Kellie Harper and Co. were on upset alert for the majority of Wednesday night’s season opener against Southern Illinois, but the Lady Vols pulled away in the end and won a 59-49 nail-biter.
“You never take a win for granted, we celebrated pretty good in the locker room on that,” head coach Kellie Harper said. “We knew that Southern Illinois was gonna come in and be very disciplined, and they had a great game plan.”
The Lady Vols were in a dog fight from the get-go, as they were without junior guard Jordan Horston to injury.
“We knew we had a challenge because Jordan wasn’t playing. That was gonna change the dynamic a little bit for us,” Harper said. “Really proud of our team figuring out and piecing it together for the majority of the game.”
From the jump, it was evident the Salukis — a veteran team — were not going to back down from the Big Orange.
Southern Illinois went on a 9-0 run early to take a 11-8 lead, but the Lady Vols ended the first quarter with a 12-11 lead.
Rae Burrell was balling early, as she dropped 8 points — including the teams first 6 points — on 4-of-5 from the field.
Tennessee center Tamari Key picked up 2 early fouls in the first quarter that proved to be a factor the remainder of the game.
“Extremely frustrating to be honest with you,” Key said. “I’m a junior now, and that’s some freshman year stuff that I shouldn't be getting myself involved in. I know I need to be on the floor, and I want to be on the floor and be able to contribute to the team. All I can do is shake it off and look forward to the game on Friday.”
The Salukis came out firing in the second quarter — especially from deep — as they shot 4-for-7 from three-point range to make things interesting. On the other end, Tennessee had no success with threes, as they went 0-for-6 from three in the quarter and 0-for-9 in the half.
Burrell continued to put the team on her back in the second quarter, finishing the half with 12 of the team's 27 points. Burrell, however, went down in the second with an apparent right knee injury. She was carried to the locker room, unable to put any weight on her right knee.
She never returned to the game in the second half.
“We don’t know anything yet, and we will have further testing tomorrow,” Harper said on Burrell.
Heading into the second half, the Lady Vols were down 30-27 and were without their top-scorer Burrell.
The Lady Vols continued to struggle from the field and especially from the arc, missing all 3 of their attempts in the third, 0-for-12 overall, and Southern Illinois took the lead after the third quarter, 42-38.
Tennessee was in desperate need of a spark, being down both Burrell and Horston, alongside the fact that it hadn’t made a three to that point in the game and Key was on the bench in foul trouble.
The spark came from their seniors Alexus Dye and Jordan Walker.
Walker dominated in the fourth, scoring 9 points in the quarter, including knocking down the first three of the game for the Lady Vols.
“We were just saying stay together, talk and communicate,” Walker said. “Rae brings a lot for us, we really just wanted to pull this one out for her.”
Dye closed out the game with her first double-double of the season, snagging 13 boards and adding 14 points on her birthday.
“Somebody had to step up, and have the position to help my team out,” Dye said. “We just tried to get y’all a little shook, get y’all nerves jumping.”
After being down 47-42, Tennessee closed the game on a 17-2 run before shutting the door on Southern Illinois.
Potentially the most massive shot of that whole run,was by freshman Sara Puckett, who hit a three-pointer to give the Lady Vols a 48-47 lead, Tennessee’s first lead since the 3:50 mark in the third quarter.
“I’ll tell you, I’m not most certain we win that game without Sara’s three and that two she followed it up with,” Harper said. “Being a freshman she may not even know how big of a bucket that even was.”
The Lady Vols schedule doesn’t get any easier, as they have a quick turn-around heading to Orlando, Florida, on Friday to take on Central Florida. The Lady Vols will tip-off against the Knights at 6:00 p.m. EST, looking for another spark.
“Central Florida plays zone, and we weren’t as fluid in our zone offense tonight,” Harper said. “Depending on Rae’s situation, we gotta figure out if we have her or not and we gotta have someone step up."