'Warrior' Spani ready for homecoming

The Lady Vols are on the road again with a homecoming tilt at Missouri in the nick of time for senior Taber Spani. Go inside with InsideTennessee to get ready for the game.

Taber Spani is a player of many faces in warm-ups as she stretches and grimaces and tries to get her ailing back loose.

But the senior always makes it to the court, and she will be in the starting lineup Sunday when No. 9/10 Tennessee (17-4, 8-0) takes on Missouri (14-8, 3-5) at 2 p.m. Eastern (TV: CSS) at Mizzou Arena in Columbia, Mo.

Spani has been oft injured as a Lady Vol, a situation made all the more maddening by the bizarre nature of the injuries in college – diving for a ball and bursting a bursa sac in her elbow; a serious knee injury when a celebrating opponent knocked into her knee – and the fact she was never sidelined before in her career.

Her lower back is the latest injury that is unlikely to get much better without rest, but Spani has no time for that. The senior hears the ticking of the clock – the last regular season game is March 3 at Kentucky – and then the SEC and NCAA tourneys get underway.

That Spani takes the floor in pain is a given. So is the why for a player whose father was an All-American linebacker at Kansas State and standout pro for the Kansas City Chiefs.

"Honestly, it's just guts, it's want to," Spani said. "It is frustrating to be honest because I want to be out on the floor, I want to put in the extra work, I want to do things outside of practice to get myself better.

"I have to be more consistent with my shot, and I felt like against Notre Dame I just didn't do enough. And with my body I just don't know. It's like a give and take."

It is a daily balancing act for Spani, who tries to get the time on the practice court while also keeping something in the tank for games.

"Can I give too much in practice and then not be ready for a game?" Spani said. "You have to do enough to get prepared but then JMo is like, ‘Get yourself out.'

"I am like, ‘I don't know how to do this.' It's tough, but you have two months left, and so you've just got to do it."

Spani spends a lot of time with sports medicine chief Jenny Moshak with a daily regimen of rehab.

"After the game it is pretty rough at times," Spani said.

Spani's comfort level is literally day to day and game by game.

"I felt like I was really moving well (against Vanderbilt) and I was watching the tape, and Notre Dame, I just wasn't moving," Spani said. "That is frustrating because it is so unpredictable. One day you'll feel OK and then one day you have to muster enough to get out and practice and get through it.

"It is a balancing game, but it is what it is, and I've got to be there on the court for us to play."

Spani particularly wants to be on the floor Sunday afternoon. She is from Lee's Summit, Mo., and this is a homecoming game for the senior guard. Spani estimated some 75 people are coming from family to friends to high school teammates. If she has any back pain Sunday, she expects adrenaline to override it.

"Yes, for sure," Spani said. "I am excited and I usually play pretty well when my family comes down so I am not worried about it."

Some players can get too caught up in the emotions and distractions of a homecoming game with so many familiar faces in the stands. Assistant coach Dean Lockwood has no concerns about Spani.

"No, none at all," Lockwood said. "No thoughts about her whatsoever being a problem with homecoming."

Spani moved into the starting lineup for the start of SEC play after Cierra Burdick broke her right hand and missed the month of January. Spani averaged 32.2 minutes per game in the past month, an eye-popping stat considering the back issues

Spani responded to the extra minutes by averaging 14.3 points and 5.3 boards per game in the SEC. She also has seven steals and six blocks against league opponents.

"There is a great deal of toughness both mentally and physically," Lockwood said. "She's got a lot of resolve. She is just tough physically because she can endure pain.

"She's got a high tolerance for that stuff, but her mental focus and resolve and her vision of where she wants to go and help this team be, tremendous.

"She's a warrior."

PROBABLE STARTERS

Tennessee coach Holly Warlick is expected to start: Ariel Massengale, 5-6 sophomore guard, No. 5, hails from Bolingbrook, Ill. (8.1 points per game, 2.8 rebounds per game, 4.4 assists per game); Kamiko Williams, 5-11 senior guard, No. 4, hails from Clarksville, Tenn. (5.7 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 2.9 apg); Meighan Simmons, 5-9 junior guard, No. 10, hails from Cibolo, Texas (17.4 ppg, 3.6 rpg); Taber Spani, 6-1 senior forward, No. 13, hails from Lee's Summit, Mo. (10.0 ppg, 4.3 rpg); and Bashaara Graves, 6-2 freshman forward, No. 12, hails from Clarksville, Tenn. (14.5 ppg, 9.0 rpg).

