March 9, 2024 

Smooth, steady, reliable: Why Jewel Spear is crucial to Tennessee’s postseason success

The 5’10 senior guard made SEC Tournament history in win over Alabama

GREENVILLE, S.C. — On Feb. 8, Tennessee lost by 16 points at Alabama, putting its season record at 14-8 and its NCAA Tournament chances in question. Wake Forest transfer Jewel Spear managed only five points on 11.1% shooting from the field.

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On the first possession of the rematch in the SEC Tournament on March 8, the 5’10 guard came off a pindown screen into a middle pick-and-roll, drove into the paint, and hit a floater over two Crimson Tide defenders. That was only the beginning of a historic performance.

Spear finished with a game-high 24 points on 6-for-6 shooting from beyond the arc to send Alabama packing. Tennessee advanced to the semifinals of the SEC Tournament — solidifying its place as an NCAA Tournament team.

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“She was 1-for-9 in Tuscaloosa,” Alabama head coach Kristy Curry told the media postgame. “I probably felt deep down that wasn’t going to happen again. I felt like we needed to limit her opportunities. I thought she got a lot in transition … Credit Jewel. She had a much better day.”

According to Her Hoop Stats, Spear became the fourth SEC player over the last 15 seasons to make every shot from beyond the arc on at least six attempts. She is also the only player in SEC Tournament history to do so.

Spear is smooth, steady and reliable. On Friday afternoon, she had her signature moment for the Lady Vols. However, there’s still work to be done this season.

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Spear’s transition to Knoxville

From the moment Spear stepped on campus in Knoxville, her presence was felt and her impact was undeniable.

“She’s the type of person that can bridge gaps,” Tennessee head coach Kellie Harper told the media after the 83-61 win in the SEC Tournament quarterfinals. “She can connect with every single person on the team and every staff member that we have. She has a unique ability to do that.”

Spear, an All-ACC performer, was among the most sought-after transfers nationally last offseason. Over three seasons at Wake Forest, she averaged 15.6 points and 3.3 rebounds per game on 39.2% shooting from the field. From 2020 to 2023, only Virginia Tech center Elizabeth Kitley (17) scored 25-plus points in more games than Spear (11), according to Her Hoop Stats.

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Spear was the engine and the transmission of Wake Forest’s offense, drawing the opponent’s primary defender on a nightly basis. At Tennessee, the dynamic shot-maker has established herself as a valuable secondary scoring option alongside Rickea Jackson, a projected lottery pick in the 2024 WNBA Draft.

“I’ve had my ups and downs, but obviously as a transfer going to a new system, you just try to fill everything out,” Spear told The Next. “And I’m finally starting to get a little bit more comfortable now … Like yesterday [against Kentucky], they were trapping our ball screens and today, they were mirroring, so I got looks for myself instead of being a passive player.”

Spear may be the key to an NCAA Tournament run

Spear’s signature skill as an outside shooter has been crucial to the Lady Vols’ success, and it will only become more important as they attempt to make an NCAA Tournament run.

In SEC play, the Lady Vols are 8-3 when Spear makes at least two 3-pointers and 4-4 when she doesn’t. Per Synergy Sports, the Texas native has upped her 3-point percentage from 35.4% as a junior to 37.4% this season while making 43.3% of her catch-and-shoot 3s.

“She’s always been talented, but I think she’s a rhythm player and needs to find that rhythm,” Harper said. “It’s not just in a game; it’s within what we’re doing. I think she has broadened her game. I think she’s improved her defense. She has improved her confidence in putting the ball on the floor and getting to the basket.”

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Spear’s efficient shooting allowed Tennessee to pull away from Alabama in the SEC Tournament quarterfinals. She knocked down three 3-pointers and a pull-up midrange jumper in the second quarter to give the Lady Vols a 13-point lead at the half. She also scored nine points in the final 2:38 of the third quarter, flashing a smile after each bucket as she hustled back on defense.

“She’s just a great person, a great teammate [and a] goofy personality,” Jackson said. “She’s easy to get along with and very easy to play with. Being on the floor with her opens up so much because you have to respect her drive and 3-pointer. I feel like it just opens up a lot for everybody.”

Tennessee will need to lean on Spear’s creation ability and 3-point spacing again on Saturday, when it faces undefeated South Carolina and fellow 3-point sharpshooter Te-Hina Paopao at 4:30 p.m. ET for a spot in the SEC title game.

The Next‘s Gabriella Lewis contributed reporting for this story.

Written by Hunter Cruse

Hunter Cruse covers the Atlanta Dream and the WNBA Draft for The Next.

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