Kellie Harper is thrilled about her first-year Lady Vols team being 7-0 to start the season, but she hopes that her young team understands that they need to continue to improve.
No. 17 Tennessee hasn’t played in a close game since their season opener against East Tennessee State, which was a four-point win in Johnson City. Since that game against ETSU, the Lady Vols have won all of their games by at least 11 points. They won five of those six contests by at least 20 points.
UT is coming off of an 81-54 win over Air Force last Sunday, but despite the near 30-point win, Harper wasn’t pleased with the rebounding effort. The Falcons out-rebounded the Lady Vols 40-39 despite Tennessee having a distinct size advantage. Despite losing the battle on the glass, Tennessee still ranks No. 2 nationally in rebounding.
Harper would still like to see more, however.
“I didn’t think our technique was consistent defensively on our box outs,” Harper said during her press conference on Friday. “Consistency going to the boards is still an issue. When we go, we do a great job, but we can still find a little more consistency in that area.”
Every opposing coach that has played against the Lady Vols has been in awe of just how big they are. Averaging 74 inches tall, Harper has the tallest team in program history. Eleven of the 12 players on UT’s roster are 6-foot or taller, the most the Lady Vols have ever had on one team.
While rebounding habits may be a concern despite what the numbers say, one area that Harper is excited about is the potential on the defensive side of the ball.
“We could be an exceptional team because of our athleticism and our length,” Harper said. “To me, the area that we’ve got to grow in is just a little bit of raw toughness that you need to have a great defensive team, which has nothing to do with positioning or knowing where you need to be. It’s just something inside you.”
Tennessee will rely on that length on the defensive end when they welcome Texas (4-4) to town on Sunday afternoon. While the Longhorns may be down this season, it’ll be a different task than what the Lady Vols have faced since they beat then-ranked No. 15 Notre Dame 74-63 on Nov. 11.
“I think this is going to be a big difference for us from what we have seen,” Harper explained. “I think size wise will be the first difference we will see. The athleticism is terrific for Texas.
“I know our post players haven’t seen a lot of big bodies on the block. Even playing Notre Dame, they didn’t play a lot on the block, so this is going to be a big challenge, not only for our guards with guarding some athletes on the perimeter, but also for our post players guarding big, physical posts.”
Texas enters Sunday’s contest with head coach Karen Aston leading the way in her eighth season at the helm. Aston is 169-76 during her time in Austin and returns three starters and eight total letter-winners from last year’s squad that finished 23-10 and third (12-6) in the Big 12.
Joyner Holmes is one of two post players that serve as the heart-and-soul of the Longhorns. At 6-foot-3, Holmes leads the team in scoring (17.3 ppg), while also grabbing 9.9 rebounds per game. Center Charli Collier, who is 6-foot-5, leads the team in rebounding (10.5) and is second in scoring (16.3).
“Their two post players are dynamic,” Harper said of Texas. “They can score. They can run. They can rebound.”
Along with their dynamic duo, Texas possesses an excellent trio of guards. Senior Sug Sutton, freshman Celeste Taylor, and redshirt senior Lashann Higgs are averaging 9.5, 8.6, and 8.1 points, respectively.
Higgs was Texas’ leading scorer through four games last season before tearing her ACL, while the freshman, Taylor, won three gold medals as a member of USA Basketball during high school. Taylor has scored double-figures in five consecutive games and has started the last seven.
Sutton was a Preseason All-Big 12 Selection, a member of the Nancy Lieberman Award Watch List, and ranks fifth in the Big 12 in assist-to-turnover ratio (2.0). Last season, Sutton was a First-Team All-Big 12 selection.
“(Sutton) is also crafty and shifty and can get shots and score,” Harper stated. “She can create for herself or other teammates.
“Their wings are just solid and athletic. I think right now you have to take care of the basketball against them, because they can get after you and pressure you. You have to keep them off the boards, then you have to understand that you are going to have to defend some dynamic players.”
Harper has been talking to her players about the rivalry with Texas. When the two teams meet on Sunday at 2 p.m. ET on ESPN2 as part of the Big 12/SEC challenge, it’ll be for the 41st time. Tennessee leads the series 25-15 and have won the last two meetings.
“Once you get going, you have Texas and Tennessee orange,” Harper said. “I think there is a lot of fun in this rivalry, and there is a lot of tradition in this rivalry. It’s good to be part of it.”