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The Official Website of the Southeastern Conference

Kellie Harper Bringing the Magic Back to Rocky Top

37 days ago
Kevin Scarbinsky
Photo: SEC Staff

That sound you hear on the women's basketball landscape is coming from Rocky Top. It's a giant of the sport stirring to life. The Tennessee Lady Vols haven't won a national championship since 2008, but all signs point to a proud program heading in that once-familiar direction.

It showed in the standings in each of the first two years of the Kellie Harper era. The former Tennessee point guard has led the Lady Vols to two straight third-place SEC finishes, their best since 2015. Last season, Harper became the second coach in women's basketball history to lead a fourth different program to the NCAA Tournament as the Lady Vols returned to March Madness.

The basketball world noticed. A select panel of SEC and national media members has picked UT to finish second in the conference, the most ambitious prediction in six years. The first Associated Press poll has them slotted at No. 15, their first preseason ranking under Harper.

"I feel like we've made a lot of progress," Harper said during a preseason press conference. "We're going out to practice now, and our players can plan practice. They can tell you what the drills are about. They understand who I am better. The familiarity is there."

Although her first two years back at her alma mater "have flown by," Harper said, she has had plenty of time to establish the internal expectations for her players and recruits alike.

"You come here, you've got to want to win a national championship," she said. "That's the goal. That's the tradition. That's the expectation."

To keep moving in that direction this season, Tennessee will have to figure out a way to win without All-SEC first-teamer and honorable mention All-American Rennia Davis, who was the No. 9 overall pick in the WNBA Draft.

"We don't have that luxury of letting Rennia bail us out," Harper said. "So now it takes everybody. I think we're going to look different, and that's OK."

It'll take a returning cast led by last season's second-leading scorer, senior Rae Burrell, and a recruiting class ranked No. 9 by ProspectsNation.com. Harper said she likes what she's seen so far from the four freshmen, especially versatile 6-foot-2 post Sarah Puckett from Muscle Shoals, Ala., whose "skill set has really stood out in this preseason."

"It's been fun," Harper said. "We've had a lot of energy. I think that happens when you have several new players. We have five new faces on the team. It's a lot of newness. They have been so coachable and given us great effort and a lot of excitement."

The fifth newcomer should feel right at home with championship expectations. Graduate transfer Alexus Dye from Troy (Ala.) University was the Sun Belt Conference player of the year last season. She led the Trojans in scoring (16.6 ppg) and rebounding (12.6 rpg), and she led the nation in double-doubles (23) and total rebounds (352).

In the NCAA Tournament against SEC champion Texas A&M, Dye put up 26 points and 11 rebounds in a near-upset of the Aggies.

"She's coming in with about seven championship rings," Harper said, which includes four Alabama high school state titles, one juco national title and two Sun Belt titles. "She's a winner, and she's going to make an immediate impact on our program."

Much the way her coach has done back on Rocky Top.