The No. 14 Tennessee women’s basketball team finished the 2020-21 regular-season with a 15-6 (9-4 SEC) record. The Lady Vols enter the SEC Tournament as the No. 3 seed and will face either No. 6 Arkansas or No. 11 Ole Miss.
With the Lady Vols off until Friday, let’s look at two takeaways from their regular-season and two questions we have going forward.
Rennia Davis was always going to be Tennessee’s top offensive weapon. She was, of course, but she was not alone. Junior Rae Burrell emerged as a high-scoring star, giving the Lady Vols one of the best duos in the nation.
After starting just nine games last season, Burrell averaged a team-high 17.1 points per game and 4.3 rebounds per game. She shot 46.6% from the field and 41.9% from three-point range, which was third and first on the team, respectively, among those who played five or more games.
Consistent playing time was the name of the game for Burrell. For the first time in six years, she had the same head coach for consecutive seasons. Burrell thrived in Harper’s second year, finally getting comfortable with the style of offense used. In regular playing time, Burrell established herself as one of the conference’s best, earning an All-SEC Second Team honor.
Sophomore Tamari Key also enjoyed a breakout campaign. The center established herself as one of the SEC’s premier blockers a year ago, but she showed some versatility this season.
Key totaled 60 blocks this season, averaging 2.8 per game. That mark is the second-best blocks per game rate in Tennessee history. She recorded the first triple-double in school history to have double-digit blocks, and was named to the SEC All-Defensive Team.
As good as she is defensively, Key also added rebounded and scoring this season. She averaged 7.3 points and 4.7 rebounds per game, while shooting 56% from the field as a freshman. This year, she improved those same numbers to 9.3 points and 5.8 rebounds per game, shooting at a 66.9% clip from the field. Key had eight games of double-figure points, including 23 in her triple-double.
Dominating the paint
Tennessee has run its offense through the paint this season to great success. In the 21 games the Lady Vols played, they outscored their opponent in the paint 17 times, averaging 39.8 points in the paint per game.
Tennessee tied its opponent’s points in the paint total two times, and was only outscored inside twice. The Lady Vols were 13-4 in games in which they led points in the paint, but were 2-2 in the four games they did not.
Davis and Burrell were major contributors to those numbers, thanks to their inside scoring ability. However, the emergence of Key as an offensive weapon, and a productive year from senior Kasiyahna Kushkituah gave Tennessee four high scorers in the paint.
In her final year on Rocky Top, Kushkituah started the final seven games. She averaged 6.7 points and 6.4 rebounds per game, both significant increases from her totals last year, in which she started just one game. She had four games with double-figure points, including the final game of the regular-season, in which she set a new career high of 19.
Also in the paint, Tennessee averaged 46 boards per game, outrebounding its opponents by a 13.4 margin. Davis and her near double-figure rebound average was the main contributor, as she had eight double-doubles with 10+ boards. Kushkituah and Key also had solid seasons on the glass, ranking second and third on the team in rebounds, respectively.
Questions we have:
How will they start?
The biggest problem Tennessee has endured in the last month of the season was the way it started games. Since coming back from their second COVID-19 pause in February, the Lady Vols averaged 27.8 points in the first half, and went 3-3 in that stretch.
Too many times, the Lady Vols started the game with energy. They didn’t shoot accurately, and they turned the ball over far too many times. Tennessee was especially bad in its first half of its loss to Georgia, shooting 12.9% from the field, while scoring just 19 points.
In that six games following the second pause, the Lady Vols trailed at halftime in four of them. The two games they did not trail were against Texas A&M, which was a tie score, and Auburn, who was an 0-14 SEC team. The three losses in that span can largely be attributed to the poor first half.
In two of the three victories in that same stretch, Tennessee needed a comeback to win the game. The Lady Vols overcame a 12-point halftime deficit against South Carolina and a five-point third quarter deficit against Mizzou. It was only against Auburn that they led the whole time.
As spectacular as Davis has been over the last month, she has struggled often in the game’s first half. In the loss to Texas A&M, she scored eight points in the first half and 17 in the second. Against the Gamecocks, all 24 of her points came in the second half. And she had a similar performance against Mizzou, no points in the first half, 26 in the second.
In the SEC Tournament, Davis and Tennessee cannot afford to start slow. Harper was confident in her team’s ability to fix this issue before the tournament starts, but it will be a pressing question until Friday.
What’s going on with the Jordans?
No question about it, point guard has been Tennessee’s weakest position this year. The two Lady Vols responsible for the one spot, graduate transfer Jordan Walker and sophomore Jordan Horston, have left plenty to be desired.
Walker, who transferred from Western Michigan, made the switch from shooting guard to point guard. She had confidence in her abilities before the season, and backed it up with her play to begin the year. Walker started the first four games, and quickly totaled two 13+ point performances, but dropped off from there.
Walker did not shoot accurately, which was a strength of hers at WMU. She struggled to 33.9% from the field and 25.5% from deep, forcing Tennessee to turn to the former All-SEC Freshman Horston.
In her sophomore campaign, Horston started 13 games for the Lady Vols. After a promising freshman season, she took steps back in nearly every category in 2021.
Horston’s 8.4 points per game, 4.4 rebounds per game, 33.8% shooting from the field and 28.6% shooting from deep are all lower than her totals from last season. One thing Horston improved on was her turnover rate, cutting her per-game down from 4.3 to 2.6. Even with that, she did have six games with four or more turnovers.
These two high-ceiling players for Tennessee have yet to get it going for an extended period of time. Just how much scoring depth the Jordans give Tennessee will be something to watch throughout tournament season.