When the Lady Vols’ season ended with a heartbreaking loss to Michigan in the second round of the NCAA Tournament last March, head coach Kellie Harper knew she would have a near impossible task ahead of her: replacing Rennia Davis’ production.
It’s not totally possible for one player alone to replace everything that Davis, a First Team All-SEC player, brought to the table. Harper views it more as a collective effort.
“When you have a player like Rennia who can do so many things, sometimes it stalls out your other players, because they’re willing to give her the ball and maybe sit and watch,” Harper said. “Now, we don’t have that luxury of letting Rennia bail us out. It now takes everybody.”
Leading the charge is senior guard/forward Rae Burrell, who looks to cement herself as one of the conference’s best players following a breakout 2020-21 campaign. Burrell led the Lady Vols in scoring and three-point makes (39) last season and was second in points per game (16.8).
“When Rae made that jump, it was more internal,” Harper said. “It was more of just a confidence to her game that she just didn’t have prior to.”
No return might be more impactful for the Lady Vols than that of graduate student Keyen Green. The Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, native played in four games before suffering an leg injury in practice that ended her season in December.
Having the 6-foot-1 forward/center back should help the Lady Vols in the paint, already an area that was one of their greatest strengths a season ago.
“We’re still monitoring her reps a little bit, but she looks terrific,” Harper said. “I think in the last week and a half, she’s really progressed a lot in terms of getting her explosiveness back. One of the best things that she did was rebound, and now we’re starting to see that consistently in drills. The more she plays, her confidence level keeps going higher and higher.”
As far as in-house players go, Harper mentioned Jordan Horston a player who really progressed over the summer like Burrell did a season ago.
The junior Horston started 13 games as a sophomore for the Lady Vols, showing flashes of her potential as a former five-star recruit. In addition to the highlight-worthy plays, her aggressiveness with the ball led to a large number of turnovers. Horston figures to get significant minutes at the point guard position.
“I though Jordan Horston had a really good summer, really good summer,” Harper said. “She played with so much more poise and confidence that she typically does. I think that’s been good to see her growth there.”
Harper also brought in a talented pool of freshmen in Brooklyn Miles, Sara Puckett, Kaiya Wynn and Karoline Striplin, but her biggest offseason acquisition was landing the reigning Sun Belt Player of the Year Alexus Dye.
Dye, a transfer from Troy, averaged 16.6 points and 12.6 rebounds per game in 28 games, shooting 49.5% from the field and 73.7% from the free-throw line. Against Power-5/SEC opponents in 2020-21, Dye averaged 23 points and 11 rebounds per game. She also led the NCAA in double-doubles (23) and was second in total rebounds (352).
“She practices hard,” Harper said of Dye. “She’s an unbelievable athlete. She sprints the floor, great rebounder, knocks down jump shots. She’s going to have a big impact on our team this year. That was apparent from the first day she stepped on this campus with our team.”
Since that first day on campus, Dye’s instincts and decision-making immediately stood out to the fourth-year head coach.
“She has great instincts,” Harper said. “She can get to the ball quickly. She is very aggressive, whether offensively or defensively. She runs the floor extremely well. She utilizes her athleticism, and she is fun to coach.”
Harper and Co. are working with Dye to develop her guard skills. Dye, a career small forward, is learning a new role to deepen Tennessee’s roster, as the guard position is one of the thinner spots on the depth chart.
All of this roster turnover is just more adversity for the Lady Vols to deal with, but that’s something Harper welcomes with open arms. She believes learning to overcome challenges – like losing a player of Davis’ caliber – makes her team that much better.
“One of the biggest challenges this group is going to have is being able to play through adversity,” Harper said. “When things are going well, we’re going to be really good. But the great teams figure out a way to be really good when things aren’t going well . . . We’ve worked on addressing it the last couple of years, but I think now is the time we can really push forward.”