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Everything Kellie Harper said after the Lady Vols’ season-opening win

The Lady Vols opened their 2020-21 season with an 87-47 win over Western Kentucky on Saturday afternoon.

Tennessee led wire-to-wire in the win despite having three newcomers in the starting lineup. Junior guard Rae Burrell led the way with a game-high 18 points as five different players scored double-figures.

The Lady Vols shot just 27% from three, but shot 44% from the field as a whole. They only turned the basketball over 13 times while forcing Western Kentucky into 21 turnovers. They also out-rebounded the Hilltoppers 56-32.

Here’s everything Harper had to say:

Her opening statement:

“It feels so good to get to play today. I’m really proud of our team. I think they have held it together really well this preseason, with the uncertainties that we have this year. I was really happy for them to get to come out and compete at home in front of our fans. I thought we played hard. It took us a little while to settle in offensively. I still think we missed some shots we can make. We can clean up some execution offensively, hopefully before our next game. Defensively, we had some kids that just made plays. Overall, our 1-on-1 defense can be better. We’ll work on that. You don’t come out in game one and play perfectly. I’m proud of our team. I’m proud of our effort. I thought we had some really bright spots and a lot of encouraging moments out there that are really going to help us.”

On the differences with the game because of COVID-19:

“The layout, obviously, is different. I’ll be honest, not having a pep band there was different. Not having our cheer team or media on the court was different. There’s so much that makes it look different. It definitely feels different being on the opposite side of the scorer’s table. There are times that I forget and say, ‘They’re going to throw the ball in over here, because we’re opposite of the scorer’s table.’ There are a few things that will still take some adjusting. One of the things we know we have to be – as well as everybody else in the country in any job – is flexible. You’ve got to be flexible. You’ve got to be adaptable and you’ve got to be ready for change. The things that did not change, though, is that we got to play. The rules didn’t change, so we were on the court playing, and that was fun.”

On why three newcomers — Jordan Walker, Keyen Green and Marta Suárez — started in the season-opener:

“I thought they played well in their first game. Decisions about starting for us has been about the consistency in the preseason. Who’s been there every day and played hard? We’ve got several players that will be right in that mix. The players that started the game, I’m really proud of them. Those newcomers came in with great maturity and great confidence. They didn’t look like rookies out there. I thought they went out and played well.”

On Rae Burrell’s leadership within the team:

“One of the things that I’ve said about our team this year is that all of our returners are better. She’s better. I thought she ended on a high note last year. She played well going down the stretch. She’s not only carried that over, but let it propel her. She had been so consistent in practice. Every day, you know what you’re going to get with her. She’s played well. Everybody knows that Rae Burrell has a high motor and she plays hard. You’re always going to get that. Now, we see a Rae that’s more confident, very poised and made great decisions. I’m really, really proud of her. She let the game come to her. Honestly, that’s not surprising. Her game today is exactly how she’s practiced. We’re really proud of her and excited for her this season.”

On how proud she is of the 48 points in the paint and 23 points off of turnovers:

“Getting it inside, I think our physicality, strength and size was an advantage for us. To be honest with you, I would have liked to have had a few more post touches. Not that they didn’t score, they did okay, but I’d like to find a few more ways to get them the ball. They’ve done a good job in practice of scoring, so I want to make sure we’re finding them some opportunities as well. Obviously the points off turnovers, that was not an area we were great at least year, so to be able to convert those was really good to see.”

On the status of Lady Vols freshman Tess Darby:

“Tess is rehabbing a lower leg injury. We’ll get her back hopefully within the next couple of weeks for sure. We’d like to get her back out there and in uniform.”

On why the Lady Vols were shaky early:

“I’ll have to go back and watch it, but I think we started the game pretty tentative. I thought that was pretty obvious offensively and a little bit defensively. After that first quarter, one of the first things we did was get a steal and converted, and I thought that was what got us going to be honest with you. Hopefully moving forward we don’t have that tentativeness because we need to be pretty aggressive. I think that’s who we are by nature. That’s when we’re at our best, playing a little more downhill. We were trying to figure things out and make sure that everything was going to be okay in that first quarter and we finally just let loose and play. That’s what I told them in the timeout, ‘we just gotta play. Just let go and play.’ I thought they did a much better job of that.”

On how important Jordan Walker’s ability as a point guard is to the team:

“I think it’s imperative that you have players that aren’t turning the ball over and you’ve got players that are distributing, finding the open man, making good decisions and managing the team. I think that’s important. She’s done a good job of that. I thought Destiny Salary did a good job of that when she was in there. For two newcomers coming into those tough roles, I thought they did a pretty good job with that. Overall, our 13 turnovers, I think we’re going to walk out of this one and feel okay about that and find a way to get better once we look at them. I think there were a lot of those that we could erase. We’ve worked hard on that in our preseason practices. I thought our offensive spacing helped us in those areas. We’ll go back, get in the film room, watch some of those and try to correct them even before our next practice.”

On Marta Suárez’s performance in her first career game:

“Marta is a player that gives us some steadiness. She’s poised. She’s competitive. She makes plays. She had several offensive boards. She’s going to be in the mix. She’s going to be in the middle of it. She sticks her nose in it. We need that. I think, for us right now, just having her skillset is important. We started her at the small forward position, but we’re able to move her around a little bit. She played some wing and brought the ball up the court a couple of times. I think just trying to take advantage of her broad skillset is important for our team. She really helps us when she’s out there.”

On the depth of the team:

“Our depth is something that we’re proud of, we’re excited about. We’ve had more competition in practice this year just because there’s more people on the court. We’re really — if we can just have the depth and the balance of scoring, it’ll take some pressure off of Rennia (Davis). She’s going to score. She didn’t get up a lot of shots and she still has a double-double. She is so good. Rennia Davis is so good, but I don’t want her to have to do it alone. We’ve got players that can step up and score, we’ve got players that can rebound, we’ve got players that can do other things. When you have that, you have a lot of players that people have to worry about and your offense is bound to be better.”

On the decision to start the newcomers:

“I had been thinking about it. I didn’t tell them, but they all had a pretty good idea. That’s who we’ve been going with in practice the last few days. That’s the group that’s really been the most consistent. But also, in today’s world, I could tell them something on one day and it change the next day. We just decided to wait until game time to make that announcement because we wanted to make sure we were all there and ready to go for game time.

On if she liked her starting lineup of if it could be fluid as the season goes on:

“Well both actually. I do like that starting lineup. You had a lot of tough players out there, a lot of tough kids that don’t mind taking charges. They don’t mind diving on loose balls. I like that. They work. But with also saying that, we have competition and nothing is in stone. The good thing for our team right now is you can’t be complacent because we’ve got people pushing at ya. I thought Tamari and Kasi played well. I thought Jaiden had good minutes. I thought Destiny Salary played some good minutes. I think when you have people pushing each other, it’s going to help. It’s going to help your team. It’s challenging everybody to be their best.”

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