Seniors have unfinished business
Shekinna Stricklen and Glory Johnson still seek their first Final Four
Players often talk about how the time in college flies by so quickly that they are seniors before they really know what's hit them. That's not what you'll hear from Tennessee forward Glory Johnson, however.
"Actually," she said, "my freshman year really does seem like a long time ago."
That's likely in part because this class of Tennessee seniors has been through some things that no previous group of Lady Vols experienced. Starting with the program's first loss in the NCAA tournament's first round -- a stunner against Ball State in 2009 -- and most recently with the news that coach Pat Summitt is battling early-onset dementia.
Johnson, a cerebral type, is a fan of author William Faulkner. She couldn't have guessed -- after staying in town after a prep career at Webb School in Knoxville, Tenn. -- that she would experience enough high and lows in college to make for a suitable Faulkner novel.
"On the floor, you know you can only change things you can control," Johnson said of what she has learned. "If you can't control it, you have to play through it. Whatever the case, just try to do your best. And that applies off the court, too.
"I'll take that along with me when I leave here, through my career, when I'm married, when I have a family."
Fellow senior Shekinna Stricklen, the reigning SEC Player of the Year, agreed, "Because our class has been through so much, even through the hard times and bad times, we know we have to stick together. That's one thing I love about this team: We have each other's backs. And now we've got coach's back, too.
"We came in with a lot of pressure on us with [Tennessee] having lost five starters and coming off back-to-back national championships. We lost in the first round, we haven't been to a Final Four it kind of brought us down. But it's also good motivation for us."
Indeed, go back to the fall of 2008. Candace Parker, the No. 1 WNBA draft pick, had been named both MVP and rookie of the year in the league. Tennessee had to replace not just her, but the entire starting lineup. The program was closing in on Summitt's 1,000th career victory, but she would say over and over during the year that she wasn't even thinking about the mark. She was just worried about the next game.
She did hit that milestone -- on Feb. 5, 2009 -- and the 73-43 score against Georgia belied how difficult that entire season was. Tennessee finished 22-11. The loss to Ball State meant that for the first time in NCAA tournament history, the Lady Vols fell short of at least the Sweet 16.
Summitt said something invaluable was missing from the team. In essence, the group collectively lacked the moxie that for so many years seemed inherently a part of wearing a Tennessee jersey.
For the then-freshmen like Stricklen and Johnson, there was a profound sense of not living up to expectations. But Summitt was happy with the response team-wide: The players worked very hard in the offseason. The payoff was a 32-3 record, and SEC titles for the regular season and tournament. Yet the NCAA regional semifinal loss to Baylor still left Tennessee feeling incomplete.
You could say the same thing about this past season, when Tennessee went 34-3, won both SEC championships again but this time lost in the Elite Eight to Notre Dame. The Lady Vols had done so much yet they hadn't done enough.
Which is crazy when you think about it. Both of the past two years were outstanding seasons by definition of 99 percent of the programs in the country. But things are different at Tennessee, and everyone who goes there knows that.
"I don't think you have a proper perspective while you're there," said former Tennessee guard Shanna Zolman, who went to the Final Four three times with the Lady Vols from 2002-06. "It wasn't until I had left, probably three or four years afterward, that I had a better perspective.
"When you're there, all you hear and all you feel is, 'I didn't go to Tennessee to get to a Final Four. I went to win a national championship.' But you don't get to the Final Four -- you don't get anything -- just because you're Tennessee. It's still hard to actually do it, to execute how you need to on the floor, no matter who you are.
"I remember thinking then, 'I don't want the alumni to come back and tell me what's expected, I already feel it.' So yes, that group there now feels the pressure. But they have come a long way. They've definitely grown. Along with the pressure, they have a lot of talent. Their main thing is leadership and having a tight core group."
Tennessee's seniors have perhaps become a more cohesive unit because of everything they've seen happen during their stay. There were things that had nothing directly to do with the women's basketball program, but still impacted the school overall.
Lane Kiffin came and went as football coach in just more than a year's time, and his short reign over the kingpin of UT programs was marked by NCAA issues, controversial statements and various dustups big and small.
Summitt's friend, men's basketball coach Bruce Pearl, got into hot water with the NCAA and eventually was fired by the school in March. Athletics director Mike Hamilton resigned in June.
And it all seemed to point out even more just what a towering presence Summitt was for the university, how much she had been depended on for decades to be the complete definition of success.
Johnson and Stricklen went to China in August to play in the World University Games, coming home with gold medals. They were soon to learn about Summitt's diagnosis, which would then become national news.
Once they got past the initial shock, sadness and fear, Johnson, Stricklen and their teammates committed themselves to being even more focused on the business at hand. As if a 66-6 record over the past two years wasn't enough evidence of commitment. Still, there was more to do, more to push for.
"I've become more vocal," said Stricklen, who has had to play in various spots all over the court depending on Tennessee's needs. "It helped to be with USA Basketball, and playing with so many of the top players around the country and learn to rely on each other. I've had to learn to talk more; that was one of my weaknesses.
"I feel now I'm better about communicating with my teammates. I've stretched out of my comfort zone a lot."
Johnson is by nature more verbally outgoing; her main challenge as a maturing player was different. For all her talent, Johnson didn't always seem as engaged as she needed to be on the court. There was a gear she clearly had, but couldn't always get to.
As she enters her last season as a collegian, Johnson has better figured out how many ways she can impact a game.
"I've developed my mentality, when I go into anything, to strive to be my best all the time," said Johnson, now a graduate student. "And to try to focus on doing the little things better."
At 6-foot-3 with a combination of speed and spectacular leaping ability, Johnson is one of the rare gems athletically for defense. Tennessee can both put her on the ball and rely on her to defend in the paint as well.
"I want the role as a defensive stopper -- either on a post player or against even a point guard," said Johnson, who averaged 12.0 points and 9.7 rebounds as a junior. "I enjoy getting to be on the ball. It shakes up some teams, for sure, when you have a big player guarding what's usually one of the smallest players on the floor. I have to take advantage of that."
Stricklen, as mentioned, has done just about everything for Tennessee, including playing point guard. The 6-2 Arkansas native has been Tennessee's most reliable presence in her time in Knoxville, even if her numbers aren't gaudy. Last season, she averaged 12.8 points and 7.3 rebounds. And that latter number is perhaps the most important.
Tennessee consistently has been a great rebounding program, and this year that should be the case as much as ever. Post player Vicki Baugh -- a remaining link to the 2008 title team, on which she was a freshman -- has endured all the problems with her injured left knee to return for a senior season in which she could be a very big contributor.
Fellow senior Alicia Manning, a 6-1 energy force, has tended to be most versatile and valuable on the defensive end of the court. Freshman post players Isabelle Harrison, 6-3, and Cierra Burdick, 6-2, give Tennessee even more athletic size on the boards.
"These freshmen coming in, I know they are going to look to us a lot for answers," Johnson said. "We have to be leaders, to always be doing the right thing.
"I'm really excited about this team. We know we've had a lot to deal with, and we still do. But if we can stay close and support each other, there's nothing else you can ask for."
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at mechellevoepelblog.com.
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