KNOXVILLE — Through its first three games this season, Tennessee staved off potential upsets, thwarting opposing teams’ hopes by pulling it together when it mattered most.
On Sunday, the Lady Vols again made the necessary plays, but did so as the underdog.
Paced by career performances by Jordan Horston and Tamari Key and despite trailing by as many as 12 points, No. 16 Tennessee downed No. 12 Texas, 74-70, in overtime at Thompson-Boling Arena.
“I’ll be honest with you, I don’t know if we win this game if we hadn’t already faced close games going down the stretch,” Harper said. “You learn from it, you try to get better from it. But also, when you have those games and you pull it out, it gives you confidence when you get in that situation again. ... When we take the court, we believe.
“We believe whether we’re down 10 going into the fourth (quarter) or whether we’re tied going into overtime.”
The difference also came from Horston and Key, who chose the perfect time to have their best games of the season so far.
Horston totaled 28 points and and 15 rebounds, setting new career highs in both those categories. Key became the first Lady Vol to ever record multiple triple-doubles in her career, as she scored 10 points and grabbed 18 rebounds; it was only the fifth triple-double in program history.
“(The mentality was) the toughest team is going to win,” Horston said. “We don’t like losing at home, so we didn’t want that to happen.”
Tennessee (4-0) led by a single point, 29-28, at halftime, but Texas (3-1) carved a 49-39 advantage by the end of the third quarter. Its lead seemed secure until the Lady Vols went on a run that culminated with an Alexus Dye layup that tied the score, 59-59, with just 16 seconds remaining.
Jordan Walker hit the first shot of overtime, and Tennessee eventually went ahead, 71-68, before two missed Texas free throws forced the Longhorns to foul and effectively sealed the win.
Tennessee out-rebounded Texas, 56-41, and Longhorns coach Vic Schaefer, who previously was at Mississippi State and has experience coaching against the Lady Vols, credited their physicality and aggressiveness.
“(Kellie Harper) is a descendant of Coach (Pat) Summitt,” Schaefer said. “They rebound the basketball, that’s the first thing that jumps out at you when you watch film. They’re physical, they crush you on the backside. If you don’t literally physically fight them, it’s hard.
“What you’ve got to appreciate about a team like that is even on free throws, they’re going hard ... that’s the thing that jumps out to you about Tennessee right away is the rebounding piece and how it’s a point of emphasis for them. ... It ain’t the first one that beats you with that group. They’re going to make you earn it, every rebound you get.”
As Tennessee now readies for a trip to Las Vegas for the South Point Thanksgiving Shootout, Harper will view Sunday’s win as an example for her team instead of a statement win.
“I don’t know that we’re in there worried about statements and such,” Harper said. “I don’t even know that our team is worried about what the rankings are. To me, this is more about, ‘What can we do?’ and really talking about our program and our team. I think it’s a statement inside that locker room.
“I think they know how we can win and I think they know they can depend on each other and I think they know that everybody has a role. Even the players that didn’t play have roles that were really important (today). When you have that complete buy-in and confidence, it pulls you together and it maybe gets you through a tight game.”
Catchings comes home: Former Lady Vol Tamika Catchings, one of the greatest players in program history, returned to TBA on Sunday to celebrate her induction into both the Naismith Memorial and Women’s Basketball Halls of Fame.
Surrounded on the court by former teammates and coaches, she was honored at halftime with a video narrating her accomplishments.
“This is awesome,” Catchings said. “Literally coming in Friday, I’ve got my husband and my mom with me and my sister’s been behind the scenes doing all the work. It’s been phenomenal. I can’t say enough ... it’s just been great to be around so many former Lady Vols. It’s been great to come back to the university and come back where this (was) the beginning.”