On Thursday night, the Tennessee women’s basketball team heads to the state capital to square off against in-state foe the Vanderbilt Commodores.
The bitter rivals did not face off in the 2020-2021 season due to Vanderbilt discontinuing its season because of injuries and the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Lady Vols come into the contest riding high on a six-game winning streak after their tremendous outing against Ole Miss, defeating the Rebels 70-58.
Tennessee is now 15-1 on the season and 4-0 in the SEC – its best start in conference play since 2014-15 when it started 13-0. The Lady Vols are the lone undefeated team left in conference play.
Thanks to the victory over the Rebels, the Lady Vols jumped to No. 5 in the AP and No. 6 in the coaches poll, which is their best combination of rankings since 2015.
"I think we're excited about it. We're proud of what we've been able to do thus far,” head coach Kellie Harper said. “We actually didn't even talk about it as a team, but I think they're well aware of it. They can't hide that big news.”
“You know, we're just really excited about how our team has improved and how we've played, and we just hope to continue to build on that."
The calling card for the Lady Vols this season has been their strong play on defense and dominating the other opponent on the glass. UT has ramped it up even more in those categories during SEC play.
The Big Orange is only allowing SEC opponents to score 52.5 points per game on 28.3% shooting from the floor. Teams have shot even worse from the three-point line, shooting a measly 18.8%.
When it comes to rebounding, the other teams have not stood a chance, as the Lady Vols are out rebounding opponents in the SEC by 13.5 boards – 49.5 to 36.
Early in the season, the offense struggled to keep up with teams, as it was the defense bailing UT out of games. In the last few games, however, the offense has found its groove and looks poised to continue that trend against the Commodores.
In the first eight games of the season, the Lady Vols only averaged 65.2 points per game on 41.1% shooting from the floor. In the last eight games, however, the Lady Vols have averaged 78.1 points per game on 43.8% shooting from the floor.
UT has also performed better from the free-throw line and from the arc, from 56.9% to 64.1% from the charity strike and 25.9% to 30.8% from three.
Jordan Horston leads this Lady Vols team heading into the cross-state matchup. Horston averages 15.5 points per game, 9.6 rebounds a game and 3.8 assists. The junior guard is tied for the team lead in double-doubles with seven and has led UT in scoring eight times this season.
The anchor of defense through the first half of the season has been center Tamari Key. She has averaged 10.4 points a game, 8.9 rebounds per game and 4.1 blocks this season. The junior center is tied with Horston in double-doubles this season with seven, including notching a triple-double in the matchup against Texas.
Key leads the nation in block shots (65) and blocks per game (4.06), and is a block shy from entering UT's single-season top-10 for the third time.
Rae Burrell has slowly but surely made her way back from injury in the last few games. The senior returned from a knee injury in the Arkansas game after being sidelined for 12 games.
Burrell is still getting back into the groove of things, playing a season-high 17 minutes versus Texas A&M. She did drop 9 points, grabbed 3 boards, dished out 2 assists and sank a buzzer-beater at the end of the first quarter against the Aggies.
Leading the way for Vanderbilt is senior forward Brinae Alexander and sophomore guard Iyana Moore. Alexander leads the Commodores in scoring with 14 points per game and Moore is right behind her scoring 11.8 a game.
Like Tennessee, Vanderbilt has a stingy defense, as it gives up 56.6 points per game and holds opponents to 39.1% shooting from the floor.
"Well, I think one of their strong suits is their defense,” Harper said. “They held an Arkansas team to 55. They're aggressive, they make plays, they get steals and just frustrate the offensive team.”
The Commodores come into the matchup with a 10-6 record overall and a 1-1 record in the SEC. Vandy fell at the hands of Mississippi State Sunday afternoon, 70-63.
Harper is 10-0 versus in-state foes, as she looks to rack up her eleventh win versus in-state opponents Thursday night at Memorial Gymnasium in Nashville at 9. p.m. EST.
"I think for me, this game is always going to be different, and you know, in-state rivalries … growing up, half my family were Tennessee fans and half my family were Vanderbilt fans. I always think this is a big game,” Harper said. “I'm very familiar with Vanderbilt, and Memorial (Gymnasium) is so unique, obviously with the game setup, so it's always going to be a game that I don't want to say is more important, but it'll always hold something a little bit stronger to me, I think, with my background."