Tennessee (4-5) is looking to even its record against the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga (6-4) on Tuesday in Thompson-Boling Arena.
The season has not started off well for Tennessee, and the gauntlet of a schedule head coach Kellie Harper made hasn’t helped. The Lady Vols have faced off with five teams ranked in the AP top 25, losing to all five.
Their most recent test was against No. 7 Virginia Tech on Sunday. The Lady Vols fell to the Hokies 59-56 in Thompson-Boling Arena.
“We fought and gave ourselves a chance,” Harper said. “The same thing happened in the second half, and we just wouldn't go away. I love the grit. It wasn't by accident. It was a product of the practices and the effort they gave us this week.”
Rickea Jackson, Jillian Hollingshead and Jasmine Franklin were not dressed for the game and did not play on Sunday. Hollingshead and Franklin are both in concussion protocol with indefinite timelines. Franklin was not in the arena on Sunday and will likely be out longer than her forward counterpart Hollingshead.
Jackson was held out due to a “coach’s decision,” and her timeline was indefinite as well.
The loss of Jackson particularly hurt for Tennessee and was apparent on Sunday. The transfer from Mississippi State leads the Lady Vols with 17.6 points per game and 6.6 rebounds per game.
"Well, I think everybody has to step up,” Harper said about filling the void left by Jackson’s absence. “We are trying to help that, also with some play calling and putting our players in positions to be successful and take advantage of matchups in certain situations. We can. And we have players that will be able to do that.”
Tennessee played very well on the defensive end of the court on Sunday, but the Lady Vols often couldn’t get the job done on offense.
Before her absence, Jackson was Tennessee’s go-to when it needed a bucket.
“Obviously, we did our job defensively,” Harper said. “You hold them under 60, you've got to give yourself a chance to win. You've got to get in the 60s and give yourself a chance to win.”
Guard Jordan Horston – Tennessee’s leading scorer a season ago – finished with 26 points and 11 boards against the Hokies. Horston has the hot hand, and the offense ran through her on Sunday.
“I thought she poured her heart out and gave us everything she had,” Harper said about Horston. “I'm proud of her and proud of her effort, and I thought she was being a leader.”
Only four Lady Vols made a field goal on Sunday, which is a very alarming stat for a team with a lot of depth. Tennessee’s offense has been Horston and Jackson for most of the young season with not much help from others.
“That's where we've got to have people step up and be able to make another basket, whether that's we've got to find them maybe an easier look, or maybe they've got to get in the gym more. We need a little bit more punch,” Harper said.
A player who stepped up on Sunday, and will likely need to step up against Chattanooga, was Tamari Key. Key came into the 2022-23 campaign with a lot of preseason hype. She showed why she had so much hype on Sunday.
Key had 11 points and seven boards in one of her best performances of the season. She also had an impact on the defensive end of the floor, holding ACC player of the year Elizabeth Kitley – who came into the game averaging over 20 points a game – to just six points.
“We're just trying to keep helping her feel comfortable and make sure she's getting as many reps as possible,” Harper said about Key’s performance. “I thought today she pushed through because there wasn't a lot of choice. She had to push through for us.”
The 6-foot-6 center has had a slow start to the season, but Tennessee will need the Key that played on Sunday to show up every night.
“Just keeping my head up and not worrying about any of the games in the past or my performance in the past games,” Key said about what led to her bounce-back performance. “Also, continuing to work hard and keep pushing. And my teammates have been super supportive of that, so they are a big help as well.”
With the status of Jackson, Hollingshead and Franklin unknown, Tennessee will need everyone to step up on the offensive side of the floor against the Mocs.
Key has a golden opportunity to build momentum against Chattanooga. The Mocs will be severely undersized in the post against the Lady Vols.
Chattanooga is coming off a 7-23 year last season. When Chattanooga traveled to Knoxville last year, Key had a great night. The center put up 18 points and picked up seven boards, leading Tennessee to a 91-41 victory.
Tennessee will look to put together a complete performance when the Mocs travel to Thompson-Boling Arena on Tuesday. Tip-off is slated for 6:30 p.m. ET and can be streamed on SEC Network+.
“We knew that whatever five were going out there, we were going to play hard, play for each other, play tough,” Horston said following the matchup with Virginia Tech. “So, we weren't really worried about that. We were just worried about who was going to be playing and who was going to come out here and be tough … This is the beginning for us, and we're on our way up.”