Transcript: Lady Vols HC Kellie Harper previews season

Kellie Harper – Lady Vols HC / Credit: UT Athletics

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee women’s basketball head coach Kellie Harper met with members of the media over Zoom on Monday to discuss the approaching campaign.

The Lady Vols were slated to open the 2020-21 schedule this Friday before Florida A&M announced Monday that it was opting out of the season due to concerns related to COVID-19. UT has turned its focus toward hosting Western Kentucky at 2 p.m. on Saturday. The contest will be streamed live on SECN+.

Tennessee Head Coach Kellie Harper

On what she has learned from her team over the past weeks as they prepare to start the season:
“I think one of the biggest things for us is that our returners are better. They have improved. I think our team chemistry has been good. We’ve been working hard on that. I think our newcomers are filing in some spots that we needed, so we’re really excited about their production as well. Everyone is very competitive, and they’re looking forward to playing basketball. I think it’s much needed. We’re excited about game week.”

On Rennia Davis’ next step and what she needs to do to prepare for the WNBA:
“I think Rennia has a very complete game. She can do everything. However, one thing we wanted to see her improve on is getting to the basket, getting to the paint, and maybe playing a bit more physical there. She makes free throws, she can knock down shots, and she is super in transition. We talked to her a lot about that this summer, and she has worked very hard on that. It’s giving her an added dimension to her game.”

On what she has seen and liked in practice so far:
“Our players are picking things up quickly. Our instincts have been good, our balance has been good. We’ve been able to score in a variety of ways offensively. We’ve been getting the ball to the post and getting the ball to the basket. Defensively, I like our focus. Are coaches ever satisfied on defense? Probably not. But when we are playing well, I think we can do some damage defensively. Again, with our length, we’re tall and can contest a lot of shots.”

On what newcomers have impressed her the most:
“I think all of them (have been impressive) in their own way. Keyen Green is coming in with great energy and great explosiveness, great leadership, and great competitiveness. Newcomer Marta Suárez has a broad skill set and can play a variety of positions. She’s very competitive, works very hard, and has great size. Jordan Walker, playing the point for us, has come in and given us that added depth that we needed in that position. She plays with poise, and I think it’s been good for our team.”

On how ready the team is to start the season despite recent events and adversity:
“They’re ready to play somebody else. They are ready to go out and put on a uniform and play. Coaches, we’re always trying to get more practices in, but it’s time. It’s time for them to get out there and play someone else, and we can start advancing. In terms of ready, we have our basic man (defense), we have a zone, some zone offense, some man offense; we have some transition stuff, a few out-of-bounds plays, so I think we’ve covered just about everything we need to cover for game one.”

On how the team has responded to the preseason media polls:
“They probably saw it. They see everything. We haven’t even talked about it. It’s not anything that I’m going to get worked up over. We’re out here trying to do our job. I love the preseason polls, because they get people talking about basketball. That’s exciting. I think that’s why we’re getting those polls out, but at the end of the day, it’s what you do on the court, and those preseason polls in about another two weeks really won’t matter.”

On who will start in the season opener besides Rennia Davis:
Rae Burrell will be on the court as well. Outside of that, we’re still figuring some things out. We’ve got a little depth and players competing for those spots, and I think that’s a good thing.”

On what she is looking forward to learning about the team once the season starts:
“The biggest thing for me is how are they translating from practice to games? I want to see that, and I want to get them out there. Obviously, the first game or two, it’s uniforms, it’s lights, let’s see what our new normal looks like out there. Let’s be sure that we’re communicating, that we’re doing what we need to do. Are we able to settle in when the lights are on, when the uniforms are on, and execute? We’ve been able to do that in practice, and I want that to translate to the game.”

On what advice she has given the team on how to handle what this season has in store:
“We’ve talked about being flexible, and no matter what, no matter who we’ve got, we’re going to step out and compete. We’ve talked about those things. We’ve also talked about not having excuses, because there are going to be a lot of hurdles. We don’t even know what they are at this point. We’re just going to take a no excuse, step out and play type of approach. That’s where I want our players and our staff to be comfortable handling adversity, handling things looking different from day to day, and they’ve done that so far. They really haven’t blinked when those things have popped up.”

