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.”

Tennessee basketball is still “evaluating” Rickea Jackson’s injury “each and every day,” head coach Kellie Harper said Tuesday.

The fifth-year senior forward has been sidelined with a lower leg injury since Nov. 9, and she has been wearing a boot on her right foot.

“We’re still in the same situation where each and every day is the day we’re going to be evaluating her,” Harper told the Knoxville News Sentinel’s Cora Hall. “Each day is different. So, literally, I’ll walk in today and find out what she’s doing today. I know (the boot) was definitely off some.”

Last week, Harper said the team could not put a timetable on Jackson’s recovery. Through two games, Jackson led the team with 22.0 points and 12.0 rebounds, but she has missed four games in a row.

Jackson was projected as a lottery pick for the 2023 WNBA draft. But she chose to remain in college for a fifth season, using her extra year of COVID-19 eligibility with the Vols.

Even without Jackson, Tennessee’s 71-57 loss to Indiana on Thanksgiving Day was the most-watched women’s basketball game ever on FOX. With 1.18 million viewers, the contest also stands as the most-watched on any network so far this season.

While Harper called her team “just too nice” after that loss, the Vols rebounded with a 76-73 win over then-ranked Oklahoma. No. 20 Tennessee is 12-30 against ranked opponents in Harper’s five seasons at the helm, heading into its next game against No. 18 Notre Dame at 5 p.m. ET Wednesday.

Tennessee basketball is wearing patches on its warmup shirts for the upcoming season in honor of Lady Vols greats Nikki McCray-Penson and Tasha Butts, who both died this year after battles with breast cancer.

The tribute is personal for senior forward Rickea Jackson in particular. Jackson played for McCray-Penson at Mississippi State in the 2020-21 season, after which McCray-Penson stepped down due to health concerns. Jackson transferred to Tennessee ahead of the 2022-23 season.

“It definitely hit home for me, because me and Coach Nikki were close,” Jackson said Monday. “We still talk to this day. When I committed to Tennessee, she texted (assistant coach Samantha Williams)–”

Jackson, visibly overcome by her emotions, paused, and her teammate Sara Puckett continued for her.

“I think it means a lot to be able to have these on her warmup shirts,” Puckett said, gesturing to the black patches below each shoulder. “And I know it’s very hard for Rickea, because she was so close with Coach Nikki. It’s hard for me too, because that’s — those are losses in the Lady Vols family.

“So now it’s just playing for them. They’re part of the legacy. They built on this foundation of the program. So it’s just being able to come out here and play for especially them in these times, throughout this whole season. Because you know how tough they were, you know what they brought to the court and the coaching realm. And so just to be able to go out there and play for them is really special.”

McCray-Penson, who died in July at age 51 after a battle with breast cancer and a bout of pneumonia, played for Tennessee from 1991-95. She went on to play two seasons in the American Basketball League (ABL) and nine seasons in the WNBA.

After her playing career, she became a coach for 16 years, most notably as an assistant on Dawn Staley’s South Carolina staff from 2008-17 and as a head coach at Old Dominion (2017-20) and Mississippi State (2020-21).

Butts died in October at age 41 after her own battle with breast cancer. She played for Tennessee from 2000-04, then played one season in the WNBA for the Minnesota Lynx. She began in her coaching career in 2007, becoming the head coach at Georgetown in April 2023.

Team USA took home silver at the FIBA AmeriCup, falling to Brazil in the championship game, 69-58.

Rickea Jackson led the United States in that game with 17 first-half points. She finished with a game-high 22 points, adding eight rebounds, one steal and a block. LSU star Angel Reese had four points and six rebounds for the squad, which featured a roster full of college stars.

Reese finished the tournament with three double-doubles and 78 rebounds through seven games. Jackson, meanwhile, led Team USA in scoring during the tournament and earned a spot on the All-Star Five.

