Kellie Harper bringing Tennessee Lady Vols focus back to depth, post play

Under Holly Warlick, the Tennessee Lady Vols would too often play small and not use depth. But the women’s basketball Volunteers are going back to that.

Zaay Green is out for the year. That did not stop the Tennessee Lady Vols from going 10-deep in their win over the Notre Dame Fighting Irish on the road Monday night and playing eight players for at least 14 minutes.

Without Green, Kellie Harper did something that had eluded this program for years. She relied on points in the paint. Her team focused on controlling the tempo, using its size, and dominating inside. Sure, Rennia Davis was the star, Jazmine Massengill deserves credit for replacing the loss of Green at the point, and Jordan Horston had another breakout game.

However, the inside-outside game with Lou Brown, Tamari Key, Kasiyahna Kushkituah, Kamera Harris and even four minutes of Jaiden McCoy, who is playing through a wrist injury, set everything up. The result was a dominating 74-63 win over a top 20 team that has played in back to back national championship games, winning one of them.

UT’s inside game resulted in them out-rebounding the Irish 55-28. When Notre Dame tried to mount a comeback after being down by 18, Harper made sure she had enough depth to stave it off. This is the Tennessee Lady Vols we are used to seeing historically, one that goes deep into its bench and plays inside-outside with a focus on rebounding.

Over the past few years, lack of postgame and refusal to run a deep rotation would do Warlick in. She understood the game very well and had the respect of her players. But she would never run deep rotations, and it always allowed for late collapses and inexplicable losses late in the season.

Her last three years saw multiple players average over 30 minutes a game, a wing player always playing the four, whether it be Jaime Nared or Rennia Davis, and would consistently only go seven-deep in a rotation. That was not Lady Vols basketball.

Now, to be fair to Warlick, she got a horrible break when Lou Brown went down with a season-ending injury last year. That limited her depth and inside game. This year, Brown has been critical as a true four. Warlick also signed Tamari Key and Emily Saunders.

But she didn’t turn to Harris more when Brown went down last year, as Harris averaged fewer than seven minutes a game and played just 19 games. Harper, meanwhile, immediately went to Harris with McCoy hurt, and now she is averaging 13.5 minutes a game. She had six points and four rebounds against Notre Dame.

This is part of Harper’s mantra. It’s why she specifically went after McCoy this offseason when she took the job despite knowing that Brown would return to health. She wants a size advantage, and she has it with the tallest team in Lady Vol history. But she also wants to go deep into the rotation so teams like Notre Dame hurt themselves when trying to turn up the tempo.

It paid off. Tennessee Lady Vols guards are alway going to be key, and the backcourt in general will have the stars this year. But Harper has things going inside-out again, and the benefits showed in a significant way Monday night. After all, they were able to overcome 28 turnovers and the loss of one of their best guards on the team to win that game.