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Kellie Harper, players reacts to Lady Vols’ NCAA Tournament draw

Lady Vols head basketball coach Kellie Harper met with the media on Monday night to discuss Tennessee’s seeding in the NCAA Tournament and its opening round matchup against Middle Tennessee State on Sunday afternoon.

Harpers discussed his initial thoughts on the seeding, Tennessee’s new COVID protocols with the NCAA Tournament, what she’s seen from Middle Tennessee State, what preparation will look like, how it feels to be lead the Lady Vols into March Madness as head coach and much more. Here’s everything Harper and players had to say:

These quotes were transcribed by Tennessee’s Sports Information Department.

Opening Statement:

“We are excited to have a bracket. We are excited to have an opponent on our schedule now. We’ve had a week where we’ve been able to practice. We’ve been able to get some time off and focus on academics. I think there’s a lot of festivities around the selection show and the bracket reveal. We enjoyed our time tonight, getting to watch that on television. We’re looking forward to the opportunity that we have to go down and keep playing some basketball at the NCAA Tournament.”

On matching up with MTSU, led by Anastasia Hayes in the first round:

“This is probably the first year in a long time that I haven’t been able to catch many of their games. I’ve seen them play quite a bit, historically. I have a lot of respect for Coach (Rick) Insell. Actually, I played for him many during the summer many years ago. They’re well-coached. They always have terrific game plans, especially given this much time to prepare. They’ll really have a game plan that their players will buy into. They’re usually really good at what they do. They don’t overcomplicate things. They make the game very simple, and they execute very well, whether that’s on the offensive end or the defensive end. That’s what I know about his program and how he coaches. I have a lot of respect for them.”

On what preparation has looked like since the SEC Tournament and what it will look like this week, ahead of Sunday:

“We’ve tried to have a combination of practice, to stay sharp, to get better at some things, review some things and add a few wrinkles here and there. We balance that with rest time to get our bodies well. We were pretty beat up coming out of the SEC Tournament, so this has been a good time for us to try to get healthy. We’ve tried to enjoy each other. We had a practice on the outdoor court, which was fun. We used that as a really light day. We will travel on Wednesday. I know things are going to look different for us when we get down to San Antonio. So, we want to get a lot of the heavy stuff done before we leave on Wednesday, in terms of our practices. I believe we play on Sunday. We’ll need a really good practice on Friday, for sure, and Thursday if we’re able to get in the gym.”

On the potential road ahead of the Lady Vols in the tournament:

“You could pick it apart. I’ve always felt like you get to the tournament, and you’re excited about whatever seed you are and whatever seed you’ve earned, but the games are more about match-ups. The numbers, at this point, don’t matter. It is about how you match up with the particular team that you’re going to be playing. I’m sure that there are teams in our region that we match up well with, and I’m sure that there are teams that we don’t match up well with. They didn’t get my opinion when they started putting those together. I didn’t get to say who we would want to play. There are so many good teams. At this point, you have to be your best, regardless of who you are playing.”

On how it feels to be the head coach of the Lady Vols in the NCAA Tournament:

“Honestly, I hadn’t thought about it. When you put it like that, it’s a big deal. It’s pretty cool. We’re a tournament sport. You work all season and have a great season and the journey is such a big part of what we do. It brings you here. It brings you to the NCAA Tournament. That’s what this program has built its legacy on: winning. To be able to lead this program into the NCAA Tournament, it’s exciting times.”

On if the two-week break was beneficial mentally:

“Oh, I think the mental break is as much needed as the physical break. I think sometimes they need a refresher. Now, obviously, you don’t want to be rusty when game time comes, so hopefully we can ramp it back up before we hit the court on Sunday, but there is a mental fatigue that I think players go through. You know, our league was unbelievably tough and competitive all season long and through the tournament, so I think just getting a chance to breathe a little bit and even to focus on something else for a little bit – some academics – I think it’s been good for our team.”

On being only the second women’s coach to take four different schools to the NCAA Tournament:

“It means I’ve had really good players wherever I’ve been. We’ve been able to enjoy the selection show multiple times. I tell you what, there are a lot of talented players out there that never have a chance to play in the NCAA Tournament, so I never take that for granted. I’m just really grateful that I’ve been in really good positions to be able to coach teams that could compete at that level.”

On the potential for both of Tennessee’s basketball teams to be playing on Sunday:

“I’ve always thought that, in an athletic department, success breeds success, especially when you have teams of like sports. So, your basketball (teams), when they’re succeeding together, I think it gets everybody excited about the sport and about our university and our athletic department. Hopefully they’ll come ready and they’ll be tough and compete. We’re excited about them and watching them and supporting them, and hopefully we can follow suit on Sunday. You know, I think when you pull for each other and you build on each other’s success, it’s just a snowball effect and you just ride that. I hope our fans are excited.”

On coaching against her former AAU coach Rick Insell:

“Actually, it was more than one summer; I played for him a few years in AAU. He was the high school coach at Shelbyville, and I played at White County, so I also played against him growing up. And then, honestly, as a head coach when I was at Western Carolina and at Missouri State we played Middle. So, like I said earlier, I’ve been very familiar with them throughout the years, and what their program does. Talking about playing against a coach that I played for, I did have the opportunity to play against Pat Summitt a couple times. You know, those moments are neat, when you have a relationship across the floor and you know them so well. And again, there’s just so much respect there.”

