Lady Vols basketball proved once and for all that it is not the team that started the season.
Tennessee notched a gritty 68-65 comeback win at Missouri on Sunday, even though it trailed by five points with a minute left. It started with a Steal and score by Jordan Walker right under Tennessee’s basket. Fifteen seconds later, Sara Puckett banked in the game-tying 3-pointer.
Then Rickea Jackson took over.
Missouri (14-6, 3-4 SEC) held Jackson scoreless for 9:59 of the fourth quarter. But that wasn’t enough to win, because Tennessee (16-6, 8-0) got Jackson a one-on-one opportunity on its last possession with the game tied. She got the ball in the post, spun and hit her hook shot while drawing the foul. Jackson’s free throw gave the Lady Vols a three-point lead with 1.1 seconds on the clock and brought her total to 15 points.
“We were able to maneuver the ball around just enough to give her that opportunity to go one-on-one,” Tennessee Coach Kellie Harper said. “And when you have Rickea Jackson, one-on-one is a good thing.”
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But Puckett got Tennessee to that point, scoring eight of her team-high 17 points in the fourth quarter. Harper said they didn’t flinch when Puckett went 0-for-6 from deep in Thursday’s win – they have all the confidence in her scoring ability. Puckett was a perfect 3-for-3 behind the arc Sunday.
“We want her to keep shooting,” Harper said, “we know she can score.”
The Lady Vols narrowly escaped taking their first conference loss at Missouri, and they’re off to their best start in SEC play since the 2014-15 season.
And they did it without senior starter Jordan Horston, who did not travel with the team due to illness according to Harper.
But Sunday wasn’t like the other game this season the Lady Vols had to play without Horston. Tennessee lost 79-67 at home to No. 6 Indiana is Nov. 14 when Horston was sidelined with a knee injury.
After the loss, Harper didn’t beat around the bush: the Lady Vols lacked toughness. They weren’t disciplined enough on the boards, and they didn’t have enough fight when they got knocked down.
“I still think that the best thing for this team is to play teams that are gonna punch them in the mouth,” Harper said on Nov. 11. “I would rather win, but I don’t want a false idea of who we are. I know exactly who we are, and I know exactly where we need to go. And we’ll get there.”
Tennessee’s struggles didn’t end after Indiana, but it has proven Harper’s belief correct. The tough schedule and the adversity the Lady Vols faced molded them into a team that could come back from a five-point deficit in the final minute of the game. They were mentally tough, and they stayed strong on defense to end the game on an 8-0 run.
Jackson stole the ball before Puckett hit the game-tying 3-pointer. Puckett kept Haley Troup from getting to the basket on the next possession and Jackson got the rebound, Positioning Tennessee to hit a game-winning shot. In the final huddles, Harper said every player was locked in and some were even saying “really high IQ things.”
Puckett said both her and Jackson knew they weren’t going to lose.
“We weren’t going to let that happen, either of us,” Puckett said. “Because the ball was in her hands, and then it was in my hands. We were just going to do anything we could, and we weren’t going to let our team down, and we weren’t going to lose.”
Sunday was a game that was decided by who was going to make one more play – and Tennessee wasn’t going to let Missouri be that team.
“The way we won today is going to give us a lot of confidence,” Harper said. “For us to come here, and figure out a way – pretty, ugly, whatever – that’s a big deal.”