Kellie Harper, Lady Vols survive in season debut

Tennessee's Jazmine Massengill scores against East Tennessee State's Micah Scheetz during an NCAA college basketball game Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019, Johnson City, Tenn. (David Crigger/Bristol Herald Courier via AP)

JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. - With Tuesday's 72-68 victory over East Tennessee State, Kellie Harper did something that neither Pat Summitt nor Holly Warlick accomplished: Win her first game as the Tennessee women's basketball head coach.

Summitt lost her 1974 opener against Mercer; Warlick fell at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga in 2012.

"It's not about me," Harper said when reminded of the stat, "but it is a funny one."

But it wasn't easy.

ETSU guard Erica Haynes-Overton was unstoppable, with 41 points. The Lady Vols fouled way too much, committing 29 infractions. Rotations likely will be a work in progress throughout the season, and when the Buccaneers made a late run, Tennessee put up a number of bad shots and turned the ball over in some bad moments.

photo AP photo by David Crigger / Tennessee women's basketball coach Kellie Harper reacts to a call during the Lady Vols' season opener last Tuesday at East Tennessee State in Johnson City.

But the Lady Vols won.

There will be time to talk about lack of execution in key moments. Plenty of video to analyze.

For a team that returns only five who played last season and had five players make their Tennessee debuts, every contribution was needed from each of the 10 who stepped on the Freedom Hall court in front of a sellout crowd of 5,881.

Zaay Green had 17 points, including a pair of crucial free throws down the stretch. Rennia Davis had a double-double with 13 points and 10 rebounds. So did Tamari Key, with 11 points, 12 rebounds, five blocks and three assists in her first college game. Sixth-year senior Lou Brown had 11 first-half points.

Jordan Horston had only four points but a team-high six assists.

"We'll never take a win for granted," Harper said. "We're excited to go home with a win. They're a good ball team; they're tough and scrappy. I'm proud of the players for finding a way to hang onto that one; it's a great opportunity for us to learn without having to take a loss.

photo Tennessee's Lou Brown yells to her teammates after hitting a 3-pointer against East Tennessee State during an NCAA college basketball game Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019, Johnson City, Tenn. (David Crigger/Bristol Herald Courier via AP)

"We were very fortunate: (ETSU) did an excellent job of playing for 40 minutes."

And Tennessee needed to play for all 40, especially after watching a 13-point lead dwindle to two with a 16-5 ETSU run in the fourth quarter. The Lady Vols continued to foul and the Bucs continued to chip into the lead - even as they struggled at the free-throw line, where they made only 17 of 33 attempts.

The lead went from 10, to eight, to six, to four. Tennessee kept fouling, but ETSU kept missing free throws. First it was a miss by E'Lease Stafford that would have cut the lead to 68-66; then it was a miss by Haynes-Overton that would have trimmed the deficit to one.

Green was fouled and made a pair at the free-throw line, but Haynes-Overton responded with a jump shot. Davis was fouled and split a pair, but Rae Burrell grabbed the miss of the second free throw and tucked the game away with a pair of foul shots.

The Lady Vols will be home to face Central Arkansas on Thursday.

And Harper gets to avoid continuing a pattern.

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