Don’t call Taber Spani a team player. The description shortchanges her.
She’s a program player.
As Tennessee opens play in the NCAA women’s basketball tournament this afternoon, both the team and program are prominent in her thoughts. The senior forward seeks the best for both.
“In three or four years, I want to say we literally got the best out of this team,” she said.
She couldn’t say that about her first three UT teams, each of which fell short of the Final Four.
“We had as much talent as anybody,” she laments.
The talent was an attraction for Spani when she left Lee’s Summit, Mo. She was drawn to a program that had reached Final Fours and won national championships on a regular basis.
“I wanted to be a part of that,” she said.
“That’s what makes me so passionate,” she said. “I want this program to get back to where it was. I want to uphold that legacy on behalf of them and the people still here.
“That’s what made Tennessee so special.”
Spani’s performance matched her passion in the last game. She made 11 of 13 shots and scored 33 points in an SEC tournament semifinal loss to Texas A&M. Those highlight stats didn’t fully cover her contributions, which included a season-high eight rebounds as well as sufficient post defense against the taller Aggies.
The game reminded you of what Spani might have been. You also saw glimpses of her potential early last season before a knee injury sabotaged what could have been her best season.
Her back has long been an issue. But it’s impossible to quantify how the chronic condition has impacted her career, although the limitations are apparent daily.
“I can’t do extra stuff,” is her best synopsis.
Don’t minimize the cost of that. Spani’s willingness to do the extra stuff — to hone her shot in an otherwise empty gym, for example — might have distinguished her from most players. She’s also limited in team practices.
In games, the limitations imposed by an uncooperative back aren’t always detectable. Sometimes, they’re measured by a first step that’s a fraction of a second slower; at other times, by less strength than a play requires.
She has to be prodded to discuss such matters. And when you ask her how she feels, she might hesitate before answering.
She’s not looking for excuses. She’s looking for a way to overcome — to maximize her potential, reduced though it might be by her physical condition.
But it’s the potential of her team that concerns her most as the second-seeded Lady Vols begin tournament play at
Thompson-Boling Arena against Oral Roberts.
She was asked about a team meeting this week.
“We’ve had a couple of different meetings,” she said. “Team-building stuff.
“It’s refocusing and fine-tuning, helping our freshmen understand that (the NCAA tournament) is a whole different thing.”
She and fellow senior Kamiko Williams stressed the importance of playing your best while playing within yourself at the same time.
“Just bring the best of you,” Spani emphasized.
All those individual bests still might not add up to a Final Four. But they would enable the team to reach its potential.
A proud program shouldn’t ask for more.