New-look Lady Vols attempt to solve chemistry issues
By STEVE MEGARGEE
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) Tennessee is counting on a European preseason tour to help a new coaching staff and a revamped roster get to know one another as the Lady Vols attempt to avoid the chemistry problems that hindered the program in recent years.
The Lady Vols leave Monday for a tour that will include exhibition games at the Netherlands, Belgium and France as they adjust to new coach Kellie Harper, a point guard on three straight Tennessee national championship teams from 1996-98.
Tennessee hired the former Missouri State coach to replace Holly Warlick after a season in which Tennessee barely reached the NCAA Tournament and lost to UCLA in the first round.
"I'm balancing the patience of a teacher and the urgency of a coach that wants to win tomorrow," Harper said. "That's one of my biggest challenges, to be quite honest with you, giving that message to our players."
Junior guard/forward Rennia Davis said Harper hasn't talked much about her own playing career at Tennessee, when she was known as Kellie Jolly. Harper instead has focused on what it takes to become a better teammate.
Davis said that's something the Lady Vols needed. Tennessee hasn't advanced beyond the second round of the NCAA Tournament since 2016.
"I think there were maybe times prior to this year that the team chemistry just wasn't all the way there, and maybe certain games that we weren't supposed to lose we lost," Davis said. "I think this year, as long as everybody's on the same page, then we'll be really good."
Harper declined comment on any chemistry issues that might have preceded her arrival but noted how this exhibition tour should help this year's group. She has spent much of the offseason trying to make sure players utilize the body language and communication skills that enable them to become ideal teammates.
"We're going over there to Europe to have a great opportunity for team chemistry, a great opportunity to get to know the staff better for these young ladies and also to get fired up for the future and what it's going to look like," Harper said.
Davis, who averaged 14.9 points last season to tie for the team lead, is the only returning player who started that UCLA game.
Meme Jackson and Cheridene Green completed their senior seasons last year, Mimi Collins transferred to Maryland and Evina Westbrook transferred to Connecticut. The Lady Vols do return sophomore Zaay Green, who made 24 starts and ranked fourth on the team in scoring last season.
Half of the 12 players on Tennessee's roster have never played a single minute for the Lady Vols. Newcomers include freshmen Jordan Horston, Jessie Rennie, Tamari Key and Emily Saunders and Northwest Florida State College transfer Jaiden McCoy. Washington State graduate transfer Lou Brown was part of Tennessee's team last season but didn't play due to a torn anterior cruciate ligament.
That's required the Lady Vols to get back to basics this offseason as Harper capitalizes on the 10 extra practices that come with this tour. Davis noted "there's a lot of teaching going on as well, which I think this team really needs a lot of."
"She forces us to be great," Davis said of Harper. "We have to pretty much get stuff right before we move forward, so I think that's going to help us in the long run."
That teaching will continue during the Lady Vols' overseas tour and as they return home to prepare for the Nov. 5 season opener at East Tennessee State.
"I'm hopeful that this will be a really positive trip for us in the chemistry department because I think that's a big part of winning and losing," Harper said. "I really do. I think you've got to have great chemistry to be able to be a great team."
Updated July 31, 2019