Lady Vols banking on Isabelle Harrison to build on last season's momentum
KNOXVILLE, Tennessee — Tennessee hasn't been an elite team lately in part because it hasn't had an elite player.
The Lady Vols believe senior center Isabelle Harrison can change that.
Tennessee hasn't reached a Final Four since its 2008 national championship and hasn't produced an Associated Press first-team or second-team All-America player during that drought. Harrison showed signs of developing into that kind of performer last season while being named the most valuable player of the Southeastern Conference tournament.
Now the Lady Vols want her to take the next step.
"I think Izzy is very capable of becoming our elite player at that level," Tennessee coach Holly Warlick said. "She has just done nothing but continue to progress. Not only has Izzy developed some confidence, our team has an extreme amount of confidence in Izzy, and that's contagious."
The last several years have underscored the difficulty of getting to the Final Four without a superstar player. Of the 24 teams to reach the Women's Final Four since 2009, only two didn't have an AP All-America selection: Louisville and California in 2013.
Tennessee's only AP All-Americans during its six-year absence from the Women's Final Four have been third-team picks Shekinna Stricklen in 2011 and 2012 and Meighan Simmons in 2013. That represents a major change for a program that had 14 first-team or second-team All-America selections from 1995-2008, including multiple honors for Chamique Holdsclaw, Candace Parker, Tamika Catchings and Semeka Randall.
Harrison has All-America potential.
After struggling with injuries and foul trouble earlier in her career, Harrison averaged 13.6 points and 9.3 rebounds per game last season to help Tennessee go 29-6 and reach an NCAA regional semifinal. The 6-foot-3 center from Nashville received honorable mention when the All-America team was announced.
Harrison's 18 double-doubles led the SEC and represented the second-highest total in Tennessee history. The only Lady Vol with more double-doubles in one year was Parker, who had 21 in 2006-07.
"It's really shown me how far I've come," Harrison said. "I never thought I would be in any category that Candace was in because she's an amazing player. To have my name up there with her, it's an honor. I've had talks with Candace before, and she's always been supportive in everything I do. It's just a blessing that I'm up there with her, and it's shown me how hard I've worked."
Harrison's coaches and teammates say her improved confidence has made a major difference.
Warlick says that "I really didn't know where her game was going or how serious she was about her game" during Harrison's freshman year. Now she calls Harrison the Lady Vols' "go-to player" and says the 6-foot-3 senior from Nashville "is standing head and shoulders above just everyone."
"She's just so much stronger than she was, mentally and physically," sophomore guard Andraya Carter said. "She's confident. She's so sure of what she's doing out there on the floor. She doesn't get down on herself if she makes a bad play. She just runs back and gets back on defense. She's a complete animal on the boards, just going strong.
"I think she really feels good about the way she's playing. We feel really good about it. Our coaches feel good about it. She's just who we look to. She gets us fired up. She gets us going, and we all kind of follow behind her."
Harrison wants to lead Tennessee all the way to the Women's Final Four.
"It'd be the perfect senior year," Harrison said. "No matter what I'm going through, to have that to end it would be amazing."