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.

Amid a difficult start to the season for Tennessee, leading scorer Rickea Jackson will be out “indefinitely,” coach Kellie Harper said Sunday.

The senior forward didn’t play Sunday in the Vols’ loss to Virginia Tech. Instead, she appeared on the bench in street clothes.

Yet Jackson doesn’t seem to be injured, and Harper called it a “coach’s decision” to keep the player off the floor.

Jackson is Tennessee’s leading scorer so far this season, averaging 17.6 points and shooting 54.1% from the field. She is also contributing 6.6 rebounds and 1.9 assists per game.

She came to Tennessee after entering the transfer portal from Mississippi State in January of last season.

The Detroit native cited the difficulties of playing for three coaches in three seasons as the reason for her departure. During her freshman year, Mississippi State was coached by Vic Schaefer, who then left for Texas and was replaced by Nikki McCray-Penson. She left the following year due to health concerns, and Doug Novak was the interim coach when Jackson put her name in the transfer portal.

Jackson arrived in Tennessee as the top-ranked transfer heading into the 2022-23 season.

With or without Jackson, the Vols are struggling. After starting the season ranked No. 5 in the Associated Press poll, Tennessee has dropped out of the rankings entirely, falling to 4-5 with losses to Virginia Tech, Gonzaga, UCLA, Indiana and Ohio State.

Still, Harper praised Jackson earlier in the year, saying she and teammate Jordan Horston were “well-respected on the court” by their teammates.

But that came in response to a question about Tennessee’s on-court leader. The coach had to pause to come up with a response, and she did not answer the question directly.

And with or without Jackson, Tennessee’s schedule won’t be getting any easier. The Vols take on No. 2 Stanford on Dec. 18 and No. 6 UConn on Jan. 26. Then they head into SEC play, where they take on opponents including No. 11 LSU, No. 21 Arkansas and No. 1 South Carolina.

Mississippi State women’s basketball star forward Rickea Jackson announced Monday that she intends to enter the transfer portal.

“First and foremost, I would like to say that my time in Starkville has been absolutely amazing,” the junior wrote on Instagram. “It was always a dream to play in the SEC, and Hail State gave me that incredible opportunity.

“I have grown so much as an individual and as a basketball player over the past 3 years. Starkville became home and I will always be part of the Mississippi State family. With that being said, I have decided to enter my name into the transfer portal and find a new place to call home. Thanks to everyone who has supported me along the way.”

Jackson is the Bulldogs’ top scorer, averaging 20.3 points and 6.8 rebounds per game through 15 games on the season. Those 20.3 points per game currently leads the SEC.

The Bulldogs are currently on a three game skid and, according to The Clarion-Ledger, the losses have led to tension between several players on the team, including Jackson.

Mississippi State has gone through three different coaches since Jackson arrived in Starkville. Coach Nikki McCray-Penson, who replaced Vic Schaefer, stepped down prior to the season and was replaced by Doug Novak in the interim.

Caryn Jackson, Rickea’s mother, said in a text to the Clarion Ledger that “she just wants out for mental health reasons.”

Jackson was recently named to the midseason watchlist for the Wooden Award, given to the top player in college basketball.