Rickea Jackson blew Kristin Williams on the wing with a crossover.
Nothing could stop the 6-foot-2 forward as she drove to the basket. Jackson finished effortlessly through contact, drawing her second and one second-half game against UMass. Lady Vol’s point guard Jasmine Powell, assisting the change bucket, sprinted towards Jackson, yelled and playfully shoved her while celebrating.
Yes, Jackson was having fun now.
Jackson led the Lady Vols to their first win of the season with 24 points and 11 rebounds — and she had a good time doing it. The joy of playing basketball was something Jackson hadn’t felt for a while before moving to Tennessee.
“Coming here was the best decision I could have made,” Jackson said.
RECRUITMENT:Why Kellie Harper doesn’t have a 2023 recruitment course yet and what that means for the Lady Vols
ANOTHER YEAR?:Great Lady Vols Candace Parker says “I’m in” for another season in the WNBA
KEY RESPONSE:Lady Vols Basketball’s Tamari Key responds to criticism of her performance on social media
Losing love for the game
Jackson was afraid of the way she was feeling in January 2022.
She didn’t want to play basketball and didn’t feel the same passion. Her three seasons at Mississippi State were not what was promised. Jackson’s freshman year was successful, and the Bulldogs advanced to the SEC tournament championship game under former coach Vic Schaefer. Then Schaefer traveled to Texas after COVD-19 ended the 2019-20 season after the SEC tournament.
The Bulldogs struggled over the next two seasons with a combined 25-23 record under two coaches. With the Bulldogs struggling and Jackson not playing the way she wanted, it eventually took a toll on her mental health. Jackson couldn’t ignore it any longer.
“The mental battle I was struggling with was where I was and it just wasn’t healthy anymore,” Jackson told Knox News. “It’s just like, I don’t think I can take a break. There were things off the pitch with the team that were just unhealthy for a player. It was just something that I felt like was time for me to move on.”
Jackson entered the transfer portal on January 24. At the time, Jackson was leading the SEC in scoring.
“It just wasn’t healthy for me, my psyche, my body,” Jackson said. “It made me lose love of the game because I feel like basketball is my bliss. A lot of people always say, “Don’t let your athletic performance be the mainstay of your feelings.” But when it’s something you’ve been doing for a long time, you just want to be great at it.”
Put yourself first
Jackson’s decision wasn’t easy.
She didn’t choose the state of Mississippi because she thought she would only be there for a few years. Jackson felt like she was putting the feelings of others first, worried about what people would say once she entered the transfer portal.
But by putting herself first, she found her love for the game again.
“Regardless of what nobody else has to say, I chose myself,” Jackson said. “Because sometimes you have to put yourself first, no matter how much it hurts other people. … My sanity matters more than the opinions of others. I had to make that decision at the end of the day.”
Tennessee’s assistant coach Samantha Williams saw a player who needed a fresh start and was convinced that coach Kellie Harper was a perfect match for Jackson.
“You have to protect your mental health,” Williams said. “I just think she needed to be in an environment that would help her feel comfortable and be her best self. That’s all everyone wants for everyone is to be their best self. … I think she’s managed to thrive since she’s been here.”
Why being a good teammate is important to her
Jackson is averaging 18 points, 6.4 rebounds and two assists in Tennessee’s first five games. Jackson shoots from the field with a 51.6% clip.
But she’s also a great teammate. Jackson found himself surrounded by players giving “positive, healthy energy,” which made it flow back into her. It was easy for her to let go and be vulnerable knowing her team wanted success for her as much as they wanted it.
“It’s easier for me to step out of my shell, give back, encourage them more and be this loud, energetic teammate that I am because you don’t feel guilty about it,” Jackson said. “You’re not afraid like, ‘Oh, I don’t want to do this and this person is secretly hostile towards me.’ There’s none of that here. I know she wants what’s best for me. She goes hard for me, I push hard for her.
Williams said Jackson handled the transition well. She came into a program where players were already established while Jackson led the SEC in goals last season. But she didn’t try to take over or overdo it.
“She wasn’t trying to be territorial,” Williams said. “She just came in, she makes the right plays, she fits in at the right time and she knows she can do her thing too. No one will say, ‘You can’t do this.’ They will also show her at her best on the pitch.”