The No. 11 Tennessee Lady Vols have had a hot start to the season, winning their first six games with two wins over ranked opponents.
“I think right now we feel really good about what we can do,” head coach Kellie Harper said. “I think we have a lot of confidence in each other that we can make big plays. There's not been a lot of panic, but a lot of motivation. I think our players have played hard consistently.”
Tennessee (6-0) is coming off a weekend in Las Vegas, Nevada, where the Lady Vols won both of their games in the South Point Thanksgiving Shootout over Kansas and Oklahoma State.
It took Tennessee a few games to hit its stride, only winnings its first few games by a small margin, but the Lady Vols now seem to be locked in. They got their biggest win of the season so far over Oklahoma State Saturday, winning by 25.
Tennessee has been guided in large part by Jordan Horston, who is averaging 19.4 points per game and 11 rebounds per game. The junior guard stepped up after senior guard Rae Burrell went down with an injury in Tennessee’s first game of the season.
“She has the ability to score, she has the ability to be dominant on the boards,” Harper said. “She has the ability to defend. Right now, we're asking a lot of her, but she is very capable. She knows she can find teammates, but also now hopefully, she's confident about her consistent ability to score.”
Also leading the charge for Tennessee has been Tamari Key. The 6-foot-6 junior center has had somewhat of a breakout season thus far for Tennessee, averaging 8.2 points, 9.7 rebounds and 4 blocks.
Key’s defensive presence has been vital to Tennessee’s success so far this season. She struggled early on with staying out of foul trouble but has quickly adjusted and learned to play without fouling.
Key played just 32 minutes combined through the Lady Vols’ first two games but has since averaged 31 minutes per game in Tennessee’s last four games.
Standing taller than most defenders, guarding Key can be a challenge for a lot of teams. Harper wants to shift the offense to get Key more touches and take advantage of mismatches inside.
“I continue to want to get Tamari the basketball,” Harper said. “Coming out of the Texas game in film, we watched clips on how we could get her the ball more. I think that's going to be an every-game thing. I think we're going to try to find more opportunities for her.”
Aside from Horston and Key, Harper has gotten mixed performances from her team. Keyen Green is still bouncing back from an injury-ridden season and has started to catch her bearings, having a big weekend in Las Vegas.
Sophomore guard Tess Darby has also started to get things going after a slow start. Darby had a big week last week, finally getting her shots to fall from deep.
The Lady Vols will be able to catch their breath somewhat this week, with a lighter matchup in Tennessee Tech (2-4) at home on Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. EST. The Golden Eagles won their first two games, but have since gone on a four-game losing streak.
Tennessee’s team as a whole has gotten better with each game and has had some early tests, mounting comebacks in three of its first six games.
“They're willing to fight for a win. They're willing to be gritty and tough,” Harper said. “Those characteristics are really good for a basketball team. It's the characteristics that I want in our team. That makes my job a lot easier. I do think winning those close games gives you a lot of confidence.”