KNOXVILLE — Tennessee star Jordan Horston has not decided yet whether she'll put her name into WNBA draft consideration after this NCAA tournament or return for another year on Rocky Top.
A season-ending injury sidelined her for the 2022 NCAA tourney, when the Lady Volunteers made the 35th Sweet 16 run in program history but their first since 2016. So the 6-foot-2 guard from Columbus, Ohio, is soaking up this opportunity, which starts Saturday when fourth-seeded Tennessee (23-11) hosts No. 13 seed Saint Louis (17-17) in the first round.
ABC will televise the 1 p.m. game.
"It feels really good," Horston said Friday. "It was really hard for me being injured and just having to watch the game instead of playing. I am really excited to be able to play the big game of basketball again. So I'm taking advantage of every opportunity that I am given."
Like Horston, Lady Vols forward Rickea Jackson's first college season was 2019-20, when the coronavirus pandemic led to the cancellation of March Madness and the NCAA granted athletes an extra season of eligibility.
Jackson plans to take advantage of the chance for a fifth year of college basketball, a decision she announced Monday, and she has been lobbying Horston to join her. For now, though, the Lady Vols' leading scorer this season — Jackson has averaged 19.6 points per game — can't wait for her own NCAA tourney debut after missing out at Mississippi State the past three seasons.
"I'm very excited for this," Jackson said, "and how far this team can go, and the potential that we have to continue to keep playing great and build our chemistry."
The 24th-ranked Lady Vols, who have made every NCAA tourney starting with the inaugural edition in 1982, are a site host for the second consecutive year. They played the nation's toughest schedule this season and finished third in the Southeastern Conference during the regular season and reached the league tournament title game before losing to undefeated South Carolina, which tipped off its bid to repeat as NCAA champion with a 72-40 first-round win against Norfolk State on Friday.
Also in Knoxville this weekend is No. 17 Iowa State (22-9), the fifth seed in the Seattle 3 region, which is coached by Bill Fennelly. The Cyclones face 12th-seeded Toledo (28-4) — the program Fennelly coached from 1988 to 1995 before taking over at Iowa State — at 3:30 p.m. Saturday on ESPN for a spot in the second round.
That Monday night matchup will also be played in Knoxville.
Tennessee's Kellie Harper, in her fourth season as head coach at her alma mater, has a much healthier team than a year ago, even with 6-foot-6 center Tamari Key sidelined by blood clots since early in the season.
Jackson is a prolific scorer and steady rebounder at 6.2 per game, and Horston's versatility is obvious with averages of 15.5 points, 7.1 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 1.5 steals and 1.2 blocks.
Harper said Horston also makes so many plays that don't show up on the stat sheet.
"I blocked it from my memory that she didn't play last year," Harper said. "Obviously, having her out there, I mean, she's just a talented player. You want her on the court with you."
The Lady Vols will try to move to 25-0 at home in NCAA first-round games.
Saint Louis, the Atlantic 10 tournament champion, will try to win its March Madness debut.
The Billikens (17-17) having been soaking in the sport's history during their time in Knoxville, posing for photos with the statue of late Lady Vols coach Pat Summitt and touring the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame on Friday, along with Toledo.
Saint Louis coach Rebecca Tillett led Longwood to the tournament a year ago as the Big South tournament champ. She brought guard Kyla McMakin with her as a transfer, so they're trying to share their experience. The Billikens have won six straight games and 11 of their past 12.
"This is a historical place," McMakin said of Thompson-Boling Arena, where the Lady Vols display their eight NCAA title banners, second only to Connecticut's 11. "Why not come out and make history?"
Iowa State had its own argument to host in Ames as the Big 12 tourney champ. The Cyclones have won four straight games, including earning their first league tourney title since 2001 by knocking off by double digits a trio of teams that wound up in the NCAA's 68-team bracket.
Fennelly, who had been texting with Toledo coach Tricia Cullop, said he didn't want to play his old friends and the program he took to three NCAA tournaments. The Rockets are on a 16-game winning streak as they return to the NCAA field for the first time since 2017, seeking their first tourney win since 1996.
"Of all the teams that could pop up, that's the one that did ..." Fennelly said. "I'm sure the committee has a slight sense of humor. But no, I wasn't excited about it."