Haynes-Overton also amassed 10 rebounds and seven steals in the Bucs’ 72-68 loss to the Lady Vols, which was the season opener for both teams and the debut of Kelly Harper as Tennessee’s head coach.
“She’s the best player in the Southern Conference and right now, she’s the best player in the Southeastern Conference,” Ezell said. “She had 41 points, 10 rebounds, seven steals and threw up every time out. If you don’t recognize what ETSU tough is, you’re looking at it.
“She’s one of the most talented players I’ve ever seen and I’ve played and coached in the SEC, have coached in the Big 12. Erica is a great player, but more important a remarkable teammate.”
Haynes-Overton’s 41 points rank second to the school-record 52 scored by Marsha Cowart against Austin Peay in 1981. She logged nearly 39 minutes, pushing herself through the sickness to stay out on the court.
“I wanted to win. I wanted to get out there,” she said. “I cried a couple of times, but my teammates had my back. They got me up on my feet and I had to get out there.”
It was a determined effort throughout as ETSU jumped out to an early 10-4 lead and trailed 19-15 after one quarter. The deficit was 40-30 at the half and 61-50 at the end of the third quarter. The Bucs rallied late, outscoring the Lady Vols 9-2 over a 4:13 stretch in the fourth quarter to cut the deficit from 10 points to a one-possession game.
E’Lease Stafford added 13 points and six rebounds, while Micah Scheetz ended with seven points and five rebounds. The Bucs missed on opportunities at the free-throw line, making 17 of 33 attempts.
“The overarching emotion for me is gratitude for the people I’m surrounded by today,” Ezell said. “I’m grateful for their heart, for their effort. I found out who my team was very quickly and I like who they are. It wasn’t schematic, it wasn’t effort — it was free throws and we can fix that. I’m so proud, but at the same time I will be thinking about free throws.”
The Lady Vols, who were led by Zaay Green with 17 points and Rennia Davis with 13 points and 10 rebounds, took advantage of their height and length. With those factors, Tennessee held advantages of 62-41 in rebounds, 19-2 in second-chance points and 38-30 in points in the paint.
Still, Harper was looking for a spark in the second half, bringing five substitutes off the bench at one point in the third quarter. In the end, she was glad for her team being able to escape Johnson City with a win. She added it was hard to communicate at times in front of an enthusiastic crowd listed at 5,881.
“I’m proud of our players for finding a way to hang on,” Harper said. “It is a great opportunity for us to learn without us having to take a loss. We felt our strength was our athleticism and being able to get the ball in the paint. We were able to do that throughout the game and obviously, the board play helped us. It’s part of who we were and what we do.”
Tamari Key finished with 11 points and 12 rebounds, while Lou Brown also scored 11 points for Tennessee.
Tennessee closed out the game making 4 of 6 free throws, including Rae Burrell scoring the final point after getting an offensive rebound off a missed free throw by Davis with nine seconds left. Green hitting a pair of free throws before that made it a two-possession game.
She expressed full confidence going up to the line.
“There really wasn’t any pressure,” Green said. “I just went up there, shot two free throws and felt I was going to make them.”