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 are the five biggest observations from the Lady Vols’ season-opening win:
The Lady Vol basketball program had quite a bit of attrition over the offseason. Not only did they lose forwards Lou Brown and Kamera Harris to graduation, but they lost guards Zaay Green and Jazmine Massengill to transfer. Green transferred to Texas A&M, while Massengill transferred to Kentucky, respectively.
Head coach Kellie Harper hit the transfer market to account for the departures. Harper added Western Michigan transfer guard Jordan Walker and Liberty transfer forward Keyen Green. Both made their Lady Vol debut as part of the starting lineup.
Walker and Green started alongside senior forward Rennia Davis, junior guard Rae Burrell and true freshman Marta Suarez to make up the starting lineup for game No. 1 against Western Kentucky.
“Decisions about starting for us has been about the consistency in the preseason,” Harper said about her decision on the starting lineup following the game. “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.”
Rae Burrell leads the ways
Burrell led the way with 18 points and a career-high seven assists. The junior showed great improvement in the first game of her second season under Harper’s guidance. Her previous career-high assist total was four against Arkansas-Pine Bluff on Nov. 26, 2019.
“She’s (Burrell) better,” Harper said. “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.”
Burrell was 7-of-17 shooting on the afternoon and 2-of-6 from behind the 3-point line. She also grabbed four rebounds to go along with a steal. Three of her rebounds were on the offensive glass.
“Everybody knows that Rae Burrell has a high motor and she plays hard,” Harper said. “You’re always going to get that. Now, we see a Rae that’s more confident, very poised and (she) 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.”
Burrell wasn’t the only one that impressed in the opener. The two newcomers who joined her in the starting lineup impressed as well, along with the true freshman.
Walker became one of just 45 Lady Vols all-time to score 10 or more points in their debut. She finished with 13 points on 6-of-10 shooting to go along with four assists, two rebounds and a steal. Fellow transfer Green finished with four points, a rebound, a steal and an assist in 17 minutes of action.
“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,” Harper said of Walker. “I think that’s important. She’s done a good job of that.”
Prior to Walker and Green’s debut as transfers, the program had only had two transfers in its program who had started in a season-opener. Former point guard Shannon Bobbitt and current forward Jaiden McCoy are the only others to do so.
Suárez became the 23rd freshman to start in her first game as a Lady Vol. She and freshman guard Destiny Salary also became members of the 45-member group all-time to score 10 or more points in her debut. Salary finished with 11 points, six rebounds, three steals and three assists. She made four of her seven shots from the field and two of her four three-points attempts.
“I thought Destiny Salary did a good job of that when she was in there,” Harper said.
Suarez was the most impressive of the newcomers. The freshman made her first career start and poured in 11 points, grabbed six rebounds, tallied four assists, and picked up a steal. She shot 4-of-9 from the field.
“Marta is a player that gives us some steadiness,” Harper said. “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.
“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.”
Suarez produced a plus/minus of +21 — the fourth-highest on the team — in 23 minutes of action. Her four rebounds were a team-high.
“I’m not going to lie, I loved when I heard that I was in the starting five,” Suarez said. “I love the fact that the coaches trusted me to be out there since the beginning.
“What matters is that we were able to play today. You cannot take that for granted and that we all did great. You’ve got to go out there and give your 100 percent, so I’m pretty proud of myself for the game and really proud of the team.”
All three of Tennessee’s freshmen did not play in the opener. While Salary and Suarez impressed, fellow freshman Tess Darby was forced to watch from the sidelines. Darby did not dress due to a lower leg injury. The Lady Vols are hoping to have her back in a couple of weeks, Harper said following the game.
The Lady Vols will be back in action on Tuesday night at 7 p.m. ET against East Tennessee State. They’ll then head to Morgantown, West Virginia to take on the Mountaineers as part of the SEC/Big 12 challenge next Sunday.