The Lady Vols' long, slow climb back to greatness and the struggle to uphold a legacy

The best of the Lady Vols' 2022-23 season (1:57)

Check out some of the best highlights from the Lady Volunteers' basketball season so far. (1:57)

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Nearly three dozen banners hang from the rafters at Thompson-Boling Arena, the majority dedicated to the Tennessee women's basketball program -- a constant reminder of the history and expectations that come with the Lady Vols.

One banner stands out. It commemorates Tennessee's AIAW and NCAA tournament Final Four berths -- 22 in all spanning three decades, the first in 1977 when Pat Summitt was still Pat Head, with no more than a four-year gap between appearances. The years are arranged vertically in groups of eight, but the entire space allotted for a fourth column remains bare.

Fifteen years have passed since the banner needed to be updated. The last time the Lady Vols advanced to the Final Four was in 2008, when -- guided by Summitt and future WNBA MVP Candace Parker -- they won their eighth national title.

Hanging opposite the visiting team's bench, the banner might have once intimidated opponents, a symbol of decades of dominance. Nowadays it's a reminder of a legacy that was hoped, even expected, to be expanded.

"[At] Tennessee, you're measuring yourself against greatness every single day," said South Carolina coach Dawn Staley, who has won two of the past five NCAA championships. "And if you don't know how that was built, you can piss some people off because you know they're comparing, you know they're measuring. And they want to relive that."

This was supposed to be the season Tennessee measured up. The Lady Vols were coming off a Sweet 16 appearance, welcoming a stacked transfer class and returning two players who figure to be first-round WNBA draft picks in April. Tennessee's No. 5 spot in the first Associated Press poll represented its highest preseason ranking since 2015. "The Final Four should be the expectation for this team," the Knoxville News Sentinel predicted, "a national championship is possible."

But Tennessee struggled against one of the country's most difficult nonconference schedules, tumbling out of the rankings before December arrived. The Lady Vols' early 2-4 record marked the program's worst six-game start since 1981-82. Tennessee lost to every ranked team on the slate, and has been unranked for nine consecutive weeks, the longest in-season stretch in coach Kellie Harper's tenure.

And though enthusiasm outside the program has cooled, hope isn't lost in Knoxville among the players and coaching staff. It can't be. There's a Tennessee standard to uphold, they say, and no 15-year dry spell will alter the program's sights internally.

"This program needs to be in the Final Four and compete for national championships," Harper said from her office in Knoxville in early January. "That's where we need to be. ... We've still got time to be that team."

"Kellie needs the space, the players need the space, the program needs the space to grow at their own pace, to write their own story." UConn coach Geno Auriemma on Tennessee and Kellie Harper

The Lady Vols are getting past the early growing pains incorporating their newcomers. Rickea Jackson, one of the nation's top transfers, is settling in after Harper suspended her for two games in early December. And the team is learning to play without longtime starter Tamari Key, a senior center who was lost for the season right around the same time with blood clots in her lungs.

Tennessee has won 14 of its past 16 games, starting 8-0 in SEC play. And the Lady Vols' biggest chance to again prove themselves against top competition arrives this week with two top-5 opponents. What was once the greatest rivalry in women's basketball gets its next chapter Thursday (8 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN App) when No. 5 UConn visits (though it's the first time in the series' 26-game history that Tennessee isn't ranked). The Lady Vols then travel to face undefeated and fourth-ranked LSU on Monday (7 p.m. ET, ESPN2/ESPN App).

The results could mark a meaningful step toward revealing whether the Lady Vols have truly recovered from their early slippage and can be the team Harper envisions, or whether a return to national prominence continues to elude them.

Or maybe, the program's biggest rival argues, framing it that way is where we are getting it all wrong.

"Sometimes there's a pressure of having to live up to that legacy, of carrying on that legacy in [Summitt's] name, and keeping the flame burning," UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. "Kellie needs the space, the players need the space, the program needs the space to grow at their own pace, to write their own story."

KELLIE HARPER WANTED Tennessee to be challenged this season. The coach -- who won three national titles and advanced to an Elite Eight during her playing days -- believed her team needed to be "punched," "humbled" and "really rocked."

"Sitting here now," she said in January with an 8-6 nonconference record, "maybe not as many times as we did."

Harper knew coaching 10 returners and six newcomers -- the largest roster in Tennessee history -- would be challenging. There were combinations to experiment with, playing time to determine and roles for players to understand and buy into. Off-court chemistry was never the issue, players and the staff insist; rather, jelling and finding fluidity on the floor was slower to develop, along with the realization that "we all can shine together," assistant coach Samantha Williams said.

"The offensive chemistry and attention to detail defensively, those are the areas that we've grown most in," Harper said. "I think those things just took a little bit longer than we expected."

The Lady Vols committed 29 turnovers when dropping their season opener to Ohio State, which went on to remain undefeated until Monday. In a 12-point loss to Indiana, Tennessee was minus-10 in paint scoring and minus-2 on the boards while playing without injured Jordan Horston, an AP honorable mention All-American last season. Amid the Lady Vols' 1-2 run at the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament, UCLA hit 16 3-pointers and outrebounded them by 11 en route to winning by 17; down one against Gonzaga with less than 15 seconds to play, Tennessee missed its three final shots, all in the paint.

The Lady Vols weren't dominant on the boards or formidable defensively, two things synonymous with Summitt's brand of basketball. The team was often disjointed on the offensive end and didn't value possessions. It needed stronger vocal leadership, Harper said in late November, and to play with more grit, Williams said.

"At a place like Tennessee, it's more magnified," Williams said of the early struggles. "I think it just takes time to figure it out."

Harper ramped up the toughness in practice after the Bahamas trip, aiming to, in junior Tess Darby's words, "get under their skin." She challenged the players physically and mentally, constantly putting them in what Horston described as "tough, uncomfortable situations where we'd have to figure things out."

The Lady Vols were trending in the right direction, but faced a few more bumps. Harper suspended Jackson for the Dec. 4 Virginia Tech and Dec. 6 Chattanooga games, saying they needed to make sure she was "where we wanted her to be, in practices and in the locker room." In January, the program announced reserve Marta Suarez would step away for the rest of the season because of personal reasons.

Most jarringly, though, was when Tennessee's athletic trainer took Harper aside three minutes before tip of the Chattanooga game to deliver devastating news: Doctors had discovered blood clots in Key's lungs. Her season-ending diagnosis left the Lady Vols without a consistent rebounder and defensive stalwart, someone who would have been tasked with contending in the paint with South Carolina's Aliyah Boston and Stanford's Cameron Brink.

Not only did the Lady Vols have to learn how to win big games, they'd have to do so without a critical component to their success under Harper.

"We had to have a gut-check on some things," Williams said. "We had to look ourselves in the mirror and be like, 'Who do we want to be? Do we want to be soft or do we want to be tough?'"

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THE DAY BEFORE their Jan. 5 game against Mississippi State, the Lady Vols are working on their zone offense in an empty Thompson-Boling Arena. Horston hoists a 3 from the top of the arc. Harper doesn't hate the decision, but she doesn't love it either. There are still 14 seconds on the shot clock, an "eternity," she says, to keep working the ball around and get a better option.

"You looked panicked because we didn't have anything easy," Harper tells her team. "We've got plenty of time."

Even amid their rough spell, the players felt they, too, had plenty of time: for their chemistry to mesh, for them to become the team they had envisioned, for the ship to be righted. They never felt like the bottom was falling out.

"The only people who were worried were people who didn't know [what was going on behind the scenes]," Horston said.

Harper's message was consistent during that stretch: They were OK and were going to be OK. But at the same time, the players needed to understand it wasn't some platitude of wishful thinking.

"They need to know why and see the path of how to get there ... what steps to take to be that, and when they can take those steps and they can see some success, it causes them to believe even stronger," Harper said.

"Coach Kellie tells us, 'If you're not coming here to compete for national championships, then you're at the wrong place.'" Junior Tess Harby on coach Kellie Harper and Tennessee's mentality

They need to protect the ball and take the right shots, to embrace how some games you just need to win ugly and grind it out, even if their offensive identity this season is more pretty and flashy.

Progress was apparent in their two most recent losses, to then-No. 9 Virginia Tech on Dec. 4 and then-No. 2 Stanford on Dec. 18, decided by a combined 10 points. Jackson, Jillian Hollingshead and Jasmine Franklin all were sidelined for the former. In the latter, the Lady Vols were ahead by five going into the fourth, but didn't play at a high level for a full 40 minutes, practically a prerequisite for taking down the Cardinal at Maples Pavilion.