Senior Guard/Forward Rennia Davis

On playing against former teammate Anastasia Hayes:

“It is what it is. She’s a good player, but at the end of the day, I don’t really care who we are playing against. We made the tournament, and I am excited about the seed that we have. I’m excited about the path, although it’s a tough path, I’m excited about our road to the championship game. I’m just excited to be in the tournament.”

On her mindset going into the tournament:

“I’m just going to do what I’ve been doing – whatever this team needs me to do that day,  whether it’s to score, defend, rebound, all of the above, or just be a great teammate from the bench. Just whatever I need to do, I’m going to continue to encourage my teammates and just speak to them positively, but also be realistic and let everybody know it’s win or go home, so we do have to get out there and handle business. Nobody is going to give us anything.”

On how unusual this season has been:

“This season, like you said, has been crazy. (There were) lots of things that we were just unsure about, but I know one thing that we were sure about was that we were going to make the NCAA Tournament this year, and I feel like we handled our business during the regular season and during the conference season so that we could put ourselves in a good position today. I’m just super proud of what we’ve been able to do so far this season. This tournament is going to be fun, for sure.”

On the height advantage against MTSU:

“I was unaware of the height advantage. We don’t really look at those things. I feel like we’ve had a height advantage throughout the season with the majority of the teams we’ve played, especially at the guard position and post position. So, it’s just going to be another game that we’ve just got to go out there and execute and just play our game.”

On the amount of talent in the bracket:

“Well like you said, there are stars everywhere. College basketball, to me, especially for women, is one of the greatest stages that we can play on. I feel like it’s the most competition as well. Every team has great players. I’m not in particular too focused on any team, any superstar. We have superstars on this team, in my opinion, so it’s going to be all about match-ups to me. We’re going to get out there and just play our game regardless of who we’re playing.

On what she hopes she as an individual and this team will show people in the postseason:

“I have a lot of love for this program. I always say even if I don’t reap all of the benefits of getting this program back on track, maybe in a few years, they could say that I’m the one that help lay the foundation. (That) I’m the one that stuck around and helped these younger players and gave them the correct mindset, just taught them how to lead. At the end of the day, that’s what it’s all about. It’s about having great leadership throughout the team. I just really love this program, and that’s the biggest thing for me, and that’s really why I stayed.”

On taking comfort in knowing that no matter what happens in the NCAA tournament she will have left Tennessee better than she found it:

“Not really comfort. I still have games left to play in my collegiate career, and I still want to go to the tournament and do something. I still want our team to get back to Tennessee basketball. Everything happens for a reason, and my timing is not always God’s timing, so I’ve just got to trust the process and know that I put in the work and laid a foundation regardless of how things go. But obviously, I do want to get out in the tournament and make some moves.”

Senior Center Kasiyahna Kushkituah

On if this NCAA tournament is more special than the others she’s been to because of the uncertainty of the year:

“This one definitely feels special because of last year and how everything kind of ended. I’m excited to be able to be together again, sit around the team, reflect on the year, and get more motivation and momentum to get into this tournament. I feel like it was something that I didn’t realize that I missed so much until today. Just being able to be around each other and see the newcomers that we have take in their first time to sit down and really watch the selection show and be a part of it. I know the freshmen were really excited. Everyone had a great time, and this one is really special because last year was taken from us, but this year we’re excited to just be able to be a part.”

On preparation now that they know their opponent and staying sharp:

“The coaches have been doing a good job preparing us. Not knowing who we’re going to be up against within the tournament, we’ve been focusing on ourselves with just Lady Vol Basketball. I feel like we can play anyone in the country when we play Lady Vol Basketball, so that’s first. We’ve been focusing on ourselves and things that we need to work on. We’ve been getting up and down. We’ve had a couple hard practices while still having fun and recovering. They did a great job with balancing those things out as well. As far as who we’re playing, I know the coaches are going to do a good job and get us ready for that game.”

On the other teams in the bracket and the potential for some big games:

“I’m really excited. That was definitely my first reaction to seeing our name up there. I’m really excited, because you know, just looking at the whole entire bracket and all the great teams that are in it. It’s great to be a part of it. I feel like it’s going to be a really great tournament this year. I’ve asked a lot of other teams, and everyone has had their ups and downs. Everyone had great games. Everyone’s been wanting this for a while now. Since the whole COVID thing happened, everyone is even more eager and focused on this year and just being grateful that we have an NCAA tournament to participate in this year. I’m excited.”

On Tennessee having been to all 39 NCAA Tournaments:

“It feels amazing to be a part of something as great as that. I just saw it as well and I was like, ‘Wow, 39 for 39 that’s crazy!’ To be the only team to do that… I’m just grateful to be a part of this program and have Lady Vols on my chest and wear it proud every day. I know the whole entire team is proud as well. To be able to continue this legacy and to build on it everyday is an amazing thing to be a part of. I’m so excited for what we can do and just keep building on that.”

On how she looks at her time at Tennessee and how she wants her class to be remembered:

“I agree with Rennia (Davis) on being able to leave here and know that we’re moving in the right direction with this team. I feel like what we’ve done this year, on and off the court, has helped this team in so many ways. I’m proud of the growth that we have made. Being seniors this year, we have truly spent time on and off the court with this team figuring out ways to become better, not only for ourselves but for this program. Just to keep it going in the right direction whether it’s hard conversations or easy conversations. I’m proud of what we’ve done and what we are going to continue to do. This program is so special, and we’re just going to keep building on that. They will remember us, what we’ve done for this team, and the memories that we’ve created throughout the years. This program has been amazing, and I will never forget them.”

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