Lady Vols win thriller as Rickea Jackson, Sara Puckett shine at Missouri

AP file photo by Phelan M. Ebenhack / Tennessee sophomore guard Sara Puckett (1) scored 17 points and hit a tying 3 in the final minute of the Lady Vols' 68-65 win Sunday at Missouri.

Tennessee seniors Jordan Horston and Rickea Jackson have been quite the productive pair for the Lady Volunteers this season.

In the absence of Horston, though, Jackson and sophomore Sara Puckett proved to be a winning combination Sunday afternoon in Columbia, Missouri.

Puckett banked in a tying 3-pointer on a Jackson assist with 40 seconds to play, and Jackson's three-point play with less than two seconds on the game clock ultimately secured a 68-65 victory in a back-and-forth battle as the Lady Vols won for the ninth straight game.

And this time, Tennessee came out on top without Horston, who did not make the trip due to illness. Horston's 15.2 points per game this season are second on the team to Jackson's 18.0, and Horston is the leader for the Lady Vols in rebounds (6.9 per game), assists (3.6) and steals (1.5), while her 0.7 average in blocks trail only Tamari Key (2.0), who hasn't played since early December and is out for the season.

Not having Horston left Tennessee's Kellie Harper and her staff needing a game plan that made up for the loss of a lot of stats and the guard's veteran leadership, but when it was over, the fourth-year Lady Vols coach was mainly focused on one number: the final score and the fact that her team was on the winning side of it.

"Sometimes after a game, you walk in and the stats, at this point, don't matter," Harper said during Tennessee's news conference. "I'm just unbelievably proud of our team for finding a way to come out of here with a few more points."

Tennessee improved to 16-6 overall and is 8-0 in the Southeastern Conference for its best start to league play since 2015, when the Lady Vols opened 13-0. They opened SEC play 7-0 a year ago.

Puckett led Tennessee with 17 points on 7-for-9 shooting, making all three of her tries from 3-point range, and her five rebounds were also a team high. Jackson scored 15 points on 6-for-11 shooting in her first start since a home win against Eastern Kentucky on Nov. 27.

The Mississippi State transfer missed back-to-back contests against Virginia Tech and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga after that, and when she returned it was as a super substitute. In the 11 games since she returned heading into Sunday, she had played at least 25 minutes in all but three and scored at least 14 points in all but one.

She played 27-plus minutes at Missouri (14-6, 3-4), scoring the first five points of the game and the last three, getting fouled on her final basket and sinking a free throw for the final margin.

"Mizzou, credit to their defense, they're a very tough team, very gritty team, you know, do the little things," Jackson said. "I felt like they guarded me really tough, they pushed me, they didn't let me get to my spots and things like that."

Tennessee seemed ready to cruise early, building an 11-point lead in the first quarter and heading into the second up 23-14, but the Tigers outscored their visitors by three points in that period and the Lady Vols led 33-27 at halftime after neither team scored over the final 1:49.

Missouri rallied in the third quarter, building its biggest lead of the game with a little more than three minutes left in the period, but it was far from over in a game that would wind up with eight lead changes and five ties. Missouri's Hayley Frank made a 3 for a 65-60 lead at the 1:25 mark of the fourth, but Jordan Walker's steal and layup with 55 seconds to play started Tennessee's 8-0 closing run that was finished by Puckett and Jackson.

"We were just going to do anything we could. We weren't going to let our team down," Puckett said. "We weren't going to lose."

Frank scored a game-high 26 points with a trio of 3s, Jayla Kelly added 14 points and nine rebounds, and the Tigers' determined effort prove to be quite the tuneup for Tennessee heading into back-to-back games against No. 5 Connecticut and at No. 3 LSU.

The nonconference matchup with the Huskies at 8 p.m. Thursday in Knoxville will be televised by ESPN. It will be the latest spotlight on a rivalry that features the two teams at the top of the list for NCAA titles, with Tennessee's eight second to the Huskies' 11 — but five more than any other program.

Whether the Lady Vols will have Horston back is unknown, but Harper saw Sunday what her team could do in a high-pressure situation.

"I think the way we won today is going to give us a lot of confidence," Harper said. "Our players, 100%, respect this basketball team. Mizzou is really good, and they're going to have a lot of wins this year, and for us to come up here and figure out a way — pretty, ugly — that's a big deal."

Compiled by Marty Kirkland. Contact him at mkirkland@timesfreepress.com.