington, DC on July 15th, but won’t be able to begin play until August. 

Spirit president Mark Krikorian called Morgan an "exceptional talent" and added that the club is "thrilled" to add her to the roster.

"I think she’s pretty talented," Giraldez told reporters on Friday. "A young player with a great future, but with experience already in a great league and with the national team. She’s been surrounded by great players and also great coaches, so she can give us experience."

Ledecky Goes for 4 at Olympic Swimming Trials

Swimmer katie ledecky swimming at Toyota US Open
Decorated swimmer Katie Ledecky is aiming to make her fourth-straight Olympic squad. (Jacob Kupferman/Getty Images)

The US Olympic Swimming Trials begin this weekend, running from June 15th through June 23rd in Indianapolis, with Katie Ledecky eyeing her fourth-straight Summer Games.

While traditionally held in Omaha, Indiana's Lucas Oil Stadium, home of the NFL's Indianapolis Colts, has been fitted with a 50-meter pool to host the meet that will determine the 2024 Paris Olympics roster.

All eyes will be on seven-time Olympic gold medalist Katie Ledecky, who will be competing in the 200-meter, 400-meter, 800-meter, and 1500-meter freestyle — all events in which she’s been an Olympic champion. 

Rival Ariarne Titmus had her trials last week, breaking the world record in the 200-meter freestyle. Ledecky’s 200 is intended to qualify her for the Olympic relay. Meanwhile stateside, Katie Grimes stands to be a challenger in the 1500-meter freestyle has already qualified for the Paris Olympics in the 10km open water event.

Other competitors of note include 47-year-old Gabrielle Rose, who stands to become the oldest US Swimming Olympic qualifier in the 100-meter and 200-meter breaststroke.

Additionally, Kate Douglass — an NCAA and World Champion — is a favorite to make her first Olympic team in the 200-meter IM and 200-meter breaststroke. Simone Manuel, an Olympic champion in the 100-meter freestyle, is also looking to make her third-straight Olympics.

Where to watch: The Trials will be streaming all week on Peacock, with later qualifying heats airing live on USA Network and event finals airing in primetime on NBC.

Orlando and Kansas City Shoot for 13 in NWSL Weekend Action

NWSL's T. Chawinga #6 of the Kansas City Current passes the ball during the first half of their game against the Utah Royals FC
The Kansas City Current hopes to extend its NWSL unbeaten streak to 13 with a win over Chicago. (Chris Gardner/Getty Images)

The 13th match weekend is fast approaching in the NWSL, with two season-long unbeaten streaks on the line.

League-leaders Kansas City and Orlando will attempt to survive the weekend with their unbeaten runs intact, as the Current host Chicago on Friday and the Pride travel to North Carolina for Saturday's match.

But while Kansas City and Orlando have been the gold standard this year, they're still a number of wins away from tying Washington's record for longest unbeaten streak in a single NWSL season. In 2021, the Spirit went 20 games without a loss en route to the club's first NWSL championship.

Both Gotham and Louisville are carrying momentum into their matchup on Saturday. Louisville is unbeaten in three games, and they’re looking to finally leapfrog Chicago and claim sixth place in the league standings. Gotham, on a seven-game unbeaten run, is into fifth place.

Portland and Seattle will face off in the Cascadia Clash this weekend, with Golden Boot contender Sophia Smith absent, as the decorated forward was shown a red card last weekend for time-wasting on the bench.

The Reign could use a win against their long-time rivals, as a difficult start has 13th-place Seattle registering only two wins amid nine losses so far this season.

Elsewhere in the league, 2024 expansion teams Bay FC and Utah meet for the first time this weekend, as both look to rise from the bottom half of the standings. And Washington will ride a four-game winning streak into Saturday's game against a San Diego side that's earned two hard-fought draws in recent weeks.

Watch more: "Sophia Smith is INNOCENT!" on The Late Sub with Claire Watkins

WNBA All-Star Voting Starts on June 13th

Phoenix Mercury mascot Scorch waving a 2024 WNBA All-Star flag at a 2023 home game.
Phoenix Mercury will host the 20th-annual All-Star Game on July 20th, 2024. (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Voting for the 2024 AT&T WNBA All-Star Game opened at 2 PM ET today and runs through June 29th.

All active WNBA players are eligible to make the All-Star Game, set for July 20th in Phoenix. Unlike previous formats that featured two voted-in All-Star squads, this year’s contest pits a single All-Star team against the already-decided Olympic-bound USA Women’s National Team.

Fans can submit a daily ballot nominating up to 10 athletes via WNBA.com or the WNBA App.

Fan-submitted ballots account for 50% of vote, with the other 50% split equally between current WNBA players and members of the media. The top 10 athletes will automatically make the All-Star Game, with league coaches then voting from a pool of the next 36 to complete Team WNBA’s 12-player roster. The final lineup will be announced on July 2nd.

This year's All-Star Game format presents an opportunity for fans to vote for players they might consider Olympic snubs. Indiana rookie Caitlin Clark and Dallas’s Arike Ogunbawole seem like shoo-ins given the discussion surrounding their Olympic omissions, while Connecticut stars Brionna Jones and DeWanna Bonner are also expected to snag All-Star nods.

And after a career-high 20-point, 10-rebound double-double in last night’s 83-75 loss to the Sun, Chicago rookie Angel Reese could also secure a spot.

Regardless, it won't necessarily be smooth sailing for Team USA, as history has tended to favor the underdog. 

The first USA vs. All-Stars matchup took place in 2021, with the league’s squad humbling the Tokyo Olympians 93-85. With 26 points, Ogunbawole was named All-Star Game MVP after barely missing the Olympic cut. Could she and Clark turn the tables on Team USA this year?

Watch more: "Were Caitlin Clark and Arike Ogunbowale snubbed?" by Expert Adjacent

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