Lady Vols' DeShields has regained her health, confidence
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) Tennessee guard Diamond DeShields couldn't understand it last season when fans would let her know how much they appreciated her. It didn't make sense to her why anyone would offer praise when she wasn't playing well.
DeShields' supreme confidence took a major hit during a 2015-16 season she calls a ''huge disappointment.'' Now the North Carolina transfer has it back and wants to help the Lady Volunteers reclaim their status as national contenders.
''Hopefully I can get back to knowing I'm the best player on the floor as opposed to other people telling me,'' DeShields said. ''It didn't matter what other people said when I was at North Carolina. I knew it. Last year, it was like I had to have that constant reminder in order to even step out and compete sometimes.''
Tennessee went 22-14 last season to set a school record for losses, though a surprising NCAA Tournament run ended one step shy of the Final Four. DeShields had a team-high 14.3 points per game but came off the bench for nearly half the season while struggling to get healthy and adapt to her new teammates.
She now feels better physically. Just as important, the 6-foot-1 junior feels better about herself.
''When I was at North Carolina, I was like a little firecracker ... a puppy off a leash, just running around like crazy, happy, energetic, excited,'' DeShields said. ''Now I have that energy and have that excitement, but I'm a bigger dog now. I can sit, watch, observe and choose when to attack and when not to attack as opposed to always being one speed.''
Tennessee needs her that way. The Lady Vols' backcourt is reeling from the announcement that Te'a Cooper will miss the 2016-17 season and Andraya Carter is forgoing her final season of eligibility because of injuries.
But there's one bit of good news.
''Diamond DeShields is now healthy,'' Tennessee coach Holly Warlick said. ''We needed her to be - and she's been - a great leader.''
DeShields says she hasn't felt this good since her freshman or sophomore year of high school. She said she was at 65 to 70 percent late last season because of nagging shin splints.
She wants Tennessee to earn the Final Four bid and national title that have eluded the Lady Vols since 2008. Her individual goals are equally ambitious.
''I definitely want to be player of the year - SEC and national player of the year,'' DeShields said. ''Whatever player of the year honors there are to get, I want it all. I want to make a defensive team. I never really got a defensive award, and I'm going to try to do that this year.''
Growing up in an athletic family helps DeShields cope with the adversity she's encountered.
DeShields' mother, Tisha DeShields, was an All-American heptathlete at Tennessee. DeShields' father is former major league second baseman Delino DeShields, who manages the Cincinnati Reds' Triple-A affiliate in Louisville. DeShields is the younger sister of Texas Rangers outfielder Delino DeShields.
''It's OK to be great. We're going to celebrate you in your greatness,'' Tisha DeShields said. ''And it's OK if there are days when you may not be as great. That's a time when you come home to your sanctuary and recoup.''
DeShields said she got encouragement from her brother, who had his own struggles this season when he was temporarily sent down to the minors.
''I caught myself telling him a lot of the same things that people were telling me or that he (had been) telling me,'' DeShields said.
DeShields has changed her offseason approach.
She learned to cook and changed her diet. DeShields says she also is working out more and making sure to get treatment each day.
''I can't do the same thing (as before) and expect a different result,'' DeShields said. ''That's the definition of insanity. I'm not an insane person.''
DeShields and her teammates have extra motivation as they try to honor former Tennessee coach Pat Summitt, who died June 28. DeShields, who said she has known Summitt since the age of 10, recalled a moment after her transfer when Summitt hugged her and said, ''it's about time you wear orange.''
She added that ''whether Holly put a bug in her ear before (Summitt) saw me or not, it made me feel super special.''
''This is the house that Pat built, literally,'' DeShields said. ''You just want to do it for her. Now that she's gone, how are you going to honor her? The season we had last year would be unacceptable, super-disappointing for the fans, for the program, for us because of her passing. ... Most of us weren't recruited by her, but she's the reason why we're all here when it's all said and done.''