“All the credit to Brazil, they have a ton of experience,” Jackson said. “They’ve been together for many years and for this USA team to come down here, only being together for two weeks and still making it to the championship game, just says a lot about our toughness and our grit. We’re a very young team, but I feel like we showed we can hang with anybody.”

South Carolina’s Kamilla Cardoso starred for Brazil, scoring 20 points and 11 rebounds in the championship game to help clinch the gold medal for her team.

It was the USA’s second loss to Brazil during the tournament, following a loss during group play. Other than those two games, the U.S. went undefeated in the tournament. Head coach Kamie Ethridge praised her players Sunday, noting that they were part of a “young team.”

“I hope they take away that they shouldn’t back down to anybody. USA Basketball shouldn’t be satisfied with gold, that’s just in us. We need to win gold,” she said. “But we put this team in a position that was almost an impossible thing that we were asking them to do, and they almost did it anyway.”

Reese called it a “blessing & honor” to play for Team USA during the offseason before she gears up for a title defense with LSU.

“Such a blessing & honor to play with this team!” she wrote. “Even though we fell short, I loved every moment of being able to represent my country! BACK TO WORK!”

LSU star Angel Reese leads the eight players selected for the Team USA roster for the 2023 Women’s AmeriCup.

“DELAYED BUT NOT DENIED. THANK YOU GOD,” Reese wrote on Twitter in celebration of her selection.

A leader for LSU’s 2023 national champion squad, Reese takes another step in her career on the international stage. She previously had been a finalist for Team USA’s youth teams, as she outlined on her Twitter account, but made the cut this time around.

“NEVER GIVE UP ON THINGS YOU WANT IN LIFE,” she wrote. “TIME TO BRING HOME GOLD.”

Reese is joined by a bevy of other college stars for the tournament, which is held every two years and features teams from 10 different countries in North America, South America and the Caribbean. Team USA has won the AmeriCup four times, including at the last two tournaments in 2019 and 2021.

South Carolina’s Raven Johnson, Tennessee’s Rickea Jackson and Jewel Spear, UCLA’s Lauren Betts and Charisma Osborne, USC’s Rayah Marshall and Michigan’s Laila Phelia also made the squad. An additional five finalists were selected for training camp – Texas A&M’s Janiah Barker, Illinois’ Makira Cook, Columbia’s Abbey Hsu, Oregon’s Chance Gray and LSU’s Aneesah Morrow – with the 12-person roster to be announced before the team heads to the AmeriCup in July in Mexico.

As part of Group A, the U.S. will face Argentina, Brazil, Cuba and Venezuela. They will open up group play against Venezuela on July 1.

During the 2023 WNBA Draft on Monday night, the Washington Mystics selected Stephanie Soares with the fourth pick before promptly trading her to the Dallas Wings. In return, the Mystics received picks in the 2024 and 2025 drafts.

Soares was a sought-after prospect in this year’s draft — 6-foot-6 forward who can shoot 3-pointers is hard to come by. But the Mystics were willing to deal her because of the strength of the next two WNBA draft classes.

With a fifth year of NCAA eligibility still on the table for players as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, several of the top upcoming prospects could declare for next year’s draft or the 2025 draft. Between the two, WNBA teams will have a deep group of prospects to choose from. Here are the top 10 in those classes.

1. Caitlin Clark, G, Iowa

The Iowa guard is one of the most well-rounded prospects we’ve seen in a long time. Her scoring, passing and rebounding skills make her a triple-double threat every game and could set her up to be the No. 1 draft pick in 2024 or 2025 (depending on when she declares). Clark is known for her scoring ability — she can shoot from almost anywhere — but it’s her passing ability, both in the halfcourt and on the fastbreak, that makes the Iowa star a potential No. 1 pick.

2. Cameron Brink, F, Stanford

Brink is the kind of player that will have WNBA coaches and executives salivating. A big with guard skills is one of the most coveted player types as the WNBA continues to evolve into a positionless league. Brink is already a top shot-blocker and scorer on the inside. If she continues to develop her 3-point shot, the Stanford forward will become even more sought after at the next level.

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Angel Reese was named the Final Four Most Outstanding Player after leading LSU to the NCAA title. (C. Morgan Engel/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

3. Angel Reese, F, LSU

The reigning Final Four Most Outstanding Player arrived at Maryland in 2020 as the top-ranked wing in the country. Over the next two years, she played mostly as a post for the Terrapins. Now at LSU, she does a bit of both. Reese’s versatility makes her a player who can fit on any roster, and she’s polished enough to make an immediate impact. Add in her elite rebounding skills, and Reese can expect to hear her name called early on draft night.

4. Olivia Miles, G, Notre Dame

Notre Dame’s point guard is known for her creativity on the court. From facilitating to manufacturing opportunities for herself, it’s hard to predict what Miles will do next. And when it comes to setting up her teammates, there is no one better at understanding tendencies and putting players in positions to score. An injury stopped her from playing in the NCAA Tournament, but I’ve seen enough of Miles to know she’s a future WNBA star.

5. Rickea Jackson, F, Tennessee

Jackson was slated to be a top draft pick this year before deciding to come back to Tennessee for a fifth season. She played her first three years at Mississippi State under three different coaches, so the stability of having coach Kellie Harper for two seasons at Tennessee will be great for Jackson’s development. But even without that, she’s a promising prospect. Jackson is a proven scorer who is strong around the basket and can attack off the bounce. Her 6-2 frame is ideal for the WNBA and will be an asset on defense as well.

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Paige Bueckers missed the entire 2022-23 season for UConn after tearing her ACL. (G Fiume/Getty Images)

6. Paige Bueckers, G, UConn

While a healthy Bueckers could be a No. 1 draft pick, her injuries over the last two seasons are cause for concern. Still, Bueckers was named Player of the Year as a freshman for a reason. She’s been pro-ready since she set foot on UConn’s campus. If she can put together a full season without an injury, the guard will be a top pick. And even if she doesn’t, Bueckers is so skilled that WNBA executives will likely take the risk anyway.

7. Aaliyah Edwards, F, UConn

As injuries plagued UConn this season, Edwards proved she can be the centerpiece of a team. No matter who else was on the court, Edwards performed. Like Reese, she was tabbed as a wing coming into college, so she is able to attack off the bounce and defend on the perimeter. Another versatile prospect, Edwards will be a good get for any team.

8. Elizabeth Kitley, C, Virginia Tech

Kitley could have been a first-round draft pick this season if she didn’t elect to come back to Virginia Tech for a fifth year. Kitley has improved every season, winning ACC Player of the Year in both 2022 and 2023. Her body control on both ends of the floor makes her difficult to guard and difficult to score over. At 6-6, she has the ability to extend to the free-throw line, and her shooting stroke can likely be developed beyond the arc.

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Kamilla Cardoso has all the tools to thrive in the WNBA. (Jacob Kupferman/Getty Images

9. Kamilla Cardoso, C, South Carolina

Cardoso has spent the last two seasons coming off the bench behind this year’s No. 1 pick, Aliyah Boston, but make no mistake, she would be starting on any other team. On several occasions this year, it was Cardoso who made the difference for the Gamecocks when teams tried different defenses to slow them down. She’s 6-7 with good hands, making post-entry passes easy for her teammates. And on the other end of the floor, Cardoso is a skilled shot blocker.

10. Jacy Sheldon, G, Ohio State

Ohio State’s point guard missed most of the year due to injury, but an impressive March Madness improved her draft stock so much that Sheldon could have been a 2023 top-five pick if she hadn’t opted to return for a fifth year. She has the ability to be the best offensive and defensive player on the court in any given game. Sheldon also possesses a toughness that WNBA teams will like.

Eden Laase is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @eden_laase.

The 2023 WNBA draft is here, but some big-name prospects are not.

