Friday March 6th, 2015

How’s this for an unconventional, and unexpected, label: Tennessee women’s basketball, underdogs.

No, that is not a misprint.

Ever since senior All-America Isabelle Harris suffered a season-ending ACL tear on Feb. 15, analysts have all but written off Tennessee, one of the most storied programs in women’s college basketball. The Lady Vols (25-4, 15-1 SEC) are ranked No. 5 and start their postseason hunt tonight at 7 p.m. EST in the quarterfinals of the SEC tournament against Georgia. The favorite, of course, is No. 3 South Carolina (27-2, 15-1), and upstart Kentucky (22-8, 10-6), ranked No. 12 and coming off a win over the Gamecocks last week. Tennessee’s getting a little lost in the conversation. 

And Cierra Burdick loves it.

“I love when these ‘experts’ say we’re gonna start losing games because we lost Izzy,” says Burdick, a 6’2” forward who averages 11 points and seven rebounds and leads the team with 72 assists. “I turn on ESPN and people are basically calling us scrubs without Izzy. We’ve got five All-Americans on our team! But you know what, it’s fuel to the fire. Keep saying it.”

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Though the program has won eight NCAA titles, the Lady Vols haven’t been to a Final Four since 2008, the year of their last championship. It’s a drought, Burdick says, that gnaws at her and her fellow seniors, Harrison and point guard Ariel Massengale. The plan was to fix that this year, following the lead of Harrison, one of the best all-around players in the country. But when her knee buckled after a Kentucky player stepped on her foot in Tennessee’s 72-58 win—a fluke injury, says UT coach Holly Warlick—outsiders assumed that plan came to halt.

It’s easy to understand why people would think this way. The 6’3” center’s play was crucial—12 points, eight rebounds, numerous defensive stops—and Tennessee struggled without her earlier this season when she missed five games, losing to Texas and Chattanooga. Players says those losses weren’t about Harrison’s absence; they were about a general unpreparedness and a team unwilling, at the time, to buy into the defensive gameplan. That’s been taken care of.

When Harrison missed five games early, junior Bashaara Graves, a 6’2 forward, felt pressure to fill in the missing points and rebounds. And Warlick, now in her third season since taking over for Pat Summitt, sensed it.

“I just want us to be consistent,” Warlick says. “Izzy has so much talent but even when she was on the floor, it wasn’t all about her. We’ve always had someone who’s a superstar, an All-American … but (it works) because everyone else buys into their role.”

Says Massengale: “Earlier this season everyone was looking around, waiting for someone else to do something. Now we get it—it’s on all of us.”

Warlick wants extra points from Graves … and Burdick, and Massengale. She needs more rebounds from Burdick, Graves and freshman Jaime Nared. Defensive pressure, led by Massengale and Andraya Carter, will be key, because Harrison had a habit of erasing a lot of defensive mistakes if opposing guards got into the paint.

Cal Sport Media via AP

Harrison was the rare, unheralded recruit who headed for Knoxville. A Nashville native, she didn’t play on the junior national team or get named a McDonald’s All-American. Warlick, who has been with the program since 1985, says it’s easy for all the Wade Trophies to overshadow the success stories of overachievers. The Lady Vols have developed plenty of players from the ground up, young women like Kyra Elzy (now a UT assistant), Melissa McCray (who helped the Lady Vols to their first title in 1987) and Nicky Anosike (who titles, in 2007 and ’08). Warlick is proud to add Harrison to that list, pointing to her as an example of perseverance. She played just eight minutes per game her first season, biding time behind UT stars Glory Johnson and Vicki Baugh.  

Now, junior Nia Moore could become the next player on that list of overachievers. A lanky 6’3” center from Chicago, Moore played with Massengale at Bolingbrook High. She averages just 11 minutes per game but Burdick, who goes against her every day in practice, thinks she’s on the verge of a breakout postseason.

“She’s so long and athletic, more athletic than people think she’s going to be,” Burdick says. “She surprises people with her explosiveness. She gives up weight on the defensive end, but she makes up for it with length.”

And it would help, of course, if Graves did happen to find an extra 13 points in her game. Not because the Lady Vols need it just from her, but because they believe she’s capable of it.

Growing up, the Clarksville, Tenn., native idolized Candace Parker and dreamed of wearing Tennessee orange. When UT officially offered her a scholarship in the summer of 2011, she laughed nervously in Summitt’s office, silently wondering if she belonged with the elite.

“I definitely had a little confidence issue at first, didn’t know if I was good enough to play here,” Graves says. “I had to build that.”

She quieted those doubts after two seasons, trusting the awards (2013 SEC Freshman of the year) and stats (9.3 points and 6.8 rebounds per game last year.) She’s grown up, she says, “put on my big girl pants,” and believes in herself fully now. She also came into the season with the understanding that Harrison was the star. She’s still not used to seeing Harrison on the bench in tight games, and jokes that she tells herself to “pretend like Izzy’s in foul trouble.” It helps her focus on winning the game, not the devastation she feels for her teammate. Without Harrison, Graves—who goes by “Bash”—has shown she can be an inside force if necessary. In a 71-66 loss at South Carolina Feb. 23, she scored 20 points against the Gamecocks’ vaunted defense. She listens to Harrison’s coaching from the bench, repeatedly reminding her to be strong, and vocal, on the floor.

“With Izzy as her mentor, Bash has grown into a beast in the paint,” Burdick says. “We know if we throw the ball down there, it’s an automatic bucket. She’s grown so much.”

They all have.

“This whole group, we’re fighters,” Burdick says. “We love that people are counting us out. We compete every single day like we’re coming for somebody’s head. I’d go to war with Bash, with ‘Riel with all of these girls. And we’re about it.”

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