On if she anticipates this being a better ball handling team:
“I think we have added a few ball handlers in several positions. To me, our ball handling could improve, not just at the point guard position, but across the board. I’m hopeful that that’s the case. In terms of turnovers that we had last year, a lot of those were a result of passes, not necessarily handling the ball but decision making. We have worked very hard on that this summer and fall and feel like we’ve made a lot of progress there.”

On how she would assess the freshmen after seeing them in the summer:
“I think they have stepped up and had a really good preseason, considering everything that’s going on. Marta Suárez is going to get a lot of big-time minutes. She’s really talented, and like I said earlier, she can play multiple positions, and she just wants to win. Destiny Salary has also come in with great energy. She can handle the ball, she plays fast, and I think that’s good for us, I think, having someone like that to be out there and bring that energy, bring that competitiveness. Tess Darby has come in steady. She knocks down open shots and makes plays. I think we’ve seen that she’s a winner. She understands what a winning team looks like. I think those three freshmen are going to get solid minutes.”

On how she goes about setting season goals with the given circumstances:
“One of the things that we’ve talked about is if we’re out there, if we are going to play, somebody’s got to win, so it might as well be us. That’s the way I’m approaching it. When we talk to our team, we’re going to say that we step out to win, because somebody’s going to. Why not us? Everybody’s going to have hurdles. Everybody’s going to have challenges that you can’t foresee right now, but when you step out on the court, you’ve got one thing in mind. We’ve got to find a way to win.”

On who are some of the front runners to get a lot of minutes:
Keyen Green coming in with great experience, great energy. She is doing a heck of a job on the boards, and our players are playing with a lot of confidence with her. Kasiyahna Kushkituah has had a fantastic summer. She’s playing with a lot of confidence right now, and she’s very physical and strong. She makes a difference on the court with her team right now. Tamari Key has really excelled as of late. In our last inter-squad scrimmage, she really stepped her game up offensively. Marta Suarez is going to be the four spot, and she can also play guard. You can throw her in either spot.”

On how Keyen Green’s physicality has impacted practice competitiveness:
“She has come in with a confidence and a work ethic, in addition to her motor is just high. That’s where she is separating herself from a lot of people, because she is on go all the time. She’s making plays, she’s getting steals, she’s saving turnovers, and she’s getting put-backs. I think she’s adjusting to the size at this level.”

On if there was a time over the past few months that she was worried that the season wasn’t going to happen:
“I had some fleeting moments where I wondered if we were going to play. I was pretty confident that we would figure out a way to play basketball this year. I think that was really one of the more difficult things for players this year, when you’re practicing but you have no idea what it’s going to look like, you don’t know if you’re going to get to play, you don’t know when you’re going to play, you don’t know who you’re going to play. Having a schedule, I think that gave them a lot of confidence, and us as a staff, it helped to know where you’re heading. Sometimes you sit back and you think, ‘We’re in the middle of a pandemic.’ Stop right there, that should give you perspective. We’re going to try to play basketball, because basketball means a lot to a lot of people. For the emotional and mental wellbeing of a lot of athletes, we need to try to do this if we can do it safely.”

On if she thinks they will be a better inside scoring team this season:
“I believe so. I think Kasi (Kushkituah) and Tamari (Key) are both better. I think adding Keyen (Green) will really help that, and then you get players like Jaiden (McCoy) and Marta (Suarez), and we can even move some wings now that we’ve got a little more depth on the perimeter; we can play four guards if we need to.”

On how hard it was to put together a non-conference schedule this season on a scale of one to 10:
“You said one to 10? Ten. It was really difficult. We had our non-conference schedule done going into this summer and things change. We had tournaments dropped, teams dropped us, and it was just so many moving parts. They were daily. I would get an update in the morning, another update in the afternoon. Things were changing that drastically. It was very frustrating, so to finally have a schedule, it felt so good to be able to go to our team and say this is who we’re playing, and this is when we’re playing them.”

On how Kasiyahna Kushkituah has improved over the offseason:
“I think it’s been a big summer for her. She has intentionally worked on her leadership, her presence, her confidence, and herself. She has really improved in a lot of areas. Like I said, that leadership and that confidence is going to carry over to the court. Our players look to her, especially the post players. She’s been very consistent on the court for us, and that’s important. She’s been a great presence for us.”

-UT Athletics