This Week in UT Sports History – March 9th-15th

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Photo credit: Anne Newman/RTI

This Week in UT Sports History is a weekly column written by RTI columnist Lexie Little

In her first season as head coach of the Lady Vols basketball team, Kellie Harper led the ladies in orange and white to a regular season record of 21-9 and a No. 6 seed in the Southeastern Conference Tournament. The young players now await their fate for the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament. The bracket will be revealed Monday, March 16th.

Harper held the right track record to lead Tennessee, and she proved her prowess with key wins like the early-season game against ranked Notre Dame and the Jan. 26 match-up against conference rival LSU. A former Lady Vol and back-to-back-to-back national champion, Harper knows how to encourage a team through the Big Dance. Her history with the program will help the team continue to grow through March and beyond.

Take a look back at a pivotal moment in Harper’s basketball history and more in “This Week in UT Sports History.”

March 15, 1997

There it was, big in black and white. The headline in the Johnson City Press read “Jolly injured in Lady Vols’ rout of Grambling.” The Lady Vols absolutely dominated Grambling in the first round of the NCAA women’s tournament in Knoxville. However, the story centered not around the 91-54 score, but the injury to the Lady Vols’ leading lady.

Guard Kellie Jolly suffered a “badly sprained ankle” with 1:44 left in first half of the game at Thompson-Boling Arena. Taking point as per usual, she made her way upcourt with the ball before collapsing, leaving the crowd of 6,456 on edge.

Earlier in the season, Jolly (now Harper) had returned from preseason knee surgery to help the reigning champions toward their second consecutive title. She posted seven points and three assists before going out shortly before the half.

“She has a very serious ankle sprain,” head coach Pat Summitt said after the game. Referencing both her earlier injury and extent of the sprain, Summitt noted Jolly could overcome the damage, but the All-American remained doubtful for the next game in the tournament.

“We hope she can give us a few minutes, but she’s got some ligament damage,” Summitt said.

Without Jolly, 6-foot-2 sophomore Chamique Holdsclaw stepped up, and, as Summitt said, forced the tempo against the Grambling Tigers who were riding a 19-game win streak. The stingy Tiger defense gave the Lady Vols fits, forcing 29 turnovers. However, domination at the boards allowed Tennessee to surge. The Lady Vols outrebounded Grambling 50-27.

Despite the impressive final score, sportswriter Douglas Fritz noted Jolly’s “missed step” could keep the Lady Vols from defending their title. Jolly often emulated her head coach, encouraging her teammates on the court and vocally orchestrating the offense on most possessions. (This leadership would obviously manifest success later). Without Jolly, Tennessee would face a test against Oregon, lacking in leadership save for the tenacious head coach. The Lady Vols would need to make adjustments not only to work around losing Jolly, but to face a much different style of play from the Ducks.

“I could envision much more of a half-court game,” Summitt said. “Both teams want transition defense to be a priority.”

Tennessee beat Oregon and the next four opponents to claim the 1997 NCAA Women’s National Championship title. Chamique Holdsclaw went on to become the all-time leading scorer and rebounder at Tennessee in men’s and women’s basketball and the all-time leading scorer in SEC women’s basketball. Kellie Jolly Harper took the helm at her alma mater this season, still a vocal leader on the court.

March 10, 2006

For the Lady Vols, postseason basketball remains an annual tradition. However, the men have often struggled to dance their way into the NCAA Tournament. But in 2006, first-year head coach Bruce Pearl led the team to its highest program seed in the Big Dance. The Vols went into the NCAA Tournament as the No. 2 seed in the Washington, D.C. regional round.

However, two days prior to the tournament announcement, the Vols’ future came into question. Tennessee lost three of the five final regular season games and lost again against South Carolina in the SEC Tournament, 79-71, in Nashville.

“We’re not playing our best basketball right now and haven’t been,” Pearl told The Associated Press. “I think that for the first time the confidence has to be shook a little bit.”

Entering the conference tournament as the No. 1 seed in the East, the Vols fared as they historically had in that position. They extended their record as the No. 1 seed to 0-3. Pearl said the tournament record didn’t matter to him and had little to do with his team.

Still, ghosts of top seeds past must have been playing tricks on the Vols, who committed 21 turnovers, including 12 steals by the Gamecocks. Twenty-one and 12 also filled the assist column, South Carolina with 21 and Tennessee with 12.

Tennessee had entered the contest with the league’s best assist-to-turnover ratio. Whoops.

“A big, big factor in Tennessee’s favor,” Gamecock head coach Dave Odom said. “They do a great job of forcing turnovers and making assists. Didn’t happen today.”

Tennessee barely clinched a win in the first round of the NCAA Tournament against Winthrop, 63-61, before losing to Wichita State by seven points, 80-73, in the second round. The Vols finished the season 22-8 overall (12-4 SEC). Despite late-season disappointments, Pearl had turned around an ailing program that finished 16-17 a season prior.

The 2019-20 Vols lost to Bruce Pearl and the Auburn Tigers on Saturday, 85-63, to close out the regular season. The Vols currently stand at 17-14 overall and will face Alabama in the first round of the SEC Tournament on Thursday at 1 p.m. in Nashville.

March 10, 2004

The 2020 Baseball Vols commenced the season with a hot streak of offense and dominant pitching, currently at 14-2 overall following a series loss to Wright State this weekend. In 2004, Tennessee jumped out to a similar start at 13-2 following a doubleheader against Niagara. The Vols took game one 7-2 before exploding to a 17-1 final score in game two.

The wins might have been more impressive had Niagara not fallen to 0-7 on the season. Still, Tennessee enjoyed what seemed more like a fun day at the batting cages than a doubleheader in March. The Vols ripped 18 hits out into the field at Lindsey Nelson Stadium in Knoxville in the second game with six players picking up at least two hits.

Michael Rivera scored four runs in game two. He led off the sixth with his second home run of the season, a big shot out to left field. Four more runs followed in the same inning, giving Tennessee an 11-1 lead. Rivera earned SEC Player of the Week after hitting 12-for-19. During a five-game stretch, Rivera had four multi-hit games, posting a .947 slugging percentage.

The Vols finished that season 38-24 overall with a 14-16 conference record. The 2020 team faces tough competition in the SEC again this year, especially in the East where Georgia continues to dominate. SEC play begins this Friday at South Carolina after a game against East Tennessee State on Tuesday night at 6 p.m. in Knoxville.

Lexie Little
Lexie Little is a journalist from Kingsport, Tennessee, who holds a Bachelor of Communication degree from the University of Tennessee with majors in both Journalism & Electronic Media and French & Francophone Studies. She's a contributor to RTI and writes the weekly column "The Week in UT Sports History." Lexie formerly worked as a feature writer for VIPSEEN Magazine and continues to freelance for various publications as she earns her master's degree from the University of Georgia Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication.