DULUTH, Ga. — Texas A&M coach Gary Blair remembers the futility of trying to recruit Tennessee’s Taber Spani.
“She turned down my letters,” he said with a smile.
No hard feelings, though.
“I appreciate that kid,” he said after Texas A&M’s 66-62 victory in the semifinals of the SEC women’s basketball tournament. “She could have stayed in the Big 12 — like her sister did — and been the biggest show on whatever team.
“She decided to come to a place where she could be a valuable role player. A lot of kids won’t do that.”
The senior forward didn’t just play a role Saturday at Gwinnett Arena. She played multiple roles.
She scored 33 points. She made five of six 3-point attempts. She had eight rebounds. She even guarded Texas A&M 6-foot-4 center Kelsey Bone during stretches of the second half.
All that still wasn’t enough against Texas A&M.
“I hate it for Taber,” UT coach Holly Warlick said. “She played an outstanding game.
“I don’t know how much more she could have done for us.”
But the teary-eyed Spani didn’t look like someone who had just played the most productive game of
her college career.
“This one hurts right now,” Spani said afterward. “It probably will hurt for a couple of days.
“I was just trying to do everything I could do to keep us in the game.”
She did that. Tennessee fans don’t even want to think what course the game might have taken without her.
The Aggies looked superior for the most part, handling the ball with greater care (nine turnovers to UT’s 15) and dominating the offensive boards (18-6).
But Spani kept intruding on what appeared to be Texas A&M’s day.
With just under five minutes to play in the first half, Texas A&M reeled off 11 consecutive points to take a 29-22 lead.
Spani answered that run with one of her own. She hit three consecutive 3s to pull the Lady Vols within two points at halftime.
She made six of seven shots in the first half. Her teammates made seven of 24.
The final stats also reflected the unbalanced shooting. Spani made 11 of 13 shots. Meighan Simmons, Kamiko Williams and Ariel Massengale were 8-for-30.
Offense by Spani appeared to be a winning enterprise midway through the second half. Tennessee led 50-40 with 12:48 to play.
But a minute earlier, Blair made a move that figured prominently in the outcome. He subbed sophomore Tori Scott for Courtney Williams, who was at a loss against Spani.
It was a role the quicker Scott had played before.
“Coach Blair always tells us we never know when we might be called, so we have to be ready,” Scott said.
Anticipating the possibility, Scott studied Spani from the bench.
“I noticed that as long as you had a hand in her face, she wasn’t going to shoot the ball,” Scott said.
Keeping the ball away from Spani was as important as keeping a hand in her face. Scott focused on that as well.
“Scott came in for a reason,” Warlick said. “She was denying Taber, not letting her have the basketball. It was a great move on Gary’s part.”
Spani didn’t score during the six minutes Scott was in the game. And when Williams returned, Spani’s only points came on a pair of free throws and a follow-up shot that tied the game with 54 seconds to play.
Fittingly, her last basket was the last for Tennessee.
John Adams is a senior columnist. He may be reached at 865-342-6284 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at Johnadamskns.