While many of the brightest stars in college basketball having declared for the draft, others have opted to return for another year, taking advantage of the extra year of COVID-19 eligibility. Just Women’s Sports takes a look at some of those who are running it back.

Rickea Jackson, Tennessee

Rickea Jackson became the first domino to fall in the list of players opting out of the 2023 draft, announcing her intention to return to the Vols before the NCAA Tournament even began.

Before her decision, she was projected as the No. 3 overall pick by Just Women’s Sports analyst Rachel Galligan, making her choice all the more surprising. But her return is big for Tennessee, as the first-team All-SEC selection led the team with 19.6 points per game while adding 6.2 rebounds per game.

Elizabeth Kitley, Virginia Tech

Kitley announced her decision to return in the middle of the national championship game, but it still counted as headline news for Virginia Tech fans.

A former five-star recruit and two-time ACC Player of the Year, Kitley led the Hokies in points, rebounds and blocks per game last season as Virginia Tech made its Final Four run. She’s also the all-time leading scorer in program history.

Georgia Amoore, Virginia Tech

Georgia Amoore is another Virginia Tech senior who opted to run it back, meaning that three of the Hokies’ starting five players will take the court together next season.

Amoore had a standout regular season, averaging 16.1 points and 5.1 assists while leading the team to the ACC tournament title. She’s better against better opponents, making her decision to stay a good sign for the Hokies.

Charisma Osborne, UCLA

While Charisma Osborne opted into the 2023 WNBA draft, she later withdrew her name, instead electing to use her extra year of eligibility. As reported by the New York Times, she even was told by a WNBA coach that the decision to remain an extra year could be a smart move.

Osborne will provide a boost for UCLA, as she has averaged 15.2 points, 5.7 rebounds and 2.9 assists per game throughout her first four years with the Bruins. She also helped the team to a Sweet 16 appearance this year, and will link up with freshman point guard Kiki Rice next year.

Sedona Prince, TCU

Sedona Prince is another player who withdrew her name from WNBA draft consideration. Prince missed their redshirt senior season with an elbow injury and had planned to exhaust their remaining NCAA eligibility to pursue a professional career.

But those plans have changed, as Prince withdrew their name from the draft. She also entered her name into the transfer portal and is headed to TCU with two years of eligibility remaining.

Ashley Owusu, transfer portal

Despite reports that she might enter the WNBA draft, Virginia Tech shooting guard Ashley Owusu has opted to remain in the NCAA. But the former Maryland standout is once again in the transfer portal after spending the second half of the season on the Hokies’ bench.

Cameron Brink, Stanford

There was never a question about whether or not Cameron Brink would return for her senior season at Stanford, despite the fact that she is eligible for the 2023 WNBA draft by a single day. As Brink told reporters last October, college is “fun.”

“Why not stay?” she asked. “I think I want to stay just because I want to just continue to be a kid. Finish my degree in four years, not rush myself.”

Despite Rickea Jackson’s status as one of the best players in the 2023 WNBA draft class, she plans to return to Tennessee for another season, she announced Monday.

A top transfer to the Volunteers ahead of the 2022-23 season, Jackson will use her extra year of COVID-19 eligibility to remain with the team. Just Women’s Sports analyst Rachel Galligan had projected Jackson as the No. 3 overall pick in April’s draft, but instead the senior forward will join the stacked 2024 class.

“I appreciated all the support from our amazing fans for making this transition to the University of Tennessee so worth it,” she said in a statement posted to her Twitter account. “But we are not done yet. I’m coming back for another year!”

Jackson got off to a rocky start at Tennessee. She was benched for two games in December in a “coach’s decision,” then came off the bench upon her return before working her way back to the starting lineup.

Vols coach Kellie Harper did not provide a reason for Jackson’s benching, but said upon Jackson’s return in December, “I thought she bounced back after mistakes.”

