Summitt’s legacy is strong as Tennessee women make it back to Sweet 16

Tennessee women's basketball team celebrates a second round win at the 2022 Women's Basketball NCAA tournament
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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The Tennessee Lady Vols seem poised to once again be a force in women’s basketball after the storied program had fallen on some almost unimaginable hard times.

There have been early tournament exits, players transferring and a coach fired.

But a social media post captures the journey the Lady Vols have been on: It shows the late Pat Summitt hugging then-point guard Kellie Jolly celebrating Tennessee’s third straight women’s national championship and also features now-coach Kellie Harper enjoying the Lady Vols’ first Sweet 16 berth in six years.

“It’s great as we continue to take steps forward,” Harper said. “It’s where we need to be. We don’t take it for granted. You don’t just get there. … A lot of really talented teams are not going to be there this year. There’s been a lot of parity. Just glad we’re one of them.”

Harper is in her third season at her alma mater, which happens to be the only program to play in all 40 NCAA Tournaments and first to win eight national championships.

Harper said this is an important step on the road to making the Lady Vols a national contender and Final Four regular again.

“Obviously I think there is a big responsibility that I have and that our program has to a lot of different things,” said Harper, one of only two coaches to lead four different programs to the NCAA Tournament. “To Pat’s legacy for sure, to this community, our conference, and women’s basketball, because I think when Tennessee is good, I think women’s basketball is better.”

Steffi Sorensen, women’s basketball analyst for ESPN and SEC Network, agrees. She grew up with newspaper clippings of UConn on one wall and Tennessee clippings on the other.

“Anytime you’ve got Tennessee in the fold, there’s so many Tennessee fans it just makes the product I think much better, more interesting and that’s what we’re used to,” Sorensen said.

A 70-67 win over Belmont on Monday night clinched Tennessee’s 35th trip to the Sweet 16. The Lady Vols will play top-seeded Louisville on Saturday in the Wichita Regional semifinal in Wichita, Kansas.

MARCH MADNESS: 2022 NCAA Women’s Basketball Schedule, Bracket and Scores

Sweet 16s, Final Fours and national championship games used to be the norm at Tennessee with orange-decked fans following the Lady Vols all over the country. Under Summitt, the Lady Vols went to 18 Final Fours — not counting four in the AIAW before the NCAA started its tournament. They lost six national title games, four in the NCAA Tournament.

All that seems like distant memories.

The last Final Four appearance for Tennessee came in 2008 — the eighth and final national championship under Summitt.

Tennessee led the nation in attendance for 19 seasons and averaged at least 10,375 per game for 20 straight seasons. The Lady Vols haven’t averaged 10,000 a game since 2015-16.

Fans who followed the Summitt show are older, and winning new fans means landing new stars to follow in the steps of Chamique Holdsclaw, Tamika Catchings and Candace Parker.

Holly Warlick, Summitt’s trusted assistant, couldn’t do it.

She lasted seven seasons before being fired in March 2019 after a first-round tournament loss. So Tennessee turned to Harper, fresh off taking Missouri State to a Sweet 16.

Harper has been boosting the talent on the roster. Justine Pissott, a 6-foot-4 guard from Toms River, New Jersey, and the 11th-ranked player in the country, is committed for next season.

When the Lady Vols climbed back into the top 10 of The Associated Press rankings in December, it was the first time they’d been there in nearly three years. They climbed as high as No. 4 and were projected in late January as the No. 1 seed in the Wichita Region.

Then came a slew of injuries.

Keyen Green, a glue player off the bench, tore an ACL. Then Jordan Horston, their leading scorer and rebounder, broke her left elbow in February. Tennessee had already lost sophomore Marta Suarez, an All-SEC freshman last season, in October.

“People who don’t do this for a living can’t understand how hard it is to lose players like they’ve lost players as consistently down the stretch of a season, where you’ve got to rework a lot of stuff,” said Belmont coach Bart Brooks, praising Harper for not allowing the injuries to completely derail the season.

Sorensen said she saw Tennessee as a Final Four team before the injuries.

“It’s awesome to see Kellie and that team come together to get to the Sweet 16,” Sorensen said. “That’s difficult losing that many players, then rallying. It’s really hard to win in March, and they’ve done it.”

