A lead for the Tennessee women’s basketball team often didn’t feel very safe last season.
Something about this one seems different.
On Monday night, the Lady Vols (3-0) downed the reigning NCAA Tournament runner-up Notre Dame — and they did so on the road.
The last time Notre Dame lost in South Bend to a team other than UConn was in 2012 against Baylor. It was the Lady Vols' first victory at Notre Dame since 2008.
Tennessee's new coach, Kellie Harper, said her team was locked in from the start.
She hopes the Lady Vols can repeat that performance tonight when they play host to Tennessee State (1-0) at Thompson-Boling Arena.
“They were giving me everything they had," Harper said after Monday's game. "They were really trying to focus in. I got a little bit emotional earlier today because I just wanted it so bad for them.”
There’s a caveat to this feat. The No. 16-ranked Fighting Irish (2-1) lost all five starters from last season. Still, it was an undeniably huge victory for a program coming off its worst season. The Lady Vols didn’t reach 20 wins for the first time in the modern era while suffering their first six-game losing streak in 49 years.
“I’m really excited for our basketball team,” Harper said. “We knew it was going to be a tough place to play and a tough game for us. We obviously had some players step up and make shots.”
The Lady Vols defeated Notre Dame, 74-63, despite 28 turnovers. They also had 12 blocks — the fourth most for the program in a game. Tennessee is averaging 9.7 per contest.
Turnovers were a problem for the Lady Vols last season. They proved detrimental in games such as their SEC Tournament quarterfinal loss to Mississippi State, when the Bulldogs scored 30 of their 68 points off Tennessee’s 26 turnovers.
Tennessee averaged almost 16 turnovers last season, and those lapses in judgement often resulted in momentum swings from which it could not recover.
That wasn’t the case Monday.
On multiple occasions, the Lady Vols responded to their own mistakes on offense by making big plays on defense. Jazmine Massengill accounted for three turnovers. The sophomore guard also had four blocks and 13 rebounds.
"I thought our defensive effort for the majority of the game was really solid," Harper said. "I think the focus showed from the beginning."
Notre Dame was a major test, but Tennessee is getting challenged in more ways than one early. Its leading scorer, Zaay Green, suffered a torn ACL Saturday in practice that has sidelined her indefinitely.
A freshman last season, Green gave Tennessee a chance against then-No. 1 Notre Dame. She scored 15 points in the first two quarters to put the Lady Vols ahead 34-31 at halftime. They wound up losing 77-62.
“It was obviously a big blow for our team,” Harper said of Green. “She’s a playmaker for us and gives us one more guard to work with, but our team really did a nice job rallying around her.”
Tennessee boasts its tallest squad in program history, and the Lady Vols used that to their advantage by out-rebounding the Fighting Irish, 55-28.
Rennia Davis was the star of the evening by tying her career high of 33 points, including five 3-pointers, and getting 10 boards. It was Davis’ 20th career double-double and earned her SEC Women's Basketball Player of the Week honors.
“Rennia Davis is really talented and extremely athletic,” Harper said. “She finishes well at the basket, she can shoot the 3. She’s one we want to get shots for, and I was really proud of her.”