Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, December 17, 2021

Lady Vols, Vols finding success on defensive end of court

Victor Bailey Jr. cuts off an opposing player for the No. 18, 7-2 Vols. - Photos by Jerry Denham |The Ledger

After a fall filled with offensive electricity on the football field, the Tennessee basketball programs are shining a light on the other side of the ball.

Both teams have made a mark with solid defense and rebounding as they prepare for big showdowns Saturday.

The No. 18 Vols play Memphis at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville at 11 a.m. CST. The No. 7 Lady Vols host No. 3 and defending national champion Stanford at Thompson-Boling Arena at 4:15 p.m. CST.

The Lady Vols (9-0) have remained undefeated despite playing without leading scorer Rae Burrell. The all-conference senior guard was injured during Tennessee’s season-opener and the timeline for her return is still up in the air.

Adhering to the bedrock principles espoused by legendary coach Pat Summitt, the Lady Vols are tied for first nationally in rebounds per game (48.5) and rank third in rebound margin (15.9). They are No. 28 in scoring defense (53.5).

“We’ve just got to be the best version of ourselves to be successful,” Lady Vols head coach Kellie Harper says. “We do need to continue to play well on the boards. We need to continue to guard.”

The Vols entered the week leading the nation in defensive efficiency (86.0) and ranked 19th in scoring defense (58.6 points per game).

“I don’t think I’ve been around a defense of this level in my coaching career,” Vols assistant coach Justin Gainey says. “I would attribute it to, one, the guys. They’re so committed to getting stops and to defending. They’re locked in to scouting reports. They get the scouting report on their devices, whether it’s iPads or whatever, and they’re studying it.

“You hear them talking to each other about them. When we’re going through scouts, they see things that make them say, ‘Hey coach, what about this? What about that?’ As for their effort, they’re playing really hard on that side of the ball.”

Their defense kept the Vols within striking distance in a cringeworthy 57-52 overtime loss to Texas Tech last week at Madison Square Garden in New York.

The Vols finished just 19-for-71 from the field, including 6-for-39 from the 3-point line. They started the second half with 16 straight missed threes.

Head coach Rick Barnes put the team through two intense practices before the Vols returned to the court to beat UNC Greensboro by 40 points over the weekend.

Despite the anemic production against a stingy Texas Tech defense, Barnes says he isn’t worried about his team’s 3-point shooting. He knows they can score. He just wanted to see better execution and a tougher mentality.

“It was really just understanding what we need to get better at,” freshman guard Zakai Zeigler says of the practices. “Whether it was defense, offense, taking care of the ball better, we just emphasized those things more.”

It showed in the 76-36 win over UNC Greensboro. The 36 points were the fewest points scored by an opponent since Thompson-Boling Arena opened in 1987. The Vols forced 25 turnovers and scored 32 points off turnovers

“For them to come out and respond the way they did defensively was really something that as a staff we are proud of,” Barnes notes.

The Vols have one more major nonconference test Dec. 22 against Arizona before they begin SEC play Dec. 29 against Alabama.

Not many predicted the Lady Vols would still be undefeated without Burrell in the lineup, but her teammates collectively filled the void.

Tamari Key has been a force inside with her scoring, rebounding and blocked shots. Jordan Horston has provided clutch scoring, and the younger players have taken advantage of their increased opportunities.

Freshman Sara Puckett has scored in double figures in three of the last four games, and earned SEC Freshman of the Week last week. Her last name and offensive proficiency have led to the obvious moniker of “Bucketts,” which she’s hearing much more lately.

“I guess that’s kind of my nickname,” she says. “So I’m growing into it now.”

“To have a player come in and be who she is, it’s really exciting - really, really exciting,” Harper adds of Puckett. “I think a lot of that has to do with her background, how hard she’s worked leading up to coming to college. Also, I think a lot of it is our veterans and how welcoming and how helpful they have been to our entire freshman class.”

The next challenge for the rookies comes against rival Stanford and Hall of Fame coach Tara Vanderveer.

“This is one of those games that I’m really excited that’s on our schedule. They’re always going to be really good. It’s going to be a competitive game,” Harper points out. “It’s just a great challenge. When our players come to Tennessee, they want to play a tough schedule. That’s what we want to have, and when you have Stanford coming in, it’s a big deal. It is a tradition.”

Given the recent injuries and inconsistency the last few seasons compared to the glory years, the Lady Vols knew they would have to prove their worth to climb the rankings.

Although they have done that so far, Harper wouldn’t mind if her players keep feeling slighted.

“I like a team with a little chip on their shoulder,” she says. “The challenge now is to continue to have that.”