Glory Johnson on loss to Baylor in NCAA
DES MOINES, Iowa — Tennessee's seniors were stationed both near and far from each other in the Lady Vols' locker room at the Des Moines Regional.
On Monday night, their scattered positioning served to underscore the challenge faced by the returnees, who must close ranks and press on into UT's uncertain women's basketball future.
"I think the sense of finality is more vivid," Tennessee assistant coach Dean Lockwood said. "You've got five people who are going to take off a Tennessee jersey for the last time. I think that's very vivid."
The postgame scene after Tennessee's 77-58 loss to Baylor in the regional final certainly was compelling. The final game for Vicki Baugh, Glory Johnson, Shekinna Stricklen, Alicia Manning and Briana Bass added up to the end of an era.
"There's just a lot of emotions, just a lot,'' Baugh said. "We're seniors. We're leaving."
And Monday's scene didn't even account for coach Pat Summitt and her coaching future. She hasn't given any indication what she intends to do after 38 seasons as she continues to battle early onset dementia, Alzheimer's type. Lockwood said that the subject hasn't been broached among the coaches.
"There's been no mention of it," he said. "I can honestly tell you, I can look anyone here in the eye and say there's not been a point in a staff meeting or on the road where she's said, 'Guys, I'm really thinking about this.' It just hasn't been a topic."
Lockwood said that Summitt has kept her focus on the team, which continued right through the bitter end on Monday when she addressed the players afterward.
"She told us she loves us and that she wouldn't trade our senior class for the world,'' Johnson said. "And that means a lot, because we've put a lot of gray hairs on her head. We've caused a lot of problems in this program and we've also tried to set records, SEC stuff. We tried. I like the fact that she acknowledged that we were trying. We went to bat for her."
UT's four fourth-year seniors — Johnson, Stricklen, Manning and Bass — began their postseason careers by suffering a shocking first-round NCAA loss to Ball State. They finished with another dubious distinction, becoming the first Tennessee class to not reach a Final Four.
In between, they helped engineer an impressive recovery from an 11-loss first season. They played a part in two 30-win seasons and five SEC championships (two regular-season, three tournament).
Stricklen was an All-American the past two seasons and the conference player of the year in 2010-11. Johnson was named this week a finalist for the Women's Basketball Coaches Association's defensive player of the year. She completed her career as the fourth player in school history to record 1,000 points and 1,000 rebounds and just the second to reach 1,200 rebounds.
That said, these four players and their four years will suffer in comparison to other UT classes and their accomplishments. At least one returning player already was anticipating the reckoning and rose to their defense.
"There's always going to be critics,'' freshman Cierra Burdick said. "People are going to say: 'Well, this senior class has never gone to a Final Four.' But they don't know what we've gone through as a team."
Burdick and the returnees have serious work to do regarding their own legacy. Against Baylor, Tennessee's six non-seniors accounted for a meager 13 points and 12 rebounds.
Of those players, guard Taber Spani still was suffering through the lingering aftereffects of a knee injury suffered in the third game of the season. And Burdick was dealing with a sore back.
Small wonder that signees Bashaara Graves, Andraya Carter and Jasmine Jones have been advised to be ready to go when they arrive this summer.
And it's no surprise that the coaches have been combing the junior college ranks, looking to sign more post players for next season. The Lady Vols remain in the hunt for Wilka Montout, a 6-foot-5 center from Northeastern Oklahoma A&M College, and Uju Ugoka, a 6-0 forward from Gulf Coast (Fla.) State College.
In the meantime, Burdick said that her back wasn't going to prevent her from getting back to work. In looking ahead, she looked back to the seniors for motivation.
"Vicki and Bree have played through multiple knee surgeries,'' Burdick said. "I can play through a little back pain."