March 26, 2023 

Tennessee ends its season as it began, tumultuously

Vols harkened back to their November mistakes

“A lot of teams who went through what we went through at first probably would have folded. It would have been different. It wouldn’t have been a Sweet 16 team,” fifth-year Jordan Walker said through tears after Tennessee fell to Virginia Tech, 73-64.

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And for many moments across the season, it looked like the Vols would fold. Ranked in the top five preseason, Tennessee played the second most challenging schedule in the country, leaving the regular-season non-conference with six losses. In November and December, the team lost starting center Tamari Key to a season-ending illness, star transfer Rickea Jackson to a multiple-game suspension, and more key players to injury over the following few games.

It seemed that behind the scenes and on the court, everything was going wrong. And it wasn’t clear if the Vols would ever be able to correct course. But after a trip to the SEC Tournament Championship and a solid conference record, it seemed the Vols finally were peaking into the team everyone thought they should be.

And despite a core belief in themselves, on Saturday, they looked closer to November than March.

Saturday’s allegory for the season

As Saturday’s game began, the Vols came out riddled with mistakes, struggling to convert, and failing to find their defensive identity. Jordan Horston and Jackson were kept statistically insignificant, with just five and seven points, respectively.

Virginia Tech crowded the paint, forcing the Vols into poor decisions from beyond the arc, shooting less than 17%. Their poor defense allowed Tech star Georgia Amoore 15 points in the first half, running circles around the Vols. And their first-half trajectory looked eerily similar to their pre-conference ball.

Up against challenging opponents coupled with sloppy defense and stagnant offense, the Vols looked like the team they were in November and December.

But as the end third quarter approached, Tennessee picked up the pace and defensive intensity with a press that hugely disrupted Tech’s system. By the end of the third, Horston started to get hot and take over the game, ending the quarter with a 6-0 run.

Although the Vols saw plenty of losses towards the beginning of the season – with 13 SEC regular-season wins, a huge comeback over ranked LSU in the SEC Tournament, and beating each of their earlier tournament opponents by 45 or more – by the latter half of the year, they looked like an excellent team on an upward trajectory.

In an early fourth-quarter moment against Virginia Tech, it looked like the Vols were going to finish out the season like their March team and not their November one.

Willed by Walker’s tenacity to keep her college career alive on both ends, Jackson and Horston finally making shots, and consistent defensive stops, the Vols cut what was once an 18-point deficit to just one with six minutes on the clock.

But, unfortunately for Tennessee, the season ended more like it started. Defensive stops turned into bobbles under the basket, and the Vols could not convert without making mistakes. Tech maneuvered the Vols’ press better, and they couldn’t overcome Amoore’s big-time plays. And even though Hokies head coach Kenny Brooks only played six players, a deeper Tennessee team could not come back, despite their best efforts.

“We didn’t lay down. That just shows who we are. We don’t back down, no matter what. I feel like we fought,” Horston told media postgame. “But credit to our effort. We wanted it so bad. Like, it hurts because we really wanted it. I felt like we gave everything we got, everything we had, just our slow start in the beginning kind of hurt us.”

Building belief

With the second most challenging schedule in the country, there are very few teams as battle-tested as the Vols. In December, Harper told The Next her team didn’t have an identity, but over time they bonded together and found one based on their grit and toughness.

“I think we have been an aggressive team. We’ve been, obviously, a team that has found some toughness, found some grit,” Harper explained their identity to media after their SEC Tournament loss to South Carolina. “I told our team, you know, the thing that I feel like I can say, I think we’ve got some toughness in us, and I’m proud to be able to say that. We learned that.”

It’s clear that the Vols’ tumultuous season brought them together and that they never lost hope, and that belief remained until the end.

“We had no margin for error early on, and we had several losses, but they still believed. They believed that they could be something special, and I’m proud of them for that,” Harper told media in a tearful press conference. “I’m proud of them for coming back to practice every single day willing to get better and willing to fight, and they did. We’re sitting here with back-to-back Sweet 16 opportunities because of that, because of their belief. … It’s been a special group for us to coach and that’s why it hurts.”

And although this team always held their belief, they couldn’t convert that into a deep run. So, will this belief carry over?

The questions remaining

The biggest question that remains: Does Jordan Horston declare for the draft, or does she stay another year in Knoxville? The senior is projected to be a high-round WNBA pick this year, but after teammates Jackson and Key announced they’d take their fifth year at Rocky Top, it’s unclear if Horston stays.

Before the season ended, she told reporters she’d decide after the season ended, but she still has not made her decision. Jackson and other teammates are lobbying hard for her to stay.

This begs the larger question of what the team will look like next season. Jackson and Key are confirmed to come back, but who else stays? In the transfer madness, the Vols are almost guaranteed to lose someone and can only hope that it’s no one crucial. Other than the threat of transfer, graduate students Walker and Jasmine Franklin are definitely leaving Rocky Top.

“Without coming to Tennessee, I don’t know where I would be. I’m so blessed and fortunate to be here and have played on the teams that I have been on,” Walker told media. “I think it’s just a testament to who that team is and how special it is. So this year really meant a lot to me with it being my last. I didn’t want it to end.”

In the SEC, where many teams are bound to have an exodus forced by eligibility and the league, just two definite graduates is a good haul for the future of Harper’s program. Additionally, she’s a good recruiter, only helped with the backing of their storied program, and they’ll likely bring in transfer threats.

So the final question remains, how long does the belief last? Will this team’s core and role players remain to try to figure it out, or will the transfer portal and draft break up the Vols?

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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