KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Fans of the Tennessee Lady Vols never forget where someone played college, especially not a player that beat their beloved team.
On Sunday night, they roared when Brittney Griner was introduced as a starter for the U.S. women’s national team before an exhibition.
“I actually talked to people that said they were coming specifically to see her and to watch her play,” Tennessee coach Kellie Harper said. “And they had become fans throughout her challenges in the last year or so, and I was really happy for that team to feel that from our fans.”
The only other player to come close to a similar ovation was five-time Olympic gold medalist Diana Taurasi despite her playing in college at UConn — the biggest rival for the No. 11 Lady Vols.
Sunday night marked Griner’s first time playing a game with “USA” on the front of her jersey since celebrating winning her second Olympic gold medal in August 2021 at the Tokyo Games.
The reception Griner would receive in a state led by a Republican governor with the GOP holding a super majority in the state legislature was a concern before tipoff.
Griner was arrested in February 2022 at a Moscow airport when customs officials said they found vape canisters with cannabis oil in her luggage. She was convicted and sentenced to nine years in prison in August before being released in December as part of a prisoner exchange.
Taurasi said she believes everyone supports an American returning home regardless of political party. Taurasi also has seen her WNBA teammate with the Phoenix Mercury working to show her appreciation of what was done to get her home by putting on her country’s jersey.
“And I think she’s trying to repay it every single day by being on the court and the stuff she’s doing off the court,” Taurasi said. “That’s a huge burden and she’s willing to carry that.”
If anyone booed Sunday night, cheers easily drowned them out matching Griner’s enthusiasm at representing her country once again.
Griner wasn’t available after the U.S. beat Tennessee 95-59. She made clear Friday how happy she is to be representing her country once again. She said she had a bit of a moment Thursday night realizing that she was back with the national team and putting on that “USA” jersey again.
Wearing this jersey always has meant something special to Griner.
“My dad was law enforcement 30 years, military Vietnam 68-69 Marine, so I mean being able to represent my country means a lot,” Griner said Friday. “Before ball, I actually wanted to actually go into the military, before I found basketball, so this is my way of still representing USA.”
Griner took the court for pregame warmups more than two hours before tipoff, while Taurasi shot on the other end. Griner, now 33, said she hadn’t been on this court in a very long time. That likely was Nov. 27, 2011, when she led Baylor to a win in Tennessee coach Pat Summitt’s final season.
The 6-foot-9 center got her first bucket on a short jumper over Jillian Hollingshead at 5:03 of the first quarter putting the U.S. up 15-7. Griner wound up among five in double figures matching Taurasi with 11 points.
Griner had three rebounds and three assists in 23 minutes. Betnijah Laney led the national team with 14 points, and Rickea Jackson had a game-high 15 points for Tennessee. The Lady Vols took pride in outrebounding the national team 38-37 with Tamari Key blocking a shot.
The U.S. national team improved to 3-1 against the Lady Vols with this the first game here since the start of the 2007-08 season before a Tennessee team led by Candace Parker won the program’s eighth and last national championship.
Griner took photos with each male practice player Friday who asked, smiling and laughing throughout. She knows basketball is big in Knoxville thanks to Summitt with the court named after the Tennessee legend, the Lady Vols’ strong history and fan base.
“It just feels right for USA to be here,” Griner said.
U.S. coach Cheryl Reeve noted Griner’s excitement at being back in Team USA colors to her coaching staff. They talked during the WNBA season, and Reeve said Griner couldn’t wait for the first training camp.
“Just seeing her here, the joy, the excitement that she has, I don’t what she shared with you all but she looked to me like she was pretty excited to be back,” Reeve said.
This exhibition kicked off USA Basketball women’s national team’s preparations for the 2024 Paris Olympics. The U.S. women start a training camp Tuesday in Atlanta before playing another exhibition on Nov. 12 at Duke as the U.S. women chase an eighth straight Olympic gold medal.
This is the first of three periods USA Basketball is using to prepare and evaluate players before naming the final roster for the Paris Games. That schedule includes the Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Belgium in February with the U.S. already qualified as the 2022 World Cup champs.
They also will hold a training camp during the NCAA Women’s Final Four in Cleveland.
AP Freelance Writer Rhiannon Potkey contributed to this report.