Harper has brought stability to Lady Vols, but the challenges remain

Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / University of Tennessee women's basketball coach Kellie Harper, right, autographs a basketball for Knoxville resident Trixie Moses during the Big Orange Caravan event at the Chattanooga Convention Center on Monday.

Tennessee didn't win the national championship in women's basketball this past season, but the Lady Vols were the last to defeat the team that ultimately earned the crown.

There will no banner-raising ceremony inside Thompson-Boling Arena to commemorate the 69-67 topping of LSU in the Southeastern Conference tournament semifinals, but the triumph does serve as the latest promising result for a program with eight national championships but with none since 2008. There was undoubtedly a stabilizing effect during Kellie Harper's fourth season at the helm of her alma mater, as Tennessee combated a brutally challenging schedule with 25 wins and 13 SEC victories, which were the most in league play since the 2014-15 season.

"Obviously we want to progress each year," Harper said late Monday afternoon before her appearance at the Big Orange Caravan inside the Chattanooga Convention Center. "The Sweet 16 is not a bad result, but at Tennessee you want more. We like the consistency of competing at an elite level, and our record in the SEC was better. I thought we were more consistent, and I think we were able to grow throughout the season.

"I think our players understand what we're about. I just think consistency is really important for us moving forward."

Harper is 88-39 through four years in Knoxville, with 50 of those wins having occurred the past two seasons. She took over for Holly Warlick, who had the task of replacing the legendary Pat Summitt and experienced immediate successes that included an SEC championship in 2012-13, an SEC tournament title in 2013-14, and a 30-win season in 2014-15 that included a share of the league crown.

In Warlick's seventh and final season in 2018-19, however, Tennessee had skidded to a 19-13 overall record that included an 7-9 mark in SEC play and a one-and-done NCAA tournament appearance as an 11 seed.

The stability Harper has provided recently resulted in a one-year contract extension through the 2027-28 season, and the next game she coaches will be with a $1 million salary. Her basketball career contains three national championships as a Lady Vols point guard from 1996-98, as well as a three-year stint as a University of Tennessee at Chattanooga assistant under Wes Moore that yielded three Southern Conference titles, a 78-15 overall record, and a memorable upset of Rutgers in the 2004 NCAA tournament.

Yet while Warlick was winning the SEC during her debut season a decade ago, Harper was losing her job after a four-year run at North Carolina State that contained an NCAA tournament first-round exit and then a 50-50 mark over her final three seasons.

"I think throughout my career that I've grown," said Harper, who has a career record of 373-247 in stints with Western Carolina, N.C. State, Missouri State and Tennessee. "I've just finished my 19th year as a head coach, and I think you learn from each year about the good and the bad. The biggest thing for me is just learning to adapt with the new players in the generation that we work with and being very accessible to them.

"My way as an athlete of relationship-building is very different than this generation, and I think being able to meet them where they are is a huge part of what we do. I think I've learned that, and I think I've embraced who this generation is."

Harper, who refers to Chattanooga as "part of my home," will move into her fifth season with the expected tandem of 6-foot-2 forward Rickea Jackson and 6-6 center Tamari Key. Jackson led the Lady Vols this past season with 19.2 points per game and shot 54.8% from the floor, while Key broke Candace Parker's single-season blocks record in 2021-22 with 277 but didn't even make it to SEC play during 2022-23 after blood clots were detected in her lungs.

The Lady Vols were recently pegged by CBS as the preseason No. 10 team for 2023-24, but South Carolina and LSU have even loftier projections after combining to win three of the past six national titles and with LSU and South Carolina standing 1-2 in the national recruiting rankings for this 2023 cycle.

Harper has defeated both of those programs with the Lady Vols, and it's likely that more such wins will be needed for Tennessee to get back to where it wants under her guidance.

"The more you're there, the more comfortable you are in those games," she said. "We want to keep playing those games and keep advancing in the tournament to give ourselves more experience. It's the little things that you've got to find a way to get better at to get those big-time wins."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com.