Tennessee fires Lady Vols coach Kellie Harper after 5 seasons

FILE - Tennessee head coach Kellie Harper looks on during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against South Carolina in Columbia, S.C., Sunday, March 3, 2024. Tennessee has fired Kellie Harper as the Lady Vols coach after five seasons. Athletic director Danny White announced Monday, April 1, 2024, that Harper would not return. (AP Photo/Nell Redmond, File)

FILE – Tennessee head coach Kellie Harper looks on during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against South Carolina in Columbia, S.C., Sunday, March 3, 2024. Tennessee has fired Kellie Harper as the Lady Vols coach after five seasons. Athletic director Danny White announced Monday, April 1, 2024, that Harper would not return. (AP Photo/Nell Redmond, File)

Tennessee fired Kellie Harper as the Lady Vols coach on Monday after five seasons.

Athletic director Danny White announced that Harper would not return, saying he told Harper that her alma mater was making a change after a “thorough review” of the women’s basketball program.

“Decisions like these are never easy to make, especially with someone who has done so much for the Lady Vols as a three-time national champion student-athlete,” White said in a statement. “Her love and passion for Tennessee and the Lady Vols is second to none. She has invested so much heart and soul into our program and truly has given her all for Tennessee.”

Harper finishes her Lady Vols coaching tenure with a 108-52 record, including 53-24 in Southeastern Conference play. She had become one of only two coaches to take four different programs to the NCAA Tournament.

But that’s not the standard at Tennessee, which she helped win three straight national titles as a player under the late Pat Summitt. The Lady Vols remain the only program to make every NCAA Tournament.

White said he talked with the Lady Vols and plans an aggressive search for the next leader of a program with eight national championships. Tennessee hasn’t won a national title since 2008 with Summitt. The Lady Vols have not reached a Final Four since then.

Harper coached the Lady Vols to consecutive Sweet 16s each of the past two seasons. But they lost to her former boss Wes Moore and North Carolina State in the second round 79-72 to end her fifth season.

She called it an honor to work at her alma mater and coach a program she loves dearly.

“I am grateful for the opportunity my staff and I have had to lead an amazing group of young women and to mentor them on the court as well as provide them with life skills that will benefit them far beyond the game of basketball,” Harper said in a statement.

Harper, who also had stints at Western Carolina and Missouri State, is 393-260 in 20 years as a coach, with 16 postseason berths, nine in the NCAA Tournament. She led the Lady Vols to consecutive Sweet 16s the previous two seasons, the second after losing starting center Tamari Key in December 2022 to a blood-clot issue.

Tennessee played much of this season without guard Destinee Wells, a three-time conference player of the year lost in December to a leg injury.

The Lady Vols finished third in the SEC four straight seasons between 2020 and 2023. They reached the SEC Tournament championship game in 2023 for the first time since 2015. They lost this year’s semifinal to South Carolina on a buzzer-beating 3 on March 9.

This is already the second coaching change in the SEC this offseason. Kentucky fired Kyra Elzy, who won the SEC Tournament title in 2022, and hired Kenny Brooks from Virginia Tech.

Harper was hired in 2019, replacing another former Lady Vols great in Holly Warlick. Warlick was fired after going 172-67 in seven seasons, making it to the regional finals in three of her first four years. But then she couldn’t get past the second round in her final three seasons.

That is not the standard at the program once led by Summitt, whose statue stands just outside the arena where the Lady Vols play, or in a league where LSU is the defending national champion, with South Carolina targeting its third title under coach Dawn Staley.

A year ago, Harper was given her third contract extension, running through April 2028.

Men’s coach Rick Barnes led his team to the SEC regular-season title and a loss in its second Elite Eight on Sunday.

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This story has been corrected to show that Tennessee lost in the semifinals, not the championship game, of the SEC Tournament this season.

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AP March Madness bracket: https://apnews.com/hub/ncaa-womens-bracket/ and coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/march-madness

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