December 17, 2020 

‘We’re moving forward’: Tennessee, No. 15 Indiana to meet Thursday

What the Hoosiers bring to the table, and how the Lady Vols approach their toughest game yet

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Rae Burrell. (Photo: Tennessee Women’s Basketball via Twitter)

Already, Tennessee women’s basketball knows it can’t take much for granted.

Nor can anyone in a season played during a global pandemic. But coming off a weekend that included a trip to Texas where no game took place due to COVID-19 issues on the Longhorns’ side, that things since have worked out how they have is something to celebrate.

On Monday, the Lady Vols announced they’d scheduled a road game against Indiana. Thursday, if everything goes according to plan, they’ll get to play it.

“We’re very fortunate that Indiana had an opening there at the same time [that we wanted to play],” head coach Kellie Harper told reporters Wednesday. “We were able to get with them, communicate that and make this happen.”

The teams have met just once before, in 1987, when the Pat Summitt-coached (and defending national champion) Lady Vols ran away with a 91-59 victory. Now, it’ll be Tennessee’s biggest test of the season so far — as far as games that were played, anyway — and will represent its best chance before SEC play begins to make some noise outside the conference. In the SEC/Big 12 Challenge, it fell in overtime at West Virginia, its sole loss so far.

The Hoosiers are also imperfect, though their close loss came at now-No. 9 Kentucky. After entering the fourth quarter with a 10-point lead, they shot just 26% and were outscored 28-14. Like Tennessee, Indiana’s game last weekend was canceled; unlike Tennessee, it was a home game.

“The trip [home] was a little quiet,” Harper said. “At the next practice that we had, we had to get them geared back up and say, ‘This is part of it. That’s in the past; we’re moving forward and have to attack what’s in front of us.’”

What’s in front of them is the No. 15 team in the country, the team picked to finish at the top of the ultra-competitive Big Ten and one that boasts some of the conference’s best in Ali Patberg and Grace Berger. After notching a program-best 24 wins a season ago, one that saw it on the brink of a second straight NCAA Tournament bid for the first time ever, Indiana is already bringing its intensity from last season into this one.

The Hoosiers are in the top 10 nationally in scoring defense and scoring margin while making the most out of their own possessions. But Indiana’s top scorer for the moment is sophomore Mackenzie Holmes, who averaged double-digit points a season ago despite coming off the bench in all but two games. Now, as a starter, the forward is up to 18.3 points per game.

“They’ve just got great balance,” Harper said. “I think it’s just a challenge for us because there’s not a lot of gimmicks [and] not a lot of trickiness that you can do. You just literally have to line up and guard. You just have to guard. It’s got to be important to you.”

To its credit, Tennessee’s defense isn’t too shabby either — it’s allowing just 57.2 points per game in the young season. And it’s got an early hot shooter of its own in Rae Burrell, whose last outing saw her score a career-high 26 points. But aside from Burrell, the Lady Vols have struggled a bit offensively. Rennia Davis, for one, has made just one 3-pointer so far, a season after leading the team in that area.

Harper acknowledged that Indiana’s depth and balance will be concerns on both ends of the floor, but expressed faith in her team’s ability to rise to the task and benefit from it, no matter how the game ends up. It’s an incredibly suitable replacement for Texas, and also for Stanford, who Tennessee had also scheduled at one point.

But like any challenge in this unprecedented season, it’s more about nailing the process than it is about the result.

“They’re going to be a difficult opponent for our team, but it’s a great opportunity to go up there and play against this type of basketball team,” Harper said. “That’s the way we’re approaching it and getting our players as prepared as possible.”

Tennessee and Indiana are scheduled to tip off at 4 p.m. ET on BTN+.

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