KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – The countdown to tip-off is underway. The Tennessee Lady Vols excitedly hit the court at Pratt Pavilion on Wednesday evening, participating in the first official practice of the 2020-21 season.
Second-year head coach Kellie Harper and her staff put the Lady Vols through a two-and-a-half-hour workout, launching NCAA-sanctioned preparations for the upcoming campaign. Up to this point, the squad had been able to conduct preseason workouts of a more limited nature.
“We’ve had them out there (on the floor) in workouts for a while, but to me, the first official practice just feels different,” Harper said. “I know my preparation is different going into the ‘real’ practices, so it was fun.
“I thought the players were pretty locked in and practiced hard. They were trying to sneak reps in. When you have players who are trying to figure out how to get on the court for more reps, I think that’s a good thing. They seemed to really enjoy themselves today.”
UT tied for third in the SEC last season, fashioning a 21-10 overall record and 10-6 mark in conference play. That league placement was the Big Orange’s highest since winning the regular-season championship in 2014.
The Lady Vols return five of their top six scorers and rebounders from 2019-20, including the top four in each category. Harper, in fact, welcomes back 80.8 percent of her scoring, 76.4 percent of rebounding, 78.6 percent of blocks, 71.0 percent of steals and 64.8 percent of assists from last year’s squad.
Returning starters from last season’s end include 6-foot-2 senior guard/forward Rennia Davis, 6-1 junior guard/forward Rae Burrell and 6-5 sophomore center Tamari Key. Jordan Horston, a 6-2 sophomore point guard who started 22 contests as a rookie, certainly has the experience to be considered a fourth returning starter for the Big Orange. Additionally, UT also brings back four other letterwinners.
Tennessee welcomes five new players, including a graduate transfer point guard, graduate transfer forward/center, two freshman guard/forwards and a freshman guard. Those newcomers boost the roster to 13 active players, the most since 13 roster members took the court in 2010-11.
Davis was a first-team All-SEC choice a year ago and an All-America honorable mention recipient from AP, the USBWA and WBCA. She averaged 18.0 points, 8.2 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game in 2019-20 while shooting 46.9 percent from the field and 80.2 percent from the free throw line. Davis’ scoring average was the best by a Lady Vol since Candace Parker averaged 21.3 ppg. in 2008, and she enters her final collegiate season tied with Bashaara Graves for 10th in UT history with 29 double-doubles.
Davis increased her production to 19.9 ppg. and 8.0 rpg. vs. SEC foes while hitting 49.6% from the field and 82.8% at the charity stripe in 16 regular-season contests. She is the second-leading returning scorer in the conference in SEC action as well as in all games.
Burrell (10.5 ppg., 5.5 rpg., 21 3FGs) was the team’s top reserve for the first 22 games before starting the final nine contests of the season. She averaged 12.3 ppg. and 5.7 rpg. during that end-of-year stint in the first five.
Horston (10.1 ppg., 5.5 rpg., 4.6 apg., SEC All-Freshman) ranked first on the team last year in assists (143) and steals (39), second in blocks (25) and three-pointers made (27), and third in points scored (313) and rebounds (170). Her 143 assists and 4.6 assist average both ranked second all-time among freshmen at Tennessee.
Key (7.3 ppg., 4.7 rpg., 2.8 bpg., 56% FG) finished No. 1 in the SEC in blocked shots (86) and blocks per game (2.8) and ranked 11th and 13th in the NCAA in those categories, respectively. She tied Candace Parker for the fifth-most blocks in a season in UT history and had the second-most ever by a Lady Vol freshman behind Teresa Geter.
Also back are 6-4 senior center Kasiyahna Kushkituah (5.4 ppg., 4.4 rpg., 49% FG, 31 games played), who has 12 career starts, 5-8 sophomore guard Jessie Rennie (2.7 ppg., 25 3FGs, 46% 3FG, 30 games played), 6-3 redshirt senior forward Jaiden McCoy (2.7 ppg., 1.8 rpg., 26 games played) and 6-5 sophomore center Emily Saunders (3.7 ppg., 2.2 rpg., 1.0 bpg., 71% FG, 10 games played).
Jordan Walker, an All-MAC graduate transfer point guard from Western Michigan, brings quickness and depth to the backcourt. The 5-8 redshirt junior averaged 16.0 ppg., 6.2 rpg., 2.5 apg. and 2.1 spg. while knocking down 66 three-pointers in 2019-20.
Keyen Green, a first-team All-ASUN graduate transfer forward/center from Liberty, should bolster UT’s inside presence. She averaged 13.9 ppg. and 7.5 rpg. last season and shot 59 percent from the field. She was the Big South Player of the Year in 2017-18 and is a three-time all-league performer.
UT’s three-member rookie class includes 6-0 guard Destiny Salary (four-star prospect, #57 by espnW HoopGurlz), 6-1 guard/forward Tess Darby (#86 by Blue Star Media, four-star prospect by ProspectsNation.com, three-star prospect by espnW HoopGurlz) and 6-2 guard/forward Marta Suárez (a four-star prospect by Blue Star Europe).
Salary, Darby and Suárez should provide the Lady Vols options for length and versatile depth at the guard and wing positions.
As sports governing bodies continue to work through the process of finalizing games in adjustment to the on-going COVID-19 global health crisis, UT has not yet released its full schedule. The NCAA has said, however, that competition may begin as soon as November 25. The SEC announced that league play is slated to commence on Dec. 31.