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USA Today Sports photo by Randy Sartin / Tennessee women's basketball coach Kellie Harper speaks with center Tamari Key during the first half of Thursday's game against South Carolina.

Thursday's icy dawn surrendering little of its bite later in the day, local women's basketball treasure Grace Keith was mustering scant enthusiasm to attend that night's epic clash between second-ranked South Carolina and the No. 21 Tennessee Lady Volunteers in Knoxville.

Enduring breast cancer treatments at the tender age of 86 can do that to a person.

But then a couple of good Samaritans — Linda Leatherwood Benefield, who was once a star on Keith's first Hixson High School team in the winter of 1960, and her husband Don — promised to drive Keith to the game, as they have on several occasions this season.

"I didn't really feel like going," Keith recalled Friday. "And Linda and Don were the only reason I was able to. They've been so good to me. But now I'm so glad I went. That was one of the best games I've seen in a long, long time."

Tennessee's women hadn't won too many really big games in a long, long time prior to that 75-67 victory over the Gamecocks. Pretty much not since the longtime face of women's hoops, the late, great Pat Summitt, was forced to retire at the close of the 2012 season due to Alzheimer's, having won 1,098 games and eight NCAA titles as coach of the Lady Vols.

Since the NCAA Division I women's basketball tournament debuted in 1982, Tennessee has never missed making the bracket, but the Lady Vols also haven't come close to duplicating Summitt's sensational success in the eight-plus seasons since she led the team. Neither former assistant Holly Warlick during her time in charge nor current coach Kellie Jolly Harper — both of whom played for Summitt at Tennessee — seemed capable of rediscovering that magic.

All that may have changed against South Carolina. Not only did the Lady Vols come back from 12 down at halftime, they snapped a preposterous 31-game conference winning streak by South Carolina, which won its lone NCAA title in 2017.

"I thought a lot of Pat came out in Kellie on Thursday night," said Keith, who lost by one point to Summitt's first Lady Vols team in 1974 when Keith was the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga coach and Summitt was still known by her maiden name, Pat Head.

"There have been times when I thought Kellie needed to be more fired up out there, more like Pat. But that fire came out on Thursday night. Kellie doesn't do it often, but when it happens that fire really comes out."

Harper admitted as much immediately after the game, telling the SEC Network: "I challenged them and got a little fiery at halftime. They obviously really responded. They took it to heart. I called them soft and told them they needed to get their big girl pants on. And they did."

If that's not vintage Summitt — minus, perhaps, the death stare — nothing is.

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Knoxville News Sentinel photo by Caitie McMekin via AP / Tennessee's Jordan Horston (25) shoots over South Carolina's Destanni Henderson (3) during Thursday night's SEC matchup at Thompson-Boling Arena in Knoxville.

Yet whether this will carry over to Sunday's high noon matchup at No. 22 Georgia on the SEC Network remains to be seen. The Lady Vols (13-5, 7-3) currently stand third in the league, with the Lady Bulldogs (16-4, 8-4) tied for fourth with No. 17 Kentucky (15-5, 8-4). South Carolina (17-3, 12-1) and No. 5 Texas A&M (19-1, 10-1) are comfortably atop the conference standings.

Nor will Keith be in Athens to lend her support. Chemo and radiation treatments leave her fatigued, which is understandable, even though she's quick to say, "I've gotten along wonderfully well. I'm very blessed."

Though of far less importance, she believes the Lady Vols are quite blessed to have Harper, who was an assistant for three years (2001-04) at UTC under Wes Moore, who since 2013 has been at North Carolina State, where he replaced Harper. Having started her head coaching career with a five-season stint at Western Carolina, Harper took over at N.C. State in 2009, and after six seasons leading Missouri State (2013-19), she went home to her alma mater, replacing Warlick two years ago this spring.

"I don't know who else they could have hired," Keith said. "The fans didn't want to hire a man, and Kellie had already won national championships as a player under Pat. She's a good disciplinarian, but you can also tell the kids love her and she loves them."

In today's fragile college athletics world, one hamstrung by the coronavirus pandemic, the transfer portal and athletes far more impatient for playing time than during Summitt's heyday, that last point cannot be overemphasized.

It was Summitt, who died in 2016, who used to say of her players, "They don't care how much you know until they know how much you care," but it's today's coaches who must embrace that mantra every day if they're not just to survive but thrive.

"Whenever (Lady Vols radio announcer) Mickey Dearstone would interview Pat after games, even a big win, Pat would often say, "Yes, we won, but ...," Keith recalled. "Kellie's more upbeat than Pat was. More patient with them. More positive. And it comes out on the court. They're happy and having a good time."

And for one of the few times since Summitt retired, so are the fans.

"It's a shame more fans couldn't be there," Keith said of Thursday's restricted attendance due to COVID-19 protocols. "Because the ones that were there went wild. It kind of felt like the old days."

If the victories start piling up like the old days, Harper may start winning NCAA titles as the Lady Vols coach the way she once won three of them as a Lady Vols player.

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Mark Wiedmer

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @TFPWeeds.

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