Isabelle Harrison sat by herself in a far corner of Tennessee's locker room last March, her tear-streaked face buried in her hands.
Her freshman season had just ended with the Lady Vols' loss to Baylor in the final of the Des Moines (Iowa) Regional. She had languished on the bench for a veteran squad, averaging just 8.4 minutes a game. The final installment was stunning in its brevity. She accumulated five fouls in six minutes while jousting with Baylor All-American Brittney Griner.
Harrison revisited that season last week. She was standing on a practice court at Pratt Pavilion, holding her head high. The 6-foot-3 sophomore was clear-eyed and grateful.
"I don't think if I didn't go through what I went through last year that I would be the person that I am today," she said.
Harrison is the starting center for No. 9 Tennessee (12-3, 3-0), which faces Florida (13-4, 2-1) in an SEC women's basketball game Sunday at the O'Connell Center in Gainesville, Fla. (TV: ESPNU, 11:30 a.m.). In the past four games, she has matched her career scoring high (18 points) twice and set a new rebounding standard by gathering 15 against Missouri on Thursday.
The player who had three double-figure scoring games last season has had six double-doubles for points and rebounds already this season. She's averaging 10.6 points and 8.4 rebounds per game.
"It's her spot down low," UT head coach Holly Warlick said. "I think when she saw success on the court, in practice and in the game, I think that just built momentum for her."
Harrison thought that she had nowhere to go but up. She credited the seniors of last season — particularly those who were blocking her path — with pointing the way.
"To make it better for myself, I had to humble myself and understand those players were there to help me," said the former all-state honoree from Hillsboro High in Nashville. "They saw so much potential in me that I didn't really see in myself."
One of those players, Vicki Baugh, has returned to campus for treatment on her knee before heading back overseas. She surprised Harrison on the team bus before the Lady Vols left for their Jan. 3 SEC opener at South Carolina. Baugh watched on TV while Harrison scored 18 points, grabbed 14 rebounds and recorded a career-high seven blocks against the Gamecocks.
"Izzy balled out; very, very proud of her," Baugh said. "She has a new attitude. Everyone can see it. It's just making her a better player."
A new teammate has helped, too. Forward Bashaara Graves' physical style of play has translated into even more productivity. The 6-2 freshman is averaging 14.4 points and 8.6 rebounds a game and also has recorded six double-doubles.
"I think Bashaara playing well takes pressure off Izzy," UT assistant coach Kyra Elzy said. "She doesn't think she has to carry the whole load by herself in the post."
Together, they are quite a load for the opposition. Their efforts have helped the Lady Vols average more rebounds per game (46.2) than any SEC team and score 47.2 percent of their points in the paint.
Baylor and Stanford are the only teams that have outscored UT from close range this season. Harrison missed the Baylor game with a sprained ankle and was ineffective four days later against Stanford.
UT will pit its strength against Florida's. Gators forward Jennifer George, a preseason All-SEC selection, is the conference's third-leading rebounder (8.9 per game). The 6-0 senior has recorded seven double-doubles.
George suffered a shoulder injury last Sunday against LSU and played 17 minutes off the bench against Mississippi State on Thursday.
"She probably won't be hurt against us," Elzy said. "She's an absolute beast inside. So that's always a concern."
Helps to have the new and improved Harrison. She'll take the court and jump center for the opening tip. It's her spot now.