Air Force was in Knoxville this weekend so that senior Sarah Pierce could play close to home.
Pierce, a native of Unionville, Tennessee, didn’t get to play in the Lady Vols’ 81-54 win over the Falcons, however. The senior made the trip, but she sat on the bench after tearing her ACL for the third time in her collegiate career during the preseason
“If there was anybody that I would still be happy to go to their hometown, it would be Sarah Pierce,” Air Force head coach Chris Gobrecht said following the game. “She just continues to inspire her team and be a team leader even though she hasn’t played hardly any minutes. She is going to be a great officer in our Air Force. You will be happy to know that she is in charge of our country’s defense.”
Though the Falcons (1-7) missed Pierce’s veteran presence as the team’s best pure shooter, the 5-foot-7 guard would not have helped with the humongous difference in size going up against No. 20 Tennessee (7-0). Eleven of the 12 Lady Vols stand at least 6-feet tall. Air Force has just two players that touch six feet.
“We have never seen that much size,” Gobrecht said. “It is just one big kid after another coming into the game. I finally told them, you get the big kid on the left and you get the big kid on the right.”
Tennessee’s size has allowed the Lady Vols to lead the SEC in rebounds per game (48.8) through the first month of the season. Lady Vol opponents were out-rebounded in every game this season until Saturday, when Air Force won the rebounding battle by one despite the difference in size, 40-39.
“(I’m) disappointed in our rebounding today,” Kellie Harper said following the win. “I have been concerned about it. The numbers have not reflected my concern until now, but we knew at some point it was going to catch up with us, and it did today.”
“Hopefully, it will get us in gear this week to feel more urgent with our technique and our box out.”
Despite the rebounding struggles, Tennessee cruised to a 26-point win to remain undefeated on the season. Five different Lady Vols reach double figures as both Rae Burrell and Rennia Davis led the way with 18 points apiece. Kasiyahna Kushkituah scored, Jazmine Massengill had 11 points, and Tamari Key added 10.
Burrell’s 18 points on 8-of-11 shooting from the field was her best offensive performance of the season to date. She also made both of her three-point attempts, grabbed five rebounds, tallied an assist, and picked up a steal in 22 minutes of action.
“Rae has got a bundle of energy,” Harper said of Burrell. “She’s constantly attacking, aggressive, and I think it’s good for our team. She is aware of her growth, and I think she knows she can still be a better basketball player in the decision making process, but we don’t ever want to lose that aggressiveness that she brings. I love that about her.”
Since Tennessee lost Zaay Green to a season-ending injury, Burrell has stepped up to help replace the production lost as a result of Green’s injury. Harper still sees Burrell’s role as the same as it was before: the team’s instant source of energy.
“Rae’s role is to be a spark plug, to come in and give us aggressiveness, give us energy defensively, get on the boards, and I think she’s been doing that,” Harper explained. “Rae’s role hasn’t changed. All of our guard’s minutes went up when Green got hurt.”
Burrell herself is learning that the decision making aspect of the game is of utmost importance.
“For myself, I’ve just learned that decision making is important for me,” Burrell added. “That’s what I’ve been working on—trying to work on my decision making, especially with these types of teams. As a team, we’ve just been really working on the details.”
The Lady Vols now have a week off to prepare for a date with Texas (4-3) in Thompson-Boling Arena as part of the SEC/Big 12 challenge. Tennessee beat Texas in Austin last December by a score of 88-82.
Tip-off with the Longhorns next Sunday is scheduled for 2 p.m. ET on ESPN2.