Harrison back for Lady Vols’ NCAA tourney opener

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 Saturday’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 Saturday 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 last 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 Saturday, 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.”