After offseason of turmoil, Lady Vols establishing strong chemistry heading into UConn game

Will Backus
Knoxville News Sentinel

The Tennessee women's basketball team stormed the court following a 50-point win over Howard on Dec. 29.

The focal point of the celebration was freshman guard Jessie Rennie, who scored a career-high 16 points and made five 3-pointers. Teammates showered her with high-fives and hugs. 

Guard Jazmine Massengill lifted Rennie into the air. 

Rennie later credited her teammates for her performance.

"I know my team is confident in me to shoot the ball," Rennie said. "I needed Jaz (Massengill) and even Re (Rennia Davis) to constantly say to me, 'Jess, we're never going to get angry at you to shoot the ball. Every time you get it, look to shoot.' "

The No. 23 Lady Vols (15-3) resume their rivalry with No. 5 UConn (16-1) after a 13-year gap on Thursday (7 p.m. ET, ESPN) in Hartford, Connecticut. They are in second place in the SEC (5-1) and just four wins from matching last season's total victories.

And they are coming off beating Alabama 65-63 on Davis' 3-pointer in the final second on Monday.

There have been plenty of laughs between teammates. During  the post-game media availability after a win over Georgia, freshman Jordan Horston took the time to remove an eyelash from fellow freshman Tamari Key's eye. 

"I'm sorry, this is going to kill me," Horston said. 

Sophomore guard Zaay Green tore her ACL just two games into the season. She will miss the rest of the season with the knee injury. 

Yet she's still making an impact from the bench, encouraging her team and praising their accomplishments as if she was on the court. 

"I think right now, when she's on the bench, her voice is heard," first-year Lady Vols coach Kellie Harper said. "When she's encouraging her team in practice, I think it matters. She still has a voice that they hear and that they listen to."

The  celebrations have been a good sign for a team that has struggled in recent years with establishing team chemistry  — an already fragile subject that was challenged by a tough offseason.

Tennessee guard/forward Rennia Davis (0) celebrates after defeating Alabama 65-63 at Thompson-Boling Arena in Knoxville, Tennessee on Monday, January 20, 2020.

Difficult offseason and Auriemma's criticism

Holly Warlick was fired on March 27, four days after the conclusion of the 2018-19 season after seven years as coach of the Lady Vols. 

After a relatively uneventful, 12-day search, Harper was hired as the third head coach for Tennessee in the NCAA Tournament era on April 8. 

Not long after, star guard Evina Westbrook announced that she was transferring, and revealed on May 11 that she would play at UConn. Post player Mimi Collins transferred to Maryland. 

Westbrook's transfer waiver and subsequent appeal by UConn were both denied by the NCAA, meaning that she would not be eligible to play this season. It caused her new coach, Lady Vols nemesis Geno Auriemma, to find fault with the culture at Tennessee. 

"The kid's in an environment that's not necessarily healthy," Auriemma said after UConn's win over Vanderbilt on Nov. 13. "An environment that if you knew what the environment was ... you would not want your kid in that environment." 

To add to that challenge, six of the 12 scholarship players on the roster had not played  for the Lady Vols prior to this season.

'I have fun out there'

Any concerns about the environment around the program, or about team chemistry, don't appear to be an issue, according to the players. . 

"I have fun out there," said leading scorer Davis, now in her third season. "It's just fun playing for a group of people who put the team before themselves and I think that's the biggest thing for us."

"It's bigger than basketball," Horston added. "Just having this sisterhood and the bonds and connections that we have ... off the court, I have these sisters for life."

There's still room to grow, and the Lady Vols still have a lot to learn about themselves.

"We're still working on it (chemistry)," Harper said. "Team chemistry doesn't just happen. You don't just flip a switch and all of a sudden it all works smooth. ... You have to work at it."