The indispensable Cierra Burdick

Cierra Burdick has been assigned several appellations during her time at Tennessee – role player, substitute, tweener, glue player, X factor, starter. Add another one to the list – indispensable. The junior forward emerged from the SEC tourney as the enforcer the Lady Vols have been lacking. Go inside to read more.

Tennessee will learn its seed and regional destination – though the Lady Vols know they are starting at home – on Monday evening at the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame when the Selection Show is aired for the NