Isabelle Harrison’s teammates wore out the word “huge” Monday night in describing the Tennessee center.
The Lady Vols weren’t referring to the sophomore’s 6-foot-3 stature. Nor were they describing Harrison’s yardarm-like wingspan.
They were quantifying her mere presence as the Lady Vols prepare to start the NCAA women’s basketball tournament.
Tennessee (24-7), the No. 2 seed in the Oklahoma City regional, plays No. 15 seed Oral Roberts (18-12) at approximately 1:30 p.m. Saturday (TV: ESPN2) at Thompson-Boling Arena. No. 7 Syracuse (24-7) and No. 10 Creighton (24-7) open the first-round doubleheader at 11:20 a.m.
The winners play at 7 p.m. Monday.
Harrison has returned to practice after missing Tennessee’s past three games. She suffered an injury to the medial collateral ligament in her right knee during an 82-72 victory over Texas A&M on Feb. 28. She also missed six games from Jan. 31 to Feb. 21 following surgery on her left knee to address the lateral meniscus.
After Monday’s selection show, the tournament prognosis for Harrison generally was optimistic, albeit with some reservation.
“Obviously, we don’t know where Izzy is physically,” senior forward Taber Spani said, “but she’s doing everything possible to get herself ready.”
Head coach Holly Warlick was encouraged by what she saw of Harrison in the two practices before Monday night. But Warlick also said, “She’s not quite there yet.”
Harrison’s outlook on Harrison was matter-of-fact.
“It’s good,” she said. “I mean I have this big brace on but ... I’m feeling good about it.”
Of all the injuries suffered by Tennessee this season, Harrison’s have been the toughest to overcome. She’s established career highs for points (18), rebounds (15), blocks (seven) and steals (six). She leads the team in blocks with 42. The next highest total is Cierra Burdick’s 20. Burdick said that Harrison’s knack for altering shots is important to the team.
“There’s more arc on shots,” Burdick said. “They shoot a floater, whereas maybe they could shoot a layup. She times the ball so well.”
Whenever Harrsion was out, the 6-2 Burdick moved to power forward and experienced the rigors of low-block play. After games, she’d ask fellow post player Bashaara Graves about feeling so sore and Graves would reply, “It’s because they’re hanging on you.”
“You constantly have people hanging on you and grabbing on you,” Burdick said. “When you’re down low, you’re just banging. I have a new appreciation for what Izzy and Bashaara do.”
Counting a Dec. 18 game at Baylor, which Harrison missed with a sprained ankle, Graves has played 10 games without Harrison this season. The 6-2 freshman forward averaged 11.3 points and 6.4 rebounds for those games. Her overall averages are 13.8 and 8.3.
“I definitely didn’t want all that pressure on her because she’s a freshman,” Harrison said. “She doesn’t play like one. She’s strong, explosive, everything you need in a post player. So she really has been holding (the position) down.”
No matter, Graves welcomes the return of someone she considers to be a mentor.
“Izzy is like a senior to me,” she said. “I look up to her.”
Just having her back on the court. Well, it’s huge.