Tennessee back in women’s Sweet 16 after 6-year absence

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The Tennessee Lady Vols seem poised to once again be a force in women’s basketball after the storied program had fallen on some almost unimaginable hard times.

There have been early tournament exits, players transferring and a coach fired.

But a social media post captures the journey the Lady Vols have been on: It shows the late Pat Summitt hugging then-point guard Kellie Jolly celebrating Tennessee’s third straight women’s national championship and also features now-coach Kellie Harper enjoying the Lady Vols’ first Sweet 16 berth in six years.

“It’s great as we continue to take steps forward,” Harper said. “It’s where we need to be. We don’t take it for granted. You don’t just get there. ... A lot of really talented teams are not going to be there this year. There’s been a lot of parity. Just glad we’re one of them.”

Harper is in her third season at her alma mater, which happens to be the only program to play in all 40 NCAA Tournaments and first to win eight national championships.

Harper said this is an important step on the road to making the Lady Vols a national contender and Final Four regular again.

“Obviously I think there is a big responsibility that I have and that our program has to a lot of different things,” said Harper, one of only two coaches to lead four different programs to the NCAA Tournament. “To Pat’s legacy for sure, to this community, our conference, and women’s basketball, because I think when Tennessee is good, I think women’s basketball is better.”

Steffi Sorensen, women’s basketball analyst for ESPN and SEC Network, agrees. She grew up with newspaper clippings of UConn on one wall and Tennessee clippings on the other.

“Anytime you’ve got Tennessee in the fold, there’s so many Tennessee fans it just makes the product I think much better, more interesting and that’s what we’re used to,” Sorensen said.

A 70-67 win over Belmont on Monday night clinched Tennessee’s 35th trip to the Sweet 16. The Lady Vols will play top-seeded Louisville on Saturday in the Wichita Regional semifinal in Wichita, Kansas.

Sweet 16s, Final Fours and national championship games used to be the norm at Tennessee with orange-decked fans following the Lady Vols all over the country. Under Summitt, the Lady Vols went to 18 Final Fours — not counting four in the AIAW before the NCAA started its tournament. They lost six national title games, four in the NCAA Tournament.

All that seems like distant memories.

The last Final Four appearance for Tennessee came in 2008 — the eighth and final national championship under Summitt.

Tennessee led the nation in attendance for 19 seasons and averaged at least 10,375 per game for 20 straight seasons. The Lady Vols haven’t averaged 10,000 a game since 2015-16.

Fans who followed the Summitt show are older, and winning new fans means landing new stars to follow in the steps of Chamique Holdsclaw, Tamika Catchings and Candace Parker.

Holly Warlick, Summitt’s trusted assistant, couldn’t do it.

She lasted seven seasons before being fired in March 2019 after a first-round tournament loss. So Tennessee turned to Harper, fresh off taking Missouri State to a Sweet 16.

Harper has been boosting the talent on the roster. Justine Pissott, a 6-foot-4 guard from Toms River, New Jersey, and the 11th-ranked player in the country, is committed for next season.

When the Lady Vols climbed back into the top 10 of The Associated Press rankings in December, it was the first time they’d been there in nearly three years. They climbed as high as No. 4 and were projected in late January as the No. 1 seed in the Wichita Region.

Then came a slew of injuries.

Keyen Green, a glue player off the bench, tore an ACL. Then Jordan Horston, their leading scorer and rebounder, broke her left elbow in February. Tennessee had already lost sophomore Marta Suarez, an All-SEC freshman last season, in October.

“People who don’t do this for a living can’t understand how hard it is to lose players like they’ve lost players as consistently down the stretch of a season, where you’ve got to rework a lot of stuff,” said Belmont coach Bart Brooks, praising Harper for not allowing the injuries to completely derail the season.

Sorensen said she saw Tennessee as a Final Four team before the injuries.

“It’s awesome to see Kellie and that team come together to get to the Sweet 16,” Sorensen said. “That’s difficult losing that many players, then rallying. It’s really hard to win in March, and they’ve done it.”

Tennessee did stagger down the stretch, winning just five of its last 12 games. But the overall season garnered the Lady Vols a No. 4 seed and two games in Knoxville with orange everywhere.

Now, back in the Sweet 16, there is no escaping Tennessee’s history and Summitt’s ever-present shadow over the program.

A Summitt statue is a popular photo spot on the corner across from Thompson-Boling Arena with large photos of national champs in the hallways inside and orange and white banners of those titles hanging from the rafters.

And that’s just fine with Harper, a Tennessee native, who always pulled for the Lady Vols during her coaching stops at Western Carolina, North Carolina State and Missouri State.

Nobody on Tennessee’s current roster has played in a Sweet 16 game, so these Lady Vols are leaning heavily on that history and Harper’s experience.

“For us, that’s just big,” junior center Tamari Key said of Harper’s tournament success. “Knowing she’s been there and she knows what it’s like and what it needs to look like and the work that needs to go in behind the scenes to be able to achieve that.”


More AP coverage of March Madness: https://apnews.com/hub/march-madness and https://apnews.com/hub/womens-college-basketball and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25

Teresa M. Walker
Teresa M. Walker
Sportswriter covering NFL, NHL, NBA, all of TN