During a road game earlier this month, as she stretched to defend a pass, Tennessee guard Jordan Horston fell out of bounds at coach Kellie Harper’s feet. Harper pulled her up and shoved her back on to the court, and Horston quickly grabbed a bad pass from the opponent and began streaking toward the Lady Vol basket.
It was an apt metaphor for the season of both player and team, as how Horston has gone, so has the group. Tennessee ascended to the top five this month for the first time since 2015, after spending several weeks in the top 10, where they hadn’t been for three seasons. Horston has lead the way.
The junior has almost doubled her point production from last year to a team-high 15.8 points per game, and nearly tripled her rebounding average, to 9.6, which is also tops for the Lady Vols. Horston’s defense has grown as well, as both her blocks and steals numbers are up, making her a lethal two-way player. Her leadership and output is a big factor in Tennessee being projected as a top seed in this year’s NCAA Tournament.
“I think right now she makes the team better, because she makes a lot of plays,” Harper said. “Her plus-minus is really strong, game-in and game-out. She’s doing a terrific job on the boards. I think our team has a lot of confidence in Jordan, and has a lot of confidence when Jordan is on the court, because she can make plays.”
“She can affect about every play because of what she can do on the boards – and defensively as well – with the basketball.”
For the past two years Horston played behind Rennia Davis, who was drafted into the WNBA last year, and Rae Burrell. But the Ohio native came into the season with a new focus and a new perspective that was grounded by training hard in the offseason.
“I feel like it’s my time this year,” Horston said. “The game is slowing down for me a little bit, and I’m seeing more things. Coaches are pushing on me saying, we need you to score, we need you to get rebounds. And I’ve been taking that personally.”
”Coming into this year, I knew it was going to be a big season for me, so I’ve been consistent with everything I’ve done.”
With her hard work came greatly-increased confidence, which was also something she worked to develop.
“Definitely, my confidence has gone up. I still struggle with it, but I know that at the end of the day, you have to be confident in yourself, because if you’re not, no one else will be,” Horston said. “I really worked on that this season. My dad always told me, just see the ball going through the net every time. Confident players do better. It’s a mindset.”
This proved critical when Burrell was injured in the season opener, and missed 12 games, leaving Horston to carry much of the load. And indeed, only one of her stats is down this year: assists. She said making the shift was deliberate.
“I’ve always been a facilitator, and that’s helped me get to this level,” Horston said. “Now people think I’m going to drive and look for someone else, but I’m putting it up. The time I’ve spent on the court, the time I’ve put in, has helped a lot.”
Harper appreciates Horston’s growth.
“I think Jordan has matured a lot. I think she’s grown a lot,” Harper said. “I think the experience that she had the first two years put her in a position right now to walk on the court with great confidence and also, the air she plays with.”
“I think she’s in better shape now than maybe she was her first couple of years, and also, I think her presence on the court, offensively and defensively, has affected our team in a positive way.”
Horston’s mother, Malika, said her daughter’s emergence this year is similar to the way she blossomed during high school.
“She’s always been the type of player who waits her turn,” Malika Horston said. “That’s the way she is – she follows directions and does her part. I knew at some point we were going to see this, because Jordan works hard. When Kellie told her, ‘I need you to do these things,’ she was already ready.”
Horston corroborates her mother’s assertion that she loves the game, and will do anything for a win.
“People who know me, people who play me, know that all I want to do is win, and whatever it takes to get that done, I’m going to do it,” Horston said. “If my shot isn’t going in, I’m going to go rebound. If I’m getting boxed out, I pass it. I’m not doing anything but being a good teammate.”
Junior center Tamari Key said Horston is a great teammate in every way.
“Jordan is a bright spot for our team, both on and off the court,” Key said. “Off the court she will take care of you, hold you accountable and push you – say what you need to hear. Her confidence gives the rest of the team confidence, and motivates everyone. She is vocal, but leads more by example.”
The 18-2 Lady Vols now have Burrell back, and are working on their chemistry once again, according to Key. They won their first nine games and then went another nine before losing their first in the SEC last week, to Auburn.
Horston said that as formidable as Tennessee has been this season, there is still a lot of room for improvement.
“The crazy thing is, we still haven’t been playing our best basketball,” she said. “We have so much potential. We know how to pull out a game, but the thing is, we don’t play for 40 minutes all the time. When we get to that point, I don’t see how people are going to stop us. We’re still getting better every day.”
As the Lady Vols fight through conference play and ready for the NCAA Tournament, Horston is optimistic.
“If we all just do our job, we are such a great team,” she said. “Everybody wants to win.”
Tennessee hosts Arkansas tonight, at 7 p.m. ET.