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Abrupt end to Year 1 on Rocky Top tough for Harper, Lady Vols

Jeff Birchfield • Mar 20, 2020 at 11:27 PM

KNOXVILLE — Two weeks ago, Tennessee women’s basketball coach Kellie Harper was focused on getting her team ready for the NCAA Tournament. Just days later, she had to break the news to her players that the tournament was canceled and change her focus to their safety because of the threat from the novel coronavirus.

“Just last Wednesday, we were practicing,” Harper said. “Thursday, we had a team meeting about logistics when nothing had been decided about the NCAA Tournament but felt that’s where we were heading.

“Friday, we met with the team to talk about our season being over. It was abrupt, just didn’t feel like we got a lot of closure with our season. We made sure the players were taking care of themselves and the gravity of this virus.”

It wasn’t how Harper envisioned the end of her first season back on Rocky Top.

The season began with a hard-fought 72-68 win over East Tennessee State on Nov. 5 in Johnson City. Six days later, the Lady Vols pulled off the first major victory of the Harper era, a 74-63 road win over then-No. 15 Notre Dame. The Lady Vols, unranked at the beginning of the season, were No. 17 when they lost 66-60 to Texas on Dec. 8.

Tennessee finished the regular season with 20 wins and was 21-10 after losing to Kentucky in the third round of the Southeastern Conference tournament.

When the season was halted, the Lady Vols were projected by ESPN as a No. 11 seed for the NCAA Tournament. Harper talked with her team about the difficult outcome, which ended the UT careers for seniors Lou Brown and Kamera Harris.

“I’m in our team meeting on Friday talking about the decision about the NCAA Tournament and what’s next,” Harper said. “These are our seniors and it’s really difficult, hard to put some closure on some things, when basketball takes a back seat, as it should at this time. We wanted to make sure they knew our appreciation for them and what they’ve done.”

The Lady Vols, like the rest of college basketball, are now left to look ahead.

Tennessee’s top six scorers this season were underclassmen. They are led by junior Rennia Davis, an AP All-America honorable mention selection who averaged 18 points and 5.7 rebounds per game. Sophomore Rae Burrell scored 10.5 points per game and freshman Jordan Horston averaged 10.1 points and 4.6 assists.

But as UT builds for the future, the coaches are dealing with more fallout from the pandemic. There is no hitting the trail for recruiting like in years past.

“Recruiting for us right now is simple,” Harper said. “You do it by phone. There is no on-campus, off-campus evaluations. As a staff, we have to be organized and prepared to do as much as we can through phone calls, FaceTime, emails, text. There are still a lot of things to assist us in the recruiting world.”

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