Since then, she has come into her own for Tennessee. She leads the team with 19.6 points per game and also contributes 6.2 rebounds per game. She was a first-team All-SEC seelction.

Tennessee received a No. 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament. The Vols will host No. 13 seed St. Louis in the first round.

The NCAA Tournament not only provides basketball fans with chills and thrills. March Madness also provides a sneak peek at the stars soon to join the WNBA ranks.

Just Women’s Sports analyst Rachel Galligan projected every first-round pick for the 2023 WNBA Draft in April. Based on her mock draft, here are the four potential lottery picks to watch as the NCAA Tournament gets underway.

Aliyah Boston, F, South Carolina

The consensus No. 1 pick leads the No. 1 overall seed into the tournament with her sights set on a repeat title. Boston and the Gamecocks won the national championship against UConn last year, and the undefeated Gamecocks look even stronger this time around.

While Boston’s stats have not been as strong this season, her 13.3 points and 9.7 rebounds per game are nonetheless impressive — especially when considering the heavy defensive pressure the 6-foot-5 post receives from opponents.

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Diamond Miller, G, Maryland

The second-seeded Terrapins lost four of their starters in the offseason, two to the transfer portal and two to graduation. But you wouldn’t know it to look at them, in large part thanks to the skill and composure of Miller, their lone holdover in the starting lineup.

The 6-3 guard is averaging 19.7 points, 6.5 rebounds, 2.9 assists and 2.1 steals per game for Maryland, the best numbers of her career. After an injury-plagued junior season, she has looked stronger than ever in her senior season.

Rickea Jackson, F, Tennessee

The high-profile transfer had a rocky start to her Tennessee tenure, as she was benched for two games in early December due to a coach’s decision.

Since her return, though, Jackson has flourished for the fourth-seeded Volunteers. The 6-2 forward leads the team with 19.6 points per game, and she is peaking at the right time, with a 26-point double-double to lead Tennessee over LSU in the SEC tournament semifinals.

Haley Jones, G, Stanford

Jones’ value comes in her versatility. The 6-1 guard can score, she can create plays, and she can defend with the best of them. For Stanford this season, she is averaging 13.4 points, 9.1 rebounds and 4.1 assists per game.

The No. 1 seed in the second Seattle region, Cardinal have lost two of their last three games — to Utah in their regular-season finale and to UCLA in the Pac-12 tournament quarterfinals. But with Jones’ steady presence, they still have what it takes to reach the Final Four for a third consecutive season.

Rickea Jackson is the leading scorer for Tennessee women’s basketball team, but she has not featured in the starting lineup since she was benched for two games in early December.

Vols coach Kellie Harper does not plan to make changes to the lineup, she said after her team’s 92-53 win Tuesday night against Wofford.

“We’re playing pretty well right now. It’s been good for us,” Harper said. “I’m not holding her out for any reason other than just the way we’ve been playing, it’s been working.”

Jackson scored a team-high 16 points in Tuesday’s victory, right in line with her team-leading 16.1 points per game this season. Jordan Horston is the only other player on Tennessee averaging double figures, with 15.8 points per game.

The senior forward missed the Vols’ Dec. 4 loss to No. 7 Virginia Tech and their Dec. 6 win against Chattanooga due to a “coach’s decision.” She returned to the lineup for a Dec. 11 win against Wright State, but in the four games since her benching, she has entered as a substitute.

Her absence came after a tough November for Tennessee (8-6), which included losses to then-unranked Gonzaga and UCLA. Both those teams have since jumped into the AP Top 25, and the Vols have stabilized.

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

For Tennessee, she not only leads the team in scoring, she also averages the second-most rebounds on the team at 5.4, just behind senior guard Horston at 6.2. And she averages the second-most minutes per game at 23.2, behind Horston at 23.6.

“She came off the bench and did really well against Stanford, had a good game prior to that,” Harper said of Jackson. “So I’m not doing it for any reason other than just right now what our team is doing, it looks good.”