Lawson, Jackson Reach End of A Journey

Throughout Tennessee's magnificent hardwood history, there has probably never been two Lady Vols more inexorably linked than seniors Kara Lawson and Gwen Jackson.

To examine their four-year journey through Big Orange Country is to chart parallel paths in the successful pursuit of athletic excellence by two players that seem to be soul twins as much as college teammates.

They came to Knoxville in the 1999 signing class rated No. 1 and No. 4 respectively among the nation's best basketball prospects and earned immediate starting roles in the fall. Lawson averaged 13.6 points, 4.1 rebounds and 2.9 assists per game, earning freshman all-American honors. Like Lawson, Jackson played in all 37 games as a freshman — starting the season opener against Louisiana Tech — and was named to the SEC's all-freshman team after averaging 5.5 points and 4.5 rebounds per outing.

Over the four-year careers of Lawson and Jackson, the Lady Vols have compiled a 125-16 record while annually playing the toughest schedule in women's basketball. They went 56-2 in the SEC regular season and have now reached their third Final Four and second national championship game. Over that span, Tennessee has finished No. 2, No. 3 and No. 6 in the nation and came into this year's NCAA Tournament ranked No. 4. with a 32-4 mark.

As impressive as those achievements are, they unfortunately follow the most successful three-year run in women's college basketball history as Tennessee became the first, and remains the only team, to ever win three consecutive national championships.

The same year Lawson and Jackson arrived at UT, UConn arrived as college basketball's preeminent power. The Lady Huskies have finished No. 1 four consecutive seasons, won two national titles and reached the finals in 2001 when they were upset by Notre Dame.

The combination of UConn's current dominance and Tennessee's prior supremacy has meant that Lawson and Jackson have lived amid imposing shadows, despite putting together a series of splendid seasons as prominent members of college basketball's second best team.

Twice UConn knocked Tennessee out of the title picture and the Lady Huskies have beaten UT three straight and in five of the last six encounters, including a pair of pastings last season. The Lady Vols took UConn to overtime this season before losing by a point as Lawson missed a game-winning jumper at the buzzer and Jackson scored only one point.

Tonight, Tennessee will again challenge UConn and Jackson and Lawson will have an opportunity to go out on top in a winner-take-all match against their arch rival and ardent antagonist.

Unlike last year, when UConn clearly had a more talented and experienced team, Tennessee appears to be equally armed and better led with both Lawson and Jackson in prime form coming into the last game of their careers.

Lawson carried Tennessee through the SEC Tournament when Jackson was slumping. However, in the NCAA Tournament the two have combined with sophomore Shyra Ely to provide the Lady Vols with a potent scoring-rebounding punch. Jackson saved her best for last scoring 25 points and grabbing 15 boards against Duke in Sunday's semifinal. Lawson scored only eight points against the Blue Devils, but added 11 rebounds and a game-high five assists.

In the Mideast Regional finals verses Villanova, Jackson led Tennessee with 20 points and eight rebounds while Lawson had 15 points and eight rebounds. Jackson led UT against Penn State in the semifinals with 24 points and 14 rebounds, while Lawson had 14 points, eight rebounds and five assists.

In the first round, Tennessee beat a team from Jackson's home state in Alabama State. In the second round, UT defeated a team from Lawson's home state in the University of Virginia.

Jackson has credited her recent upsurge with the inspiration she derives from her grandmother, who died before the NCAA Tournament began following a long battle with cancer. Through her grief, Jackson has found focus, strength and determination and displayed character that is an inspiration to her team.

Lawson's inspiration comes from a competitive fire that has always burned white hot, but much of the joy she is experiencing is due to the presence of her father who, as most Tennessee fans know, didn't want his daughter to attend UT. Instead, he preferred she go to a more prominent academic institute like Stanford or Duke. He expressed his disappointment by not attending her games at Tennessee the first 21/2 years, only relenting after Kara called and requested he come last year.

Now these middle children, born four months apart, approach the pinnacle contest of their athletic careers seeking the same prize and affirmation. In the process, they can not only realize a dream they can also leave the college basketball landscape as they found it. Whether successful or not, they will ultimately share the same fate.

In fact, the road they have taken and destiny they share is probably best described by the name of a gospel music group of which Jackson is a member. It's called "Sisters Anointed."

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