UConn won't be Lady Vols only non-conference challenge as Kellie Harper aims high | Adams

John Adams
Knoxville News Sentinel

Tennessee women’s basketball coach Kellie Harper didn’t take lightly the decision to continue a series with Connecticut. After all, there’s so much history there – good and bad.

Coaches Pat Summitt and Geno Auriemma made UT vs. UConn the sport's marquee matchup. Together, they combined for 19 national championships – eight for Summitt and 11 for Auriemma.

Summitt ended the series after the 2006-07 season. Although she didn’t say why publicly, she believed UConn had violated NCAA rules in recruiting All-American Maya Moore.

The series resumed in 2020, four years after Summitt’s death from early-onset dementia, Alzheimer’s type.

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“I’m glad I didn’t have to make the decision (on renewing the rivalry),” Harper said. “When I got here (2019-20), that first game had already been scheduled.”

The Lady Vols played UConn each of Harper’s first two seasons. She wasn’t obligated to extend the series beyond that. It was her choice.

“I evaluated those games (15- and six-point UConn victories),” Harper said. “What value did they bring to our program?”

Last season’s game at Thompson-Boling Arena influenced her decision. It couldn’t recreate the Pat vs. Geno rivalry when both programs were at the top of their game, but it produced the kind of excitement and fan interest Harper wants for her program. It also was in keeping with her scheduling philosophy.

“We want to play good teams,” said Harper, whose second Tennessee team advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament in March. “We want to be challenged before we begin SEC play.”

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Her third team won’t come up short on non-conference challenges. Aside from playing UConn on the road next season, Tennessee also will play defending national champion Stanford and Texas at Thompson-Boling.

Connecticut women's basketball coach Geno Auriemma speaks to an official during an NCAA women’s basketball game between the Tennessee Lady Vols and Connecticut Huskies in Knoxville, Tenn. on Thursday, January 21, 2021.

ESPN bracketologist Charlie Crème has UConn and Stanford as No. 1 seeds for the 2022 NCAA Tournament. He also has SEC favorite South Carolina as another No. 1 seed.

His predictions aren’t surefire, but any long-term projection of the 2021-22 season is apt to have the same three teams in the Final Four. And Tennessee will play all of them.

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Is that overly ambitious on Harper’s part? Perhaps. But it at least shows she’s aiming high. It’s one thing to schedule good non-conference opponents. It’s quite another to schedule two national championship favorites like UConn and Stanford.

Harper was only four days into summer workouts when I interviewed her. That’s too early to tell if her third team will be better than her second. But she believes it could be quicker. Newcomers will provide additional quickness, and that could work to the advantage of UT’s veteran players.

“Rae Burrell can play quicker,” Harper said. “So can Jordan Walker and Jordan Horston.”

Improved quickness could matter most on defense, where the Lady Vols came up a step slow on some matchups last season. Offensively, their greatest challenge will be replacing star Rennia Davis, who didn’t just score often but frequently raised her game at the most crucial times.

Rae Burrell likely will fill that role. She has improved each year and established herself as one of the league’s premier players last season.

“She doesn’t have to prove anything else on the court,” Harper said.  “She can shoot and score. She obviously plays hard. Athletically and talent-wise, she’s really good.

“Her next step is more mental than anything else. She just kind of has to sharpen up a few things.”

Playing the likes of UConn and Stanford should sharpen up the entire team.

John Adams is a senior columnist. He may be reached at 865-342-6284 or Follow him at: