December 20, 2022 

How Tennessee discovered who it is by playing Stanford, as usual

Promising signs in this annual tradition

STANFORD — The first-ever Stanford vs. Tennessee matchup took place 34 years ago, on December 18, 1988. According to Stanford Head Coach Tara VanDerveer, Stanford and Tennessee began playing each other that year after recruiting Jennifer Azzi out of the Knoxville, Tennessee area.

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“I had no idea that we’d be playing them 35 years later,” VanDerveer said. “You know, obviously Jennifer’s long gone from Oak Ridge, Tennessee, but the rivalry is one of the best rivalries and women’s basketball … I think it’s great for women’s basketball.”

The way Tennessee head coach Kellie Harper sees it, this is an annual matchup that uncovers who exactly a team is. 

“I think anytime you play Stanford, you know exactly who you are,” Harper said postgame, responding to a question about VanDerveer’s categorization of the game being a “bellwether” matchup. “I told our team, ‘If you’re not good at something, you’re gonna find out what that is when you play Stanford.’”

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And that legacy followed this year; second-ranked Stanford illuminated the Vols’ weak spots and also showed where they are strong. Tennessee played arguably their best game of the season, losing just 77-70 and staying neck-and-neck with a lead in the third until a difficult spell that continued into the fourth quarter.

The Vols only committed five turnovers, which marks the third game in a row they’ve had single-digit turnovers, and capitalized off of Stanford’s turnovers well. They had 21 points off turnovers.

Senior guard Jordan Horston showed off her skills, showing off in front of WNBA front office personnel, including Cheryl Reeve of the Minnesota Lynx, leading the team with a double-double of 19 points and 10 rebounds. Transfer forward Rickea Jackson added 14 points. 

Ultimately, the team’s connectivity improved, something Harper has previously cited as a concern.

“I think our chemistry on the court is getting better and better. I still think we can improve in that area,” Harper said. “I think our team is playing well together right now, communicating at a better level. I thought we played hard.”

And the test that Stanford poses the team has helped the Vols determine who they are, something Harper said was lacking in a previous interview with The Next.

“I think early on this year, during some of those early losses and early challenging games I don’t think we had an identity,” Harper said postgame. “And I think now we’re really beginning to create what that is and what we need to look like. It’s not just the staff, it’s our players.”

From Harper’s perspective, this team is trending up — they’re playing hard, and the defense is getting there. They’ve had an extremely difficult non-conference schedule, and it seems it’s finally paying off.

And even VanDerveer agreed.

“They’re a really good team,” VanDerveer told media. “They’re just finding themselves in the same way that we’re finding ourselves.”

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However, unknowns remain. The Vols are still without big Tamari Key, and the situation with Jackson remains uncertain. Jackson has led the team in scoring this season, was suspended two games, and came off the bench in the last three games. She is elite offensively, but Harper has not even guaranteed her a starting slot moving forward.

“Our starting lineup is not carved in stone. We’re constantly evaluating our team and practice and in games. We’ll make decisions based off of that,” Harper said in response to a question about the decision to have Jackson come off the bench and if it had to do with the suspension.

And where they need improvement most showed clearly in the fourth quarter. 

The Vols almost entirely broke down, shooting just 19% and playing “stagnant” offense, according to Harper. After Stanford’s Cameron Brink hit a three going into the fourth, they couldn’t keep up with the Cardinal’s offensive execution. 

With SEC play just around the corner, further tests for the Vols are on the horizon — an underrated Wofford team on Dec. 27, an SEC matchup against Florida on Dec. 29. It’s up to Tennessee to prove it can carry this momentum into a tough conference.

Whether it does or not, if history is any guide, the signs of what’s ahead will be clear from this matchup against Stanford, just like always.

Written by Gabriella Lewis

Gabriella is The Next's Atlanta Dream and SEC beat reporter. She is a Bay Area native currently studying at Emory University.

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