Kellie Harper reunites with 'two wonderful' former teammates to kick off We Back Pat week

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Kellie Harper heard her former coach's voice during a timeout in Tennessee's 84-58 win over Kentucky in Thompson-Boling Arena.

No, she literally heard it. Videos of legendary Lady Vols coach Pat Summitt played on the screens during timeouts for the 11th annual We Back Pat week. Normally, Harper is locked into the game and doesn't hear outside noise during timeouts, but Sunday was different.

"I sat down at one point and I heard Pat's voice and in the huddle I said ‘OK, y'all I'm like a little freaked out right now, because I hear my coach and I'm trying to coach you guys," said Harper who played for Summitt from 1995-99 and is in her third season as coach of the Lady Vols. "I did hear it, so it caught me. It goes back to when I was a player.

"She didn't have to yell at me, because she could’ve whispered and I would have heard it, and I would have known to look over there because I was always so in tune to her voice. I'd like to attribute that to me still being in tune to her."

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Summitt died in 2016 at age 64 after a five-year battle with Alzheimer's disease. She won 1,098 games at UT from from 1974 to 2012 and eight national titles. The Pat Summitt Foundation was formed to help find a cure of Alzheimer's and provide support services. The SEC and its member schools have dedicated a week of every conference season to raising awareness and funds for the foundation since 2012.

'Coach Summitt is smiling down'

Summitt's voice wasn't the only thing transporting Harper back to her playing days. Two of her former teammates were on the opposing bench – Kentucky coach Kyra Elzy and assistant Niya Butts. Harper said it was fitting "two wonderful" teammates were in Thompson-Boling Arena to kick off We Back Pat week.

"I think it's important for them as well," Harper said. "They love where they're at, don't get me wrong, but they love Tennessee. They love this program. Because they gave everything they had for this program and they loved Pat, and what she meant to them, as did all of Pat’s players. She had a profound influence on all of us, and so many of us wouldn't be where we are today without her influence and without her mentorship."

Elzy said Summitt was not only her coach, but her mentor and friend. A piece of her heart will always be at Tennessee, because it's the place she became the person she is today.

"It's always an honor to see that we can play a small part in helping to continue her legacy," Elzy said. "She deserves it. She gave so much to women's basketball, to the SEC. And she influenced a nation full of people, so for us to pay honor to her is very special for me and all the former Lady Vols."

If you would have told Harper and Elzy back in their playing days they would one day be head coaches in the SEC, "there's no way in the world" they would have believed you. Even more so for Harper, because Tennessee was Summitt's job forever in her eyes.

"I know Coach Summitt is smiling down, just to have former Lady Vols in the SEC coaching," Elzy said.

Harper and Elzy's bond they formed as teammates for three seasons remains a close one, and Harper said she's always pulling for Elzy – unless they're playing each other.

Tennessee women's basketball coach Kellie Harper and Kentucky women's basketball coach Kyra Elzy hug before the start of the NCAA basketball game between the Tennessee Lady Vols and Kentucky Wildcats in Knoxville, Tenn. on Sunday, January 16, 2022.
Tennessee women's basketball coach Kellie Harper and Kentucky women's basketball coach Kyra Elzy hug before the start of the NCAA basketball game between the Tennessee Lady Vols and Kentucky Wildcats in Knoxville, Tenn. on Sunday, January 16, 2022.

"Kyra has always been really supportive of me, and she is somebody that I will always respect and I'll always trust," Harper said. "That's the bond that you have when you’re teammates. I think that will never change ... and we do have a good relationship, and I appreciate that. I think it starts with good people. She's such a good person and I'm still I'm so proud to call her my teammate."

Elzy came to Tennessee during Harper's sophomore year. Both were guards, and Harper helped guide Elzy through her freshman season in 1996-97, especially after Harper tore the anterior cruciate ligament in her right knee nine days before the start of practice.

Tennessee women's basketball coach Kellie Harper left, and Kentucky women's basketball coach Kyra Elzy each presenting $10,000 checks to the Pat Summitt Foundation before the start NCAA basketball game between the Tennessee Lady Vols and Kentucky Wildcats in Knoxville, Tenn. on Sunday, January 16, 2022. At left is Pat Summitt Foundation Advisory Board member Adrian Jay, center is UT Women’s Athletics Director Emeritus and Pat Summitt Foundation Advisory Board member Joan Cronan, and Pat Summitt Foundation Director of Advancement Morgan Vance.
Tennessee women's basketball coach Kellie Harper left, and Kentucky women's basketball coach Kyra Elzy each presenting $10,000 checks to the Pat Summitt Foundation before the start NCAA basketball game between the Tennessee Lady Vols and Kentucky Wildcats in Knoxville, Tenn. on Sunday, January 16, 2022. At left is Pat Summitt Foundation Advisory Board member Adrian Jay, center is UT Women’s Athletics Director Emeritus and Pat Summitt Foundation Advisory Board member Joan Cronan, and Pat Summitt Foundation Director of Advancement Morgan Vance.

"Kellie was the ultimate leader for our team," Elzy said. "She was the point guard and I was a freshman guard coming in. (When) Kellie went down for part of the season with an ACL, I kind of stepped into playing the point guard and the two. So for her to be able to mentor me and guide me and kind of show me the ropes as I was getting baptized by fire – I think that helped us have a special bond."

Before Sunday's tipoff, Harper and Elzy presented checks to the Pat Summitt Foundation for $10,000 each. Harper donned a dark purple dress, and Elzy wore a plaid purple set in honor of their former coach's foundation.

Harper had put on her own We Back Pat games before she became coach at Tennessee. But standing in the place of her former coach for the annual week is different, and holds a lot of emotion for the former Lady Vol.

“There's a lot of ... there's still a lot of emotion for, not just her former players, and not just people that she coached against – but for fans, for friends," Harper said. "There's just a lot emotion when you start talking about Pat. And then you start talking about the foundation and it's tough. It's tough at times, because so many people are affected by Alzheimer's, and on the flip side, so many people were affected by Pat ... she had a positive influence on so many people.”

Cora Hall: Covering UT women's athletics
Twitter | cora.hall@knoxnews.com
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This article originally appeared on Knoxville News Sentinel: Kellie Harper reunites with former Vols teammates: We Back Pat week

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