The Lady Vols’ season ended Tuesday, falling to Michigan in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. The loss will sting for the near future, but Tennessee took important steps in the right direction.
Here’s how the Lady Vols graded out.
The guard position was going to be one of Tennessee’s biggest question marks entering the year. The Lady Vols expected combination of Jordan Walker and Jordan Horston to fill that position nicely, but the results were somewhat underwhelming.
Walker, a transfer from Western Michigan, started 13 games for the Lady Vols, including all four of UT’s tournament contests. She struggled to find her shot with the Lady Vols, finishing at 33.8% from the field, 25.9% from deep, and under 60% from the free-throw line, all under her career averages at WMU. Walker averaged 5.4 points and 4.5 rebounds in 22.1 minutes per game.
The Muskegon, Michigan native committed 58 turnovers to 57 assists, ranking third and second on the team, respectively. Walker did excel at rebounding, as she grabbed the fifth most rebounds on the team (113) despite her 5-foot-8 frame.
Horston regressed from an SEC All-Freshman campaign a year ago. She forced her way into 13 starts behind a strong beginning to her season, but cooled off in the home stretch. Horston made just 35% of her field goals and 28% of three-point attempts, but showed some flashes of her potential as a guard, dishing 104 assists at a rate of 4.2 per game. She also scored 8.6 points and grabbed 3.9 boards per game.
Similar to Walker, Horston’s biggest issue was discipline, as she committed 68 turnovers and a team-high 76 fouls. She was a good defender, totaling the most steals (36) and the second most blocks (23).
Shoring up this position will be of the upmost importance for Harper next season.
This position was easily Tennessee’s best, as it boasted two of the best players in the nation, Rennia Davis and Rae Burrell. The duo accounted for 46% of the Lady Vols scoring this year, who lived and died by Davis and Burrell.
Davis capped off her career at Tennessee with another incredible season. The senior captain led the Lady Vols 17.3 points and 8.8 rebounds per game, shooting 48% from the field and 85.3% at the free-throw line. She was even better in conference play, where she averaged 20.0 points and 9.0 rebounds per game on 52.3% shooting.
Davis recorded 10 double-doubles this season, totaling 39 for her career, which is fourth all-time at Tennessee. She was named to the All-SEC First Team, as well as the Wooden Award Late Watch List.
After starting just nine games last season, Burrell broke out to give Tennessee a dynamic one-two punch. Burrell was the team’s leading scorer in non-conference play, averaging 16.6 points per game.
The junior continued her strong play in conference games, finishing as the second leading scorer on the Lady Vols, with 16.8 points per game on 45.8% shooting. Burrell was also Tennessee’s best threat from deep, as she lead the team with 39 made three-point attempts, hitting 40.2%
For her efforts, Burrell was named to the All-SEC Second Team, and she’s expected to be a major part of Tennessee’s success in her senior season.
Tamari Key and Kasi Kushkituah held down the center position for most of the season, after graduate transfer Keyen Green went down with a lower leg after just four games. Together, Key and Kushkituah gave the Lady Vols a strong presence in the paint.
Key followed a solid freshman campaign with an even better year, establishing herself as one of the league’s best defenders, as well as a scoring threat at the post position. She averaged 8.9 points and 5.6 boards per game, and was Tennessee’s most accurate shooter, at 62.8% from the field. Key was a huge threat on defense, as she led the team with 72 blocks, which earned her a spot on the SEC All-Defensive Team.
Key’s best game of the season was Jan. 31 against Florida, when she recorded the fourth triple-double in Lady Vols’ history. She paced her team with 23 points, 10 rebounds and 10 blocks, setting a new career-high in points and blocks. It was the first triple-double in program history to have double figure blocks.
Kushkituah turned in a solid effort in her final season at Rocky Top. The senior averaged 6.8 points and 6.0 rebounds per game, while shooting 47.1% from the field. At 6-foot-4, she grabbed the second most boards on the team (151).
Kushkituah led the Lady Vols in scoring (13) against UNC Greensboro on Dec. 20, and set a career-high with 19 points on Senior Day against Auburn.
Heralded as a strength entering the season, Tennessee’s bench did not provide the depth it hoped to, but some performances still stand out.
Freshman Marta Suárez earned a spot in the starting five in the first 14 games, before a lower extremity issue limited her playing time. Prior to the injury, she averaged 6.4 points and 5.6 rebounds per game, and shot 45% from the field. For her early season success, Suárez was named to the SEC All-Freshman Team.
Freshmen Destiny Salary and Tess Darby showed flashes of their potential in limited minutes. Salary played in all but one of Tennessee’s games and was a 35% shooter. Darby showed some confidence from three-point range, making 33% of her shots from deep. Both former four-star recruits, Salary and Darby figure to be an important piece of Tennessee’s success going forward.
Emily Saunders and Jessie Rennie saw limited action, but were not nearly as effective. Saunders shot just 35% from the post position, but picked up 11 fouls. Rennie, who shot 46% from three-point range last season, made just one of 14 attempts from beyond the arc inn 2021.
Tennessee’s offense was inconsistent, to say the least. The group had lots to be optimistic about, its 71.9 points per game and 44% shooting were near the top of the SEC. The Lady Vols ran their offense through the paint, and dominated teams with their height advantage. Towering over their opponents, they averaged 45.6 boards per game.
On the flip side, the offense struggled with several of the same problems all year long. They couldn’t stop turning the ball over, averaging 16.6 per game. Burrell and Horston were the top offenders, with 69 and 68, respectively. Six times, Tennessee had 20 or more turnovers in a single game.
Tennessee also struggled with starting games, often falling behind with a slow first half. The Lady Vols sometimes overcame the deficit, but several times, including Tuesday against Michigan, they couldn’t climb out of the hole.
Defense was not of Tennessee’s major strengths, but it was solid enough to get the job done. The Lady Vols held their opponents to 62.5 points per game on 36.3% shooting from the field and 31.3% from deep.
Just like on offense, the Lady Vols’ size was an important aspect of the defense. They averaged 30 defensive rebounds per game, as well as 5.5 blocks, largely thanks to Key.
More negative, Tennessee forced its opponents to commit just 13.8 turnovers per game, for a -2.8 turnover margin, and forced only 6.6 steals per game.
Kellie Harper was very good for Tennessee. In her second season at UT, she established herself as one of the top coaches in the SEC by steering her program in the right direction.
The Lady Vols always played hard for Harper and responded well to her coaching. Harper is responsible for the development that Burrell and Key showed.
For all the good, Harper never could fix those problems. Turnovers and poor first halves continued to be an issue, yet the Lady Vols still had success. She notably gave a halftime speech in which she call her team “soft,” sparking the second-half comeback against South Carolina.
She will have some things to address this offseason, but Harper is definitely the right coach for this program going forward.
This team may only be remembered for the finish, but it shouldn’t. The Lady Vols accomplished a lot this season. They were projected to finish sixth in the SEC in the preseason polls, but finished 9-4 in conference play, good for third.
Tennessee defeated four top-15 teams, most notably No. 2 South Carolina, ending its 31-game SEC win streak. Tennessee also played well against two other top-5 teams, UConn and Texas A&M.
It was definitely a disappointing finish to the season, but there was plenty the Lady Vols can hang their hats on.