WNBA prospect Rickea Jackson had been absent from Tennessee’s lineup since Nov. 9. But after missing more than a month with a lower leg injury, Jackson made her triumphant return to the roster on Dec. 19.

During warmups, she danced because she was back on the court. Then, Jackson did what she does best — she helped her team win.

The Vols came away with an 85-63 victory over Wofford. They looked like their old selves with Jackson back in the game.

“She steps on the court and she changes things,” Tennessee head coach Kellie Harper told the Knoxville News-Sentinel. “Her presence affects them when they step on the court. She gives them great confidence.”

During Jackson’s month-long absence, the Vols (6-5) fell out of the Top 25. But the senior forward and projected lottery pick could help bring them back.

Even though she isn’t 100%, according to Harper, Jackson’s impact was palpable for the Vols. In her 21 minutes of playing time on Tuesday, she scored 11 points and registered six rebounds, two assists and a block.

“Having Kea back, it’s always good to have her. We’ve been waiting a while to have her back,” Tennessee point guard Jasmine Powell said. “I’m glad we got the question now, how good is it to have her back instead of, how do you feel with her out? But she’s great for us.”

Despite not being back to full health, Jackson spent her playing time getting in people’s faces and drawing fouls in the paint — an aspect of her play that her teammates missed. 

“It was great to see that, because we haven’t seen it in awhile,” junior forward Sara Puckett said. “I was just really happy for her to be able to get back out there and still produce and show what she’s still capable of. And she’s been doing that in practice this week, too. So just really proud of her and how she just came back so easily in the flow of things.”

Kellie Harper wants her team to be a little more mean.

While Tennessee is without Rickea Jackson, it doesn’t account for what was the team’s worst loss of the season – a 71-57 loss to No. 19 Indiana. They never led, and the Hoosiers shot 50 percent or better after the first quarter.

As Indiana got more physical, the Lady Vols were unable to muster a response.

“I still think we’re just too nice,” Harper said. “We’re just a group of nice, young women, and when you step out on the court you can’t have that mentality. You can’t have that personality, that persona. So we’ve got to find that, and understand it’s going to be a physical game. You have to expect it and I don’t think we handled that very well.”

The Lady Vols are now 11-30 against ranked opponents in Harper’s five seasons at Tennessee. And defensively, “everyone that was out there had breakdowns,” according to the head coach.

Kellie Harper is set to remain at Tennessee through the 2027-28 season after agreeing to a contract extension.

The vote of confidence comes after the Lady Vols advanced to the SEC Tournament championship game in 2023. They also reached their second consecutive Sweet 16 – one of just seven teams to do so this season.

The team’s 25 wins and 13 SEC victories are their highest totals since the 2014-15 season. Additionally, Harper coached Jordan Horston to a first-round pick in the WNBA draft, making this Tennessee’s third straight year with a first-round draft pick. She is one of just four active women’s coaches to have achieved such a feat, and one of two Tennessee coaches to have done so, with the other being Pat Summitt.

“Including her tenure at Missouri State, Kellie has guided her teams to three of the past four NCAA Sweet 16s,” Tennessee athletic director Danny White said. “She’s among an elite group of coaches in achieving that, and it didn’t happen by accident. The Lady Vols have a strong program culture, visible player development, a commitment to excellence and intentional leadership in place, and I look forward to watching our program continue to rise under her leadership.”

This season’s postseason appearance was Harper’s 15th in her 19 seasons as a head coach. Additionally, she kept Tennessee’s streak alive at 41 – maintaining its status as the only team to appear in every single NCAA Tournament.

“I couldn’t be more thankful for the belief and trust Danny and Tennessee have placed in me and my staff to lead the Lady Vol program where we all want to go,” Harper said. “The journey to the top isn’t easy, but I’m really proud of the investment our players have displayed in pursuing our goals and fighting through some adversity along the way.

“By playing in the 2023 SEC Tournament title game and advancing to regionals, we have built a solid foundation for next season. I can’t wait to see what we can achieve together during the years ahead.”