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.

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.

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.