By Mark Nagi

Heading into the 2022-2023 season, the Tennessee Lady Vols basketball team looked the part of a legit Final Four contender. They were ranked 4th in the country to start the campaign.

Before right from the jump, things have been a struggle.

They were upset at Ohio State in the opening game. Then in December, it was announced that star center Tamari Key would miss the rest of the season with blood clots in her lungs.

Except for a nine-game winning streak December 27 through January 22, this was a team that just could not get into a rhythm.

But their performance in the SEC tournament gives us a hint that things might be turning around. The Lady Vols beat Kentucky in the quarterfinals, then rallied from a 17-point deficit to knock off third-ranked LSU in the semifinals.

“It’s been a lot of fun. Obviously, it’s tournament time,” said Lady Vols head coach Kellie Harper. “There is something you gotta love about how you just feel drained from day-to-day. It’s just part of it. You love that. You love to compete. Coaches stay up late trying to get a scouting report together. You’re trying to make sure the team is recovered and rested. It’s just part of tournament time. That’s what our sport is. Basketball is a tournament sport. Boy, you better love this time of year. We do. I do. I love the emotions; I love the competitiveness.”

Tennessee ran out of gas in the title game against undefeated and top-ranked South Carolina, falling 74-58. But the message is clear. The Lady Vols aren’t ready for a quick out in March.

“It just builds our confidence,” said Lady Vols forward Rickea Jackson. “We know the things that we must work on and continue to get better at, but also like for us to even make it this far says a lot about our toughness and our mental toughness. This (SEC) tournament is tough. Our bodies hurt, we are mentally tired, but we had a hard fight and I feel like we were relentless.”

“We always knew we had it in us,” said Lady Vols forward Jordan Horston. “Everybody else didn’t know that, but we knew, and we still know. This fight ain’t over. Like I said, I’m not holding my head on this loss. That’s the number one team in the country and we were hanging with them. Once we clean up what we need to clean up, we can beat them, like I said, but we are happy being the underdogs. It’s okay.”

I think we have had some really good basketball and we’ve shown a lot of grit,” said Lady Vols head coach Kellie Harper. “I think we have come a long way. I’m excited for the journey to continue, to see what this team can do. I think they really believe in each other, and they believe in this basketball team.”

The Lady Vols will open NCAA tournament play later this week. They are hoping this run ends with their first trip to the Final Four since 2008.

“I think how we’ve evolved as a team has been what we wanted to see,” said Harper. “We’ve always – from the beginning of the season we had the talent, but I just wanted to see a little bit more grit and a little bit more toughness, and I think we’ve developed that. I think we’re a little bit more physical than we were early on. I think our understanding of how we need to play has been good for our team’s success.”