Commentary

Reynolds helps Tennessee win SEC

Freshman reserve a big part of Lady Vols' 17th conference tourney crown

Originally Published: March 9, 2014
By Kate Fagan | espnW.com

DULUTH, Ga. -- Basketball world, meet Jordan Reynolds.

She was the one standing at half court in an arena filled with Tennessee orange. The place was electric; she had made it so. But she wanted it a little louder. During a break in play, the freshman guard turned to the crowd with 1 minute, 45 seconds left in the game and gestured for more noise.

Pretty please?

The pro-Tennessee crowd stayed quiet at first; these fans aren't newbies. Part of the unspoken agreement between a crowd and its team is that free throws deserve silence. And one of the Lady Vols -- senior star Meighan Simmons -- was at the free throw line.

[+] EnlargeJordan Reynolds
AP Photo/John BazemoreJordan Reynolds, left, hit 4 of 6 shots for 11 points off the bench, while SEC tourney MVP Isabelle Harrison added 16 for Tennessee.

Reynolds kept on the crowd until teammate Andraya Carter grabbed her and pointed to Simmons with a look that easily translated: Silly freshman. Reynolds immediately turned back to the crowd and put a forefinger to her lips -- Shhhhhhh! -- acting as if nothing happened.

"Andraya was like, 'Hey, you gotta calm down the crowd!'" Reynolds said afterward. "We needed Meighan to make her free throws before we got excited!"

It was the only mistake Reynolds made down the stretch of Tennessee's 71-70 victory over No. 4 seed Kentucky in the final of the SEC tournament. Watching Reynolds at the end of the second half was like watching someone realize just how good she is: She hit pull-up jumpers, grabbed rebounds, dropped clever bounce passes for scores. She was not the team's leading scorer -- Simmons and Isabelle Harrison combined for 33 points -- but make no mistake: Second-seeded Tennessee would not have won its 17th SEC tournament title without Reynolds.

Sunday's victory also likely secured something else for Tennessee: a coveted No. 1 seed in the upcoming NCAA tournament. "I would think if you win the conference tournament, you would get an opportunity for a No. 1 seed," Tennessee coach Holly Warlick said. "I think we've put ourselves in a good position. Jordan stepped up and got us ahead. She made play after play."

Reynolds finished with a career-high 11 points on 4-for-6 shooting, but she scored nine of those points, and snagged three rebounds, in the second half. And everyone watching closely knew she was the difference-maker, her name filling the running play-by-play as Tennessee went from trailing 59-54 with just more than five minutes remaining to leading 67-63 with 51 seconds on the clock.

Jordan Reynolds is not a household name among women's basketball fans -- not yet, anyway. Here's what we know about the 5-foot-11 youngster just by visiting her bio page: She is from Portland, Ore. Her mom played at San Diego State. Her sister plays for Utah. She was a member of the student council and honor roll in high school. And you can follow her on Twitter at @kobeereynolds.

[+] EnlargeMeighan Simmons
Daniel Shirey/USA TODAY SportsMeighan Simmons led Tennessee with 17 points, including the go-ahead free throws with 1:45 to play.

And here's what we know by asking her, by interrupting the Tennessee celebration inside The Arena at Gwinnett Center, and getting Reynolds to stand still for two minutes: She loves the color blue. Her favorite show is "Girl Code" on MTV and her favorite song is "23" by Miley Cyrus. Her go-to move is an in-and-out crossover (although she didn't use it Sunday), and when she's in Portland her favorite coffee spot is Dutch Bros.

Oh, and one more thing, Tennessee's goal for this season is "winning the national championship." Reynolds answered this question without missing a beat, and then she was gone, high-fiving fans and dancing to Pharrell's "Happy."

Tennessee adopted the motto of "Grind for Nine" at the beginning of this season, referencing the team's blue-collar mentality as it pursues the program's ninth national championship. The Lady Vols haven't been to the Final Four since 2008, which is also the last year they won a national title. Back then, Pat Summitt coached the Lady Vols, before resigning in 2012 because of health reasons. Warlick, Summitt's longtime assistant, became the team's head coach.

The conference tournament title won Sunday was the first for Warlick as a head coach. As she accepted the trophy afterward, she said hello to her longtime mentor, who did not make the trip. "I want to say hi to Pat Summitt," Warlick said to the crowd. "I know she is watching this broadcast."

The crowd erupted in cheers.

After the game, the Lady Vols talked at length about the closeness of this particular team. They spoke as if camaraderie could be a deciding factor in March -- the difference between winning and losing. "They have a little bond going, a trust for each other that's really strong," Warlick said while looking at three of her players in the postgame news conference.

One of them was junior forward Cierra Burdick, who was nodding as Warlick spoke. A minute later, Burdick added her own thoughts: "I don't think there is a closer team out there in the entire country. And I mean that."

We haven't seen Tennessee play loose in years. But the Lady Vols are playing that way right now. These players don't seem weighed down by the past anymore.

They look ready to create some history of their own.

Kate Fagan

Columnist, espnW.com

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