March 23, 2024 

Tennessee’s reputation precedes the Lady Vols — and defines their March

Continuing the NCAA Tournament streak is great, but expectations are far higher than that in Knoxville

When Tennessee coach Kellie Harper approached the podium after her team’s buzzer-beater loss to South Carolina in the SEC Tournament, she cried. And when it was all said and done, and the Lady Vols packed their bags to depart Greenville, S.C., she recovered.

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“It was an excruciating loss,” Harper told media on Friday from Raleigh, N.C. ahead of their first NCAA Tournament game. “It was pretty difficult for each player and staff member, to be honest with you, to recover. We had some time off and I think it was really good for us.”

Time off is good for anybody, but especially when you play in Knoxville, Tenn., with one of the most storied programs in basketball and an appearance in every NCAA Tournament since its inception.

But how do the Lady Vols — a No. 6 seed that traveled 360 miles east to Raleigh to start the Big Dance No. 11 Green Bay in their first round matchup — handle the madness this March?

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A reputation that bears weight

In last year’s March Madness, their 41st appearance, Tennessee was knocked out by Virginia Tech in the Sweet Sixteen. At most programs across America, a shot at the Sweet 16 would be a thrill, especially after the season the Vols had. While some celebrated the Vols, perhaps the majority saw the run as a disappointment.

This is the predicament that surrounds a team like Tennessee. With a rabid women’s basketball fanbase, going 42-for-42 in terms of NCAA Tournament trips and the ever-present memories of the late, great Pat Summit, Tennessee’s reputation precedes them.

Harper, who once upon a time played in a Lady Vol uniform herself, reminds fans that making the NCAA Tournament is impressive.

“I see so many great teams, great programs that on a given year may not be in the NCAA Tournament. You don’t ever want to take it for granted,” Harper said. “I think it’s easy for Tennessee or Tennessee fans or folks connected there to take it for granted because you’ve been there every year. But it’s a big deal. It’s a big deal to be in the NCAA Tournament.”

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But Harper also understands it’s the expectation, and it comes with plenty of pressure on her players, her coaches and staffers around the program and even on her job.

“You come to Tennessee, it’s just different. The expectations are extremely high each and every year. And there can be pressure there. But it’s also what makes Tennessee special and unique,” Harper said. “Our players come here because they want that. They want to achieve all those expectations. But on the flip side, you’ve got to be able to handle it when it doesn’t go that way.”

And as the buzzer rang and Kamilla Cardoso drained her first three in Greenville, the Vols had to handle the pain of the loss and bear the weight of those expectations.

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Living with the pressure

Harper says her team has learned toughness — a statement she probably wouldn’t have made in October or even January. According to Harper, building the strength mentally is the hardest transition for a team. Harper runs repeat drills, forces them to chase loose balls and more to teach them about mental toughness.

Beyond the toughness, the team has learned to fend off pressure by staying in the moment.

“I feel like we just have to take it day by day. We never look ahead of our opponent,” star Rickea Jackson told media. “That kind of calms the pressure down for us because it’s not like, oh, we’ve got to beat this team…Let’s just focus on what’s on our plate right now.”

Harper reinforced Jackson’s sentiment, explaining that even if they can’t block out the noise and reputation of Tennessee, they can learn to live with it.

March is for the Lady Vols

But if last season felt up and down, this season has taken another level.

“Not every season is perfect. We’ve had our differences and ups and downs. But we stay together, put the work in and practice,” junior Jillian Hollingshead said at the SEC Tournament.

While a 10-6 conference record would be welcomed at many schools, it was three more losses than last season. A rocky road through non-conference play means Tennessee enters the NCAA Tournament at 19-12.

Again, it’s a record that most schools would love. But this is Tennessee, where they’ve only had two seasons with fewer than 20 wins in their NCAA history — 17-8 in the pandemic-disrupted 2020-21 season and in 2018-19. That season’s 19-13 record got previous coach Holly Warwick fired and led to Harper taking over.

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But in the face of a tumultuous season, Tennessee once again proves they are saving their best for March. Last season, they upset LSU to make the SEC Tournament title game, and this year they nearly extinguished South Carolina’s undefeated season in the same tournament.

As Harper said, the legacy, built by Summit, is what makes the school special.

“I think as a player at Tennessee, at one point I realized I wanted to coach college basketball. I didn’t know what that would look like, but I sure did not think it would be at the University of Tennessee,” Harper explained. “Pat Summitt was the coach at Tennessee. And for us she’s this being that is always going to be there… You just didn’t feel like that was an option.”

And although Summitt is no longer with us, she’s left a legacy of winning and a pressure to do so, which makes Tennessee the school it is. But the Lady Vols are not planning to let the March streak — the one no other school can claim — stop anytime soon.

“I’m just grateful that we were able to extend the streak. I feel we’re going to go on forever, honestly, given the Lady Vol rich history,” Jackson said.

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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