Tennessee did stagger down the stretch, winning just five of its last 12 games. But the overall season garnered the Lady Vols a No. 4 seed and two games in Knoxville with orange everywhere.

Now, back in the Sweet 16, there is no escaping Tennessee’s history and Summitt’s ever-present shadow over the program.

A Summitt statue is a popular photo spot on the corner across from Thompson-Boling Arena with large photos of national champs in the hallways inside and orange and white banners of those titles hanging from the rafters.

And that’s just fine with Harper, a Tennessee native, who always pulled for the Lady Vols during her coaching stops at Western Carolina, North Carolina State and Missouri State.

Nobody on Tennessee’s current roster has played in a Sweet 16 game, so these Lady Vols are leaning heavily on that history and Harper’s experience.

“For us, that’s just big,” junior center Tamari Key said of Harper’s tournament success. “Knowing she’s been there and she knows what it’s like and what it needs to look like and the work that needs to go in behind the scenes to be able to achieve that.”

MORE NCAA WOMEN’S BASKETBALL: No. 10 Creighton enjoying role as NCAA Tournament spoiler

Crystal Dunn returns to USWNT roster five months after giving birth

Nigeria v USWNT
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Crystal Dunn was named to the USWNT roster for two upcoming friendlies against England and Spain, marking her first official selection since giving birth to son Marcel in May.

Dunn made her NWSL return with the Portland Thorns earlier this month and also trained with the U.S. team as a non-rostered player ahead of friendlies vs. Nigeria.

In addition to Dunn, the 24-player roster features a veteran core of Alyssa Naeher, Becky Sauerbrunn, Rose Lavelle, Lindsey Horan, Mallory Pugh, and Megan Rapinoe.

Alex Morgan was not named to the USWNT roster due to a knee injury. While U.S. head coach Vlatko Andonovski did not provide details of the injury, he noted that “if this was a World Cup final, Alex was going to be on this trip and was going to play, no question.”

Other roster highlights include 17-year-old Alyssa Thompson, who becomes the first player born in 2004 to receive a USWNT call-up. Thomas, a high senior, plays club soccer for the U-17 Total Futbol Academy boys’ team.

“We are very excited for her, very excited about her potential and qualities and looking forward to seeing how she will turn out in our environment,” Andonovski said of Thompson. “This camp is not make it or break it. It’s a first experience for her, it’s just something that she shouldn’t even worry about.”

The USWNT also includes a handful of players who have made their USWNT breakthrough this season — thanks in part to both strong NWSL play and injuries to more veteran players. That list includes the likes of Naomi Girma (7 caps), Taylor Kornieck (5 caps), Hailie Mace (5 caps), Sam Coffey (1 cap), and Savannah DeMelo (0 caps).

Andonovski on Thursday called Coffey, a midfielder for the Portland Thorns, a candidate for NWSL MVP.


USWNT Roster for October 2022 Friendlies vs. England and Spain

Goalkeepers (3):

  • Aubrey Kingsbury (Washington Spirit)
  • Casey Murphy (North Carolina Courage)
  • Alyssa Naeher (Chicago Red Stars)

Defenders(7):

  • Alana Cook (OL Reign)
  • Crystal Dunn (Portland Thorns FC)
  • Emily Fox (Racing Louisville FC)
  • Naomi Girma (San Diego Wave FC)
  • Sofia Huerta (OL Reign)
  • Hailie Mace (Kansas City Current)
  • Becky Sauerbrunn (Portland Thorns FC)

Midfielders (8):

  • Sam Coffey (Portland Thorns FC)
  • Savannah DeMelo (Racing Louisville FC)
  • Lindsey Horan (Olympique Lyon, FRA)
  • Taylor Kornieck (San Diego Wave FC)
  • Rose Lavelle (OL Reign)
  • Kristie Mewis (NJ/NY Gotham FC)
  • Ashley Sanchez (Washington Spirit)
  • Andi Sullivan (Washington Spirit)

Forwards (6):

  • Ashley Hatch (Washington Spirit)
  • Mallory Pugh (Chicago Red Stars)
  • Megan Rapinoe (OL Reign)
  • Trinity Rodman (Washington Spirit)
  • Sophia Smith (Portland Thorns FC)
  • Alyssa Thompson (Total Futbol Academy)

Follow Alex Azzi on Twitter @AlexAzziNBC

Justine Wong-Orantes’ atypical path to becoming one of the best liberos in the world

Justine Wong-Orantes hits the ball in the women's semi-final volleyball match between USA and Serbia during the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
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It’s been 20 years since the same nation held both the Olympic and world volleyball titles at the same time, but libero Justine Wong-Orantes is looking to help lead Team USA accomplish that very feat at the 2022 FIVB Volleyball Women’s World Championships in the Netherlands and Poland. Competition began on Friday and the U.S. is currently 2-0 after group play wins against Kazakhstan and Canada.

“We’re trying to win, for sure,” Wong-Orantes told On Her Turf. “I think, especially with the new turn of the program and the new year of the quad, we just have a really nice blend of veterans and also newcomers on the team.”

The 14-woman roster for Team USA, which is ranked No. 1 in the world and won its first Olympic title last summer, features six players from that gold-medal-winning team. And while Wong-Orantes is among the 2021 U.S. Olympic team veterans, she’s still a relative newcomer to international play.

The Southern California native enjoyed a notable junior career – she was 12 when she became the youngest female to ever earn an AAA rating in beach volleyball – and was a standout collegian at Nebraska, where she was a member of the 2015 NCAA championship team. But Wong-Orantes followed a different path upon graduation, initially choosing not to go overseas to play professionally.

While she was first selected for the U.S. national team in 2016 and played a handful of international tournaments in the following years, it wasn’t until she started playing professionally in Germany in 2019 that she saw the potential to elevate her position on the roster. In particular, the pandemic-delayed Tokyo Olympics gave her an additional year of overseas experience, which she calls “a blessing in disguise.”

“I just felt like I was still in that developmental stage,” she said. “And a whole year postponement allowed me to go overseas and really get all the touches, all the repetitions, and just kind of expose myself to international volleyball another year. So I was, in hindsight, pretty thankful for that COVID season because I got an extra year under my belt, and I think that just gave me a ton of confidence.”

Ahead of the Olympics, Wong-Orantes earned “best libero” honors at the 2021 FIVB Volleyball National League in Rimini, Italy, which helped secure her spot on the Olympic roster. In Tokyo, she followed up with another standout performance and was named best libero of the Olympic tournament.

As to how the Wong-Orantes transformed into one of the world’s top liberos, she points to her background as a beach volleyball player. She began competing at age 8, and her first partner was Sara Hughes, a star on the AVP Pro Tour who also won two NCAA titles with USC.

“I think having that background and just the court awareness that beach volleyball forces you to have allowed me to really have a good read on the game,” said Wong-Orantes. “I think that’s what makes a great libero is just reading and always being reactive towards the ball.”

Wong-Orantes also credits the assistance of mental coach Sue Enquist, a former UCLA softball coach and U.S. national team coach, who now helps teams work on their culture and relationships. Enquist began working with the U.S. volleyball team during the pandemic and has continued in her role ever since.

“We just worked on a lot of stuff within ourselves, within our program, how to communicate with each other off the court, and I think that honestly propelled us into such a high, high level with how we worked with each other, and then that transferred onto the court,” explained Wong-Orantes, who noted the team has Enquist on speed dial while at the World Championship. “I really commend Sue. I just really give a lot of praise to her because I think our culture was never bad, but I think [she] just transformed into a different level.”

2022-09-26 - FIVB Volleyball Womens World Championship 2022 - Day 4
ARNHEM, NETHERLANDS – Justine Wong-Orantes (far right) poses for a photo with her U.S. teammates after defeating Canada at the 2022 FIVB Volleyball Women’s World Championship on September 26, 2022. (Photo by Rene Nijhuis/Orange Pictures/BSR Agency/Getty Images)

Wong-Orantes said she and her U.S. teammates are on their toes for the world championships, which features twice as many teams (24) as the Olympics and a “more grueling” format.

“It’s going to be a long tournament, and I think we’re really going to need all 14 of us that are here. I’m pretty certain that, at any given moment, someone’s going to be called on and someone’s going to need to step up in big moments.”