The last time the Tennessee Lady Vols won the regular season SEC Championship was in 2014-2015. They split it that year with Dawn Staley’s South Carolina Gamecocks, who won its first SEC regular season title the year before, the same year UT won its last SEC Tournament title.
When USC won the SEC Tournament Championship in 2015, it was the first time Dawn Staley won the regular season and tournament title at South Carolina, and it signaled a shift in power dominance. That trend has only magnified.
Since then, UT hasn’t won any SEC Championship. South Carolina won three more regular season SEC Championships and two more tournament championships along with a national championship. They had supplanted Rocky Top as the premiere team in the SEC.
It was so dominant that USC, ranked No. 2 in the AP Poll and No. 3 in the Coaches Poll, didn’t generate any storylines heading into Thompson-Boling Arena in Knoxville, Tenn. on a 31-game SEC winning streak Thursday night. Them being 17-2 and 12-0 in league play was expected. When they went up by 15 in the second half, nobody was surprised.
Then the Tennessee Lady Vols reversed course. They reminded people of the Pat Summitt days and, to be fair, the early Holly Warlick days, as they went on a tear and made it seem like they were just supposed to win. In the process, they beat a top five team and beat South Carolina for the first time since the 2017-2018.
Now, despite just being 13-5 and 7-3 in league play and ranked down at No. 21 in both polls, UT may be shifting the balance of power back to them once again. It won’t happen overnight, but there is more to the story than just beating South Carolina.
Last year, Harper’s first year on the job, was the first time since that 2014-2015 season that they beat every single team on their schedule with fewer than 20 wins. The problem at that point was they weren’t beating the good teams, going 1-10 against teams with 20 wins or more. Still, they were running the table against the bad teams and not having any hiccups.
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Well, once again, they’re doing the same thing this year. Every team they have lost to is in the top 25 of both polls and has at least 15 wins. They’ll all likely finish with 20 wins. Meanwhile, they now have four wins over teams currently in the top 25 of both polls, all of whom will likely finish with 20 wins as well.
See the difference? The Tennessee Lady Vols continue to run the table against the bad teams but are now splitting against the good teams and proving they can beat the elite teams. That’s what makes them similar to that 2014-2015 team, the last team to do both of these things.
By the way, want to know what really stands out about that 2014-2015 team? It was the last team to have members of a Summitt recruiting class on there. Cierra Burdick, Ariel Massengale ad Isabelle Harrison were all part of the 2011 class and carried UT that year. Since then, it had been a dramatic downward slide.
These things are definitely connected. Right now, Rocky Top the No. 5 ranked strength of schedule, according to the RealTime RPI. With a road trip to Georgia, ranked No. 22 in the AP Poll and No. 23 in the Coaches Poll, set for Sunday, it’ll likely go up even more.
Catching up to South Carolina will still be difficult. They have the top recruiting class in nation for 2021, and Harper is still relying heavily on Warlick recruits. However, she clearly has a specific way she wants to build her program, using length and elite shooting. If it can take off her way, this team will still be ready to compete.
Right now, simply by running the table and beating against elite teams, the trajectory of UT under Harper is clear. If she can continue the momentum this year and into the future, look for the Tennessee Lady Vols to finally re-establish their rightful place atop the SEC.