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Tennessee Lady Vols should fire Kellie Harper before NCAA Tournament after loss to South Carolina

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I’m not calling for a firing on the tarmac. Kellie Harper gave too much to the Tennessee Lady Vols as a player for that. However, after UT’s 74-73 loss to the South Carolina Gamecocks in the SEC Tournament semifinals, they can’t let her coach another game.

Don’t risk it.

If UT makes a Cinderella run in March, Harper will have a strong argument to keep a job she is imminently unqualified for. Her decisions at the end of that South Carolina game were some of the worst coaching blunders in the history of the sport men’s or women’s.

Let’s recap what happened. The Tennessee Lady Vols had a real chance to upset the No. 1 ranked and undefeated South Carolina Gamecocks. They came back from 12 down at the start of the fourth quarter to take a 73-71 late in the game. Then they got a defensive stop, and Jasmine Powell drew a foul and two free throws with four seconds left.

The win seemed like a lock, but Powell missed both free throws. That’s when Harper’s poor coaching came in. South Carolina was out of timeouts and was rushing down the court to get up a prayer. However, with 1.1 seconds left at midcourt, Jewel Spear committed an intentional foul.

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Now, it was a foul on the floor, as South Carolina was not in the bonus. On paper, that would seem like a smart move. However, you do it if the team is actually in a position to score! It makes no sense to do that, which she clearly did on Harper’s orders, when they are at midcourt and there’s a second left. There won’t be enough time for a good shot.

After the dumb foul, though, came the worst defensive call in the history of the game. With a second left, Harper drew up a defense that saw three Lady Vols in the post, one guarding the passing lane on the left side and one player actually guarding a potential scorer on the perimeter.

This is what came out of that defensive scheme.

Kamilla Cardoso had a wide open look and banked in a three. South Carolina, thanks to the worst sequence of defensive coaching in Tennessee Lady Vols history, remains undefeated, and UT is heading home, waiting for its NCAA Tournament seed that will be way too low with a team that has its talent.

Harper defenders will say Cardoso has never hit a three before so it made sense to leave her open. However, there was less than a second left when she caught the ball. If you’re going to leave somebody open, leave open the person in-bounding the ball. For her to score would require an extra pass, which there wasn’t enough time to make.

Also, you can’t explain the ridiculous foul beforehand. It’s as if she went by the book and couldn’t understand situational decisions on the fly. Again, yes, you foul on the court with that amount of time left IF a player is in a position to get a good shot. Instead, she wasted what was about to be a desperation miss.

Don’t spin this either by saying playing South Carolina this close is evidence of her coaching. She’s in her fifth year at the most prestigious program in the SEC. Playing anybody close shouldn’t be the barometer, and with players like Rickea Jackson and Tamari Key, there’s no reason they shouldn’t be on the level of Dawn Staley’s program now.

Oh, and Conference tournaments are wild crapshoots by design. Big upsets or playing elite teams close in those circus events shouldn’t help keep a coach around. The Georgia Bulldogs made that mistake with Dennis Felton because of the men’s team’s run in 2008 to win the SEC Tournament title.

Speaking of runs, that’s what gets us back to why the Tennessee Lady Vols should fire Harper now. The fact of the matter is March Madness is still a tournament in which any team can get hot. Harper was hired off a lucky Sweet 16 run with the Missouri State Lady Bears, but those runs aren’t always reflective of coaching.

By far the last thing UT fans will want is to see this program make a lucky run this year in March, keep Harper around because of that and then just sink into mediocrity or be stuck at this level. Expectations are greater, and it’s why they need to fire her now before it’s too late.

What will help is the Tennessee Lady Vols have a pool of elite candidates to now choose from. They can stick with tradition and hire Kara Lawson, but if not, hiring women’s basketball coaches is Danny White’s forte. He’s found gems at his previous schools, most notably now Syracuse Orange coach Felisha Legette-Jack. It’s time for him to do it again.

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