The challenges of their nonconference schedule are paying off now, players say, pointing to Tennessee's unbeaten start to SEC play, where they've bested all but one opponent by double figures.

"To be able to go through that, not win and then come back and have the success that they're having in the SEC early on means that they've learned from it," said Staley, whose Gamecocks are similarly undefeated in conference play and face the Lady Vols on Feb. 23.

Jackson -- No. 4 in ESPN's preseason transfer rankings but down to 12 in the late-December update -- has come off the bench each game since her return from suspension, which hasn't dulled her impact: She's averaging a team-best 20.9 points in 26.4 minutes per game against conference competition.

"I think it just took time to get on the same page on the court," Williams said of how Jackson and the team had to mesh together. Part of her learning curve, Jackson added, has entailed learning to balance her scoring with her teammates, as well as with the other things the coaching staff wants from her: defense, rebounding, being efficient.

Harper says Jackson responded maturely to her suspension and is in a good space now, staying coachable and showing a commitment to her team.

The conference's leading scorer when she entered the transfer portal last January during her third season at Mississippi State, Jackson said she's the sort of person who always tends to have her guard up. But it was easier to let it down and allow herself to be challenged by a group that's truly invested in her on and off the court.

"I know they want me to be the best Rickea that I can be," Jackson said.

Williams describes Jackson with a saying Harper has been using with the entire team, one the players found has resonated: You can be both a work in progress and masterpiece at the same time.

"We just had a bad start," Horston said. "But that's not how the story is going to end."

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ABBY CONKLIN HAS SEEN something like this before. During her senior year at Tennessee (1996-97), the Lady Vols had lost 10 games heading into the NCAA tournament, but they never splintered. They learned to better complement superstar Chamique Holdsclaw, and found a way to play their best basketball when it mattered, eventually winning the second title of what would become the first three-peat in NCAA women's basketball history.

Conklin shared her team's story with Horston after Tennessee's loss to Stanford in Palo Alto, encouraging her to keep her head high and not lose sight of her goals for March, no matter how disappointing the beginning of the season had been.

The current Lady Vols might not have a transcendent talent like Holdsclaw, but no matter their record or seed, few teams would look forward to facing Horston, Jackson and Tennessee in the NCAA tournament. ESPN's Charlie Creme has the Lady Vols as a No. 7 in his latest Bracketology.

"We just had a bad start. But that's not how the story is going to end." Senior Jordan Horston, whose Lady Vols 2-4 start was the worst in program history

One of the modern caretakers of the game, Staley knows more than most what Tennessee meant at its height. As a player at Virginia, Summitt's Lady Vols eliminated the Cavaliers in the Sweet 16 her freshman year before Staley and UVA defeated them in overtime the following season for a spot in the Final Four.

She understands the expectations that permeate Thompson-Boling and Knoxville, no matter how long it's been since the Final Four banner has been touched.

"It's really hard," Staley said. "It would be professional suicide for any coach to go in, coming behind Pat Summitt, and think you can even touch on the impact that she had on the game. And that's the overall game.

"You've got to embrace it, and you've got to use it to elevate [the program]. There's no way around it."

But at some point, Auriemma said Wednesday, "you've got to be fair to the kids that are playing there now, and the coaches that are coaching there now, and understand that, at some point, this has got to be about them more than anything else.

"Kellie handles it amazingly well. It's not the easiest thing in the world to do that."

Added Harper: "There are no external people wanting it more than the internal people."

So then what would a successful season look like for a team once thought capable of making a Final Four but having yet to play to that ceiling? For a program hungry to return to its former glory, but perhaps still a ways away?

"Winning is the standard here," Darby said. "Coach Kellie tells us, 'If you're not coming here to compete for national championships, then you're at the wrong place.'"

The answer is more nuanced to Harper. She lets out a deep sigh, collects her thoughts for 10 seconds, at one point whispering "man."

"I don't know," Harper said. "I mean, I know. I know what success is usually defined by here at Tennessee and that's championships in some form or fashion. I think another thing is advancing further in the tournament could also be defined as a success."

She then offers an alternate perspective, one that aren't result-oriented.

"I think that's where these young women are also going to be able to someday look back on their career and define success and they're going to be able to say 'we did this' and that might not be a record. That might be a strong, intangible pull that's going to be with them for life."


"We really pulled together. We really bought in. We are passionate about the Lady Vol program," Harper said. "I think there are a lot of things there that they're going to be able to look back on and feel really proud about."