Kellie Harper ready to coach 1st NCAA home game at Tennessee

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee coach Kellie Harper never lost a home game in the women’s NCAA Tournament as a player, posting an perfect 8-0 mark.

Now, she wants to extend that undefeated streak as a coach.

In her third season on the sidelines at her alma mater, Harper finally gets to coach her first NCAA Tournament game in the arena where she helped hang three national championship banners as a player.

“It’s really special to be able to play at home,” Harper said Friday. “The only player on our team that has played in the NCAA Tournament here in Knoxville is Keyen Green, and she was at Liberty when she did it. This is a new experience for all of us.”

The only program to participate in all 40 women’s NCAA Tournaments, No. 18 Tennessee is hosting for the first time since 2018. Harper and the fourth-seeded Lady Vols (23-8) finally get to experience playing in front of their faithful fans Saturday against No. 13 seed Buffalo (25-8) in the first-round Saturday of the Wichita regional.

Junior center Tamari Key said it’s exciting to start at home after the tournament wasn’t held her freshman year and last year was held in a Texas bubble. She can’t wait to play in front of Tennessee fans.

“Honestly that’s the best part about it, just knowing they’re going to show up and show out for us these first two rounds,” Key said.

The Lady Vols are leaning even more on Harper’s experience after losing in the Southeastern Conference Tournament semifinals two weeks ago. She has put them through their toughest practices since last fall, going over some fundamentals to prepare for this tournament knowing success now can salvage a season.

The selection committee did Tennessee no other favors with a bracket that could keep Tennessee from reaching its first Sweet 16 since 2016.

Buffalo has won nine straight, including the Mid-American Conference tournament, with the nation’s fourth-leading scorer in Dyaisha Fair . The Bulls reached the Sweet 16 in 2018 and have won at least a game each of its last two NCAA trips.

Fifth-seeded Oregon (20-11) is one of six to make the Sweet 16 each of the last four tournaments. The Ducks play No. 12 seed Belmont (22-7), which notched its first NCAA win in program history last year upsetting 14th-ranked Gonzaga.

THE MISSING

Tennessee was projected as a potential No. 1 seed in late January and now is the most banged-up team in Knoxville. Green tore an ACL in January, and leading scorer and rebounder Jordan Horston fractured her left elbow on Feb. 17. Harper said Horston will not play Saturday and hasn’t practiced with the team.

Oregon will have its best defender Maddie Scherr who missed the regular season finale Feb. 26 with a leg injury. The Ducks are without assistant coach and defensive coordinator Jackie Nared Hairston. She stayed home ready to give birth any day.

Buffalo has been without its best defender Cheyenne McEvans for six weeks due to a leg injury.

REMEMBERING PAT SUMMITT

Playing on the court named for the woman who won eight national championships and a then-Division I 1,098 games remains a thrill for visitors, even if coaches need to explain to some players what Pat Summitt meant to women’s basketball.

Oregon’s Kelly Graves coached against Summitt three times while at Gonzaga and told the story of Summitt sharing a pizza with him during a tournament in the Virgin Islands. He said he told his Ducks that Tennessee was the standard other programs were measured by.

Buffalo coach Felisha Legette-Jack recalled meeting Summitt over a meal, then getting a tear in her eye when the coach called her by name at a Final Four years later.

“I don’t get star struck. I met President Obama and Magic Johnson, I’ve met a lot of people in my life. Nothing, hi, hello,” Legette-Jack said. “But Pat Summitt was somebody. … It’s going to be etched in my brain for the rest of my life. And so I get the … greatness that these young people may feel here, because I sense it too.”

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More AP coverage of March Madness: https://apnews.com/hub/march-madness and https://apnews.com/hub/womens-college-basketball and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25

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