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New Lady Vols coach Harper savors return to her alma mater

By STEVE MEGARGEEOctober 1, 2019
FILE - In this April 10, 2019, file photo, Kellie Harper speaks during a press conference announcing her as the new head coach of the Lady Vols, on the University of Tennessee campus in Knoxville, Tenn. Harper played on three straight national championship teams with the Lady Vols and now is back at her alma mater trying to rejuvenate a slumping program. (Caitie McMekin/Knoxville News Sentinel via AP, File)
FILE - In this April 10, 2019, file photo, Kellie Harper speaks during a press conference announcing her as the new head coach of the Lady Vols, on the University of Tennessee campus in Knoxville, Tenn. Harper played on three straight national championship teams with the Lady Vols and now is back at her alma mater trying to rejuvenate a slumping program. (Caitie McMekin/Knoxville News Sentinel via AP, File)

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee coach Kellie Harper couldn’t help but feel an emotional tug Tuesday while walking toward the Thompson-Boling Arena court as her players began their workouts.

Harper, who played for three straight Tennessee national championship teams from 1996-98, was back at her alma mater leading the Lady Vols through the official start of preseason practice.

“I had a moment right before I walked out here (where I thought), ‘That’s really cool,’” Harper said. “I’m going to continue to have those moments for a while. How excited I am for this opportunity and how much it means to me. I get it. I know how much it means to a lot of people.

“We’re the Tennessee Lady Vols. We’re a big deal. To be heading that up is something that I don’t take lightly.”

They haven’t been as big a deal lately, which explains why Harper’s in this position.

Tennessee fired Holly Warlick and hired Harper after a season in which the Lady Vols went 19-13 overall and finished below .500 in Southeastern Conference competition for the first time. Tennessee’s disappointing season ended with a first-round NCAA Tournament loss to UCLA.

The Lady Vols haven’t advanced beyond the second round of the last three NCAA Tournaments, haven’t reached a Final Four since their 2008 national title and have struggled with chemistry issues in recent seasons.

Harper played point guard for Tennessee from 1995-99, when she was known as Kellie Jolly. She coached Missouri State to a surprise Sweet 16 berth last season. Tennessee is counting on her to help the Lady Vols regain their status as one of the premier women’s college basketball programs.

That process could take some time. Harper is starting out by emphasizing the importance of living up to the standard set by the greatest Lady Vols teams.

“We’re telling our players what we want it to look like,” Harper said. “We explain to them the effort’s going to be there, how we act toward each other, our body language on the court, how they should just be enjoying things. Every little detail, we’ve talked to them about.”

That includes making sure players understand what’s at stake in each practice as the Lady Vols prepare for the Nov. 5 season opener at East Tennessee State.

“We’ll make our drills competitive with winners and losers, just to emphasize that winning is important and competing in each drill is important to try to make each other better,” Harper said.

Sophomore guard Jazmine Massengill said Harper’s demanding approach is essential.

“She doesn’t accept anything but the best from you,” Massengill said. “When you feel like you can’t do it and you feel like you can’t go, she takes you to the next level. She’s a hard coach, and that’s what we need.”

Tennessee returns only two of its top six scorers from last season in Rennia Davis (14.9 points per game) and Zaay Green (9.6). Evina Westbrook (14.9) transferred to Connecticut and Mimi Collins (5.5) transferred to Maryland after the coaching change.

Six of Tennessee’s 12 players have never played a minute for the Lady Vols. That total includes four freshmen, junior-college transfer Jaiden McCoy and Washington State graduate transfer Lou Brown, who arrived at Tennessee last year but didn’t play due to a torn anterior cruciate ligament.

The most heralded newcomer is Jordan Horston, a 6-foot-2 freshman guard rated as the nation’s No. 2 prospect in her class by multiple recruiting services.

That group will face a demanding schedule that includes a Jan. 23 matchup with Connecticut, which will mark the first meeting between the programs since 2007 . Harper isn’t offering any specifics when she discusses expectations for her debut season.

“We just need to be the best basketball team we can become,” Harper said. “I don’t even know yet what that’s going to look like, but that’s what we need to strive for daily.”

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