KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee center Isabelle Harrison is healthy enough to return to the Lady Vols’ lineup just in time for the NCAA Tournament.
Harrison, a 6-foot-3 sophomore, missed 10 games this season with three separate injuries. She said she feels about 90 percent as the second-seeded Lady Vols (24-7) prepare to face No. 15 seed Oral Roberts (18-12) in today’s first round of the Oklahoma City Regional. She has been practicing this week with a brace on her right knee.
“I don’t even notice my brace anymore,” Harrison said. “I’m getting really comfortable with it. It doesn’t really inhibit me.”
Post players could be the center of attention today at Thompson-Boling Arena.
While Harrison comes back from her latest injury, all-Big East center Kayla Alexander tries to give No. 7 seed Syracuse (24-7) its first-ever NCAA Tournament victory against No. 10 seed Creighton (24-7).
There were times this season when Harrison wondered if she’d ever get this opportunity.
Harrison underwent surgery to repair the lateral meniscus in her left knee Feb. 1 after injuring it four days earlier in a 77-67 loss to Notre Dame. She initially feared the injury would knock her out for the remainder of the season before getting better news the following day.
“It hurt more than anything,” Harrison said. “I’d never experienced something like that. I thought I guessed this is what it feels like when somebody tears their ACL, so of course, that was in the back of my mind. I was scared more than anything.”
The left knee caused Harrison to miss six games before she returned Feb. 24 in a 60-54 victory at Arkansas. Harrison injured her right knee Feb. 28 in an 82-72 triumph over Texas A&M and sat out the Lady Vols’ regular-season finale and both their Southeastern Conference Tournament games.
Harrison has missed nine of Tennessee’s past 11 games, and she also sat out a 76-53 loss to Baylor on Dec. 18 with an injured right ankle. She averages 9.5 points, 7.8 rebounds and 2.0 blocks per game.
“It’s been hard for her,” Tennessee coach Holly Warlick said. “To have the will to want to come back is huge. We will definitely use her and need her.”
Although she likely won’t start today, Harrison will play as Tennessee attempts to improve to 51-0 in NCAA Tournament games on its home floor.
Harrison’s presence should boost Tennessee’s defense in its attempts to slow down Oral Roberts guard Kevi Luper, whose 2,847 career points rank 16th in NCAA Division I history. Luper’s senior season includes a 19-point performance in a 94-56 loss to defending national champion Baylor.
“We’re not intimidated or scared or anything like that because we’ve already played the defending national champions,” Luper said.
While Tennessee seeks its 19th Final Four appearance, Syracuse is searching for its first NCAA Tournament victory. Alexander said she didn’t know about Syracuse’s lack of NCAA Tournament wins until after the brackets were released Monday.
“That’s when people started telling us we hadn’t won a tournament game,” Alexander said. “We took that as a challenge and an opportunity. As an athlete, you’re always up for a challenge, right?”
Alexander is Syracuse’s first 2,000-point scorer ever. The 6-foot-4 senior also owns Syracuse career records in field goals (729), free throws made (543) and blocks (350). She’s two points away from the single-season school record of 552 points set last year by Iasia Hemingway.
“You have to have a go-to player on both ends of the floor,” Syracuse coach Quentin Hillsman said. “She’s been that for us for four years.”
Alexander could cause a major matchup problem for an undersized Creighton team. Alyssa Kamphaus, a 6-3 junior center, is the only Creighton player taller than 6 feet.
Creighton could compensate with its 3-point attack. Creighton has made 9.3 baskets from 3-point range per game, an average that ranks behind only Florida Gulf Coast (9.4). The 3-pointer should play a big role Saturday, as Syracuse is the first Creighton opponent all season that relies almost exclusively on a zone defense.
“It’s a little bit scary because we’re not the best zone offensive team,” Creighton guard Ally Jensen said. “We’ve seen some zone, and we handle it well about half the time and sometimes we don’t. They’re a pure zone team, so we’ve prepared for it and we have offenses put in that we’ve been working on in practice. I think we’re going to be ready to go, and everybody knows they have to have it loaded up and be ready to shoot.”