KNOXVILLE — Sunday afternoon, after Tennessee's 73-56 victory over Georgia, questions about the Lady Volunteers' budding on-court chemistry emerged, with one writer asking how a relatively new group appeared to have been able to mesh so well together.
Historically, the Lady Vols have been a program based on the ability to recruit the best players in the country. Sometimes those were, quite literally, the best basketball players in the country. Other times it was the most talented athletes in the country. In a lot of cases there was a McDonald's All-American selection attached to the player's name.
That hasn't always led to cohesiveness. One only has to look back to last season to see a team that had a roster littered with talented players that lacked the level of chemistry to be a good team.
So when the question was posed Sunday, junior Rennia Davis was the first to appear ready to answer, but was quickly stopped by freshman Jordan Horston.
"Can I say something?" Horston said. "Nobody on this team is cocky. This (the cohesiveness) is not anything that can be coached. You have to have that. I feel like we all want to win and do what we have to do to win. If it's this person or that person, you're going to get a bucket today or get a stop."
Freshman Tamari Key then chimed in, adding that the freshmen "came in with the same goal, to be on the same page."
"We don't need to worry about what our accolades were before," she said, with Horston adding that, "it doesn't really matter now."
The Lady Vols' latest victory put the team at 13-3 overall on the season and 3-1 in the Southeastern Conference, but the win total hasn't been the most impressive thing about this group that is largely made up of underclassmen. It's been how the team has made obvious individual improvements on the court while also becoming a quality basketball team.
There were times a year ago that the team looked like anything but. Those times no longer appear to be the case. There was a time where the individual talents of the players would be enough to win some games, while not being enough in others. Now the team seems to deal well with adversity, such as a first quarter Sunday where the Bulldogs (10-7, 1-3) shot 69% from the field and led 20-19. Tennessee's defense turned around in the final three quarters and held Georgia to 31% from the field while also shooting 52% for the game itself.
Four players finished with double figures. Two others, sophomores Jazmine Massengill and Rae Burrell, finished with eight and seven, respectively.
And that may not have been the case a season ago. It may not have been the case earlier this year, when the Lady Vols were trying to figure out how Harper wanted them to play.
"I think they have great shot selection," Georgia coach Joni Taylor said. "As they continue to play together, I think everybody on the floor knows where their shots come from. There were times when you used to watch Tennessee play, and you could possibly stay in the game with them because they were going to take some ill-advised shots. I think they all have a really good understanding of where they are getting their shot from, and they share the ball really well.
"It makes it more difficult because they are making the extra pass. Whereas before, when they were young – I mean, they are a young team still – but it was whoever got it would make a play, and you would just rely on trying to get a stop there and box them out. So, they have grown in that area. They continue to get really good defensively. And when you bring in that type of length, and they are just waiting for you to cross half court, it presents problems. They just continue to get better in all areas."
It's still difficult to gauge just exactly what this Tennessee team is on the court. The team's best win this season (on paper) probably came Sunday against the Bulldogs. But the future seems in good hands not simply because of the ability to get quality players into the program, but what appears to be the ability to develop quality players and build chemistry once they get to Knoxville.
"I also think it's big that Kellie (Harper) mentions to us ever so often that in case somebody does decide to step outside the box, nobody is bigger than the program," Davis said. "This program is this program; we're here for our four years, and after that somebody else will come in and replace us with hopes of keeping the same energy as when we were here.
"It's all about the program."
Contact Gene Henley at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @genehenley3 or at Facebook.com/VolsUpdate.