Missouri coach Robin Pingeton is expected to start: Lianna Doty, 5-7 freshman guard, No. 1 (7.6 ppg, 3.0 rpg, 4.9 apg), hails from St. Louis, Mo, had seven assists in win over Florida; Sydney Crafton, 5-10 senior guard, No. 21 (10.0 ppg, 5.6 rpg), hails from Jefferson City, Mo., came off the bench in Florida game to score 13 points; Kyley Simmons, 5-7 sophomore guard, No. 15 (3.6 ppg, 1.6 rpg), hails from Council Bluffs, Iowa, has 63 assists this season; Bri Kulas, 6-1 junior forward, No. 13 (13.4 ppg, 6.6 rpg), hails from Shawnee Mission, Kan., grabbed nine boards against Florida, added eight points, has started every game this season, tallied 23 points against Ole Miss, played for Kansas State as a freshman, Johnson Community College as a sophomore; and Liz Smith, 6-1 senior center, No. 45 (6.4 ppg, 5.5 rpg), hails from Overland Park, Kan., scored 15 points in win over Florida.

Missouri is coming off a 69-64 win over Florida in Columbia. The Tigers attempted 36 threes in the 84-39 loss to Tennessee in Knoxville on Jan. 10, but lofted just 19 against the Gators.

Super sub Morgan Eye led the team in attempts and was 4-11 from long range verses the Gators. Eye was 6-17 against the Lady Vols.

FROSH IN AGE ONLY: Bashaara Graves smiles when she is asked if she is no longer a freshman.

"I would like to still consider myself a freshman, but everybody else … Coach Law says to me all the time, ‘Bashaara, you're not a freshman. You don't have time to play like a freshman. You can't be out there like a freshman,' " Graves said.

"So, I'm not in everybody else's eyes."

Jolette Law has a lot of company. Fans, teammates and opposing coaches recognize the talent so readily apparent in one so young.

"Graves is a heck of a player," Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. "She was a really tough matchup for us. She's going to be a phenomenal player."

Graves gives a polite answer when asked about McGraw's remarks, but she is not particularly interested in attention, only production.

"It definitely helps my confidence a little bit," Graves said. "I really don't look at what people have been saying about me. I just want to go out there and play."

Graves' desire to play is not in question. The freshman averages 30.0 minutes a game and has responded with 14.5 points and 9.0 boards.

When she missed a shot against Notre Dame and ended up on the floor, she slammed her hand on the court.

"It hurt a little bit," Graves said with a smile. "I have always had that problem of being too hard on myself. When I first got here I was really hard on myself and the coaches were telling me that you can't be like that all the time. You've got to control your emotions and keep going.

"I think I've been doing a good job of it, but sometimes I still get down, and I've got to keep working on it."

Graves' maturity extends off the court as she has learned how to balance school and basketball.

"I have to time my studies with how I practice and how I am getting in the gym and when we're away I've got to know when I'm going to do my homework and how I am going to get things turned in," she said.

Graves also has made adjustments at the dining table.

"Because before I got here I probably ate whatever I wanted to eat whenever I wanted to eat it," Graves said. "I know being here and how we're playing and how we're practicing, I can't keep doing that. I've got to drink more water and eat healthier. No McDonald's or anything like that."

The appeal of the fast-food chain was the $1 menu, and the frugal Graves allowed that she hasn't made a complete break yet.

"I haven't totally cut out McDonald's and that's very hard," Graves said. "I am trying to cut out sweet tea, but it's not really working that well."

Graves is making a move on the record books.

Her 14.5 points per game ranks fifth on the freshman list at Tennessee with Lady Vol legends above her – Tamika Catchings (18.2); Candace Parker (17.3); Chamique Holdsclaw (16.2); and Semeka Randall (15.9).

Her 9.0 rebounds per game ranks third on the freshman list with just Sheila Frost (9.4) and Chamique Holdsclaw (9.1) above her.

ON TAP: Ten other SEC teams are in action Sunday. The other matchups are: Alabama at Florida; Arkansas at Mississippi State; Auburn at South Carolina; Georgia at Kentucky; and Ole Miss at Vanderbilt. LSU and Texas A&M are idle today and meet Monday night.

GAME NOTES

Tennessee leads the series with Missouri, 4-0. The teams met twice in 1978 – when head coach Holly Warlick was a player – and once in 2010. This will be the second meeting in 2013 since Missouri joined the SEC. … Tennessee leads the SEC and ranks No. 4 nationally in scoring at 79.7 per game. In eight SEC contests the Lady Vols are averaging 82.0 points. Tennessee also leads the SEC in free throw shooting at 75.3 percent. … Missouri will hosts it annual Blackout game for the matchup with Tennessee. The Tigers are a much better team at home. Missouri is 12-2 at Mizzou Arena this season and started 11-0 at home with the losses coming to Kentucky and Arkansas. The Tigers shoot 44.8 percent at home and have reached at least 80 points in seven of 13 home games. Missouri connects on an average of 10.3 treys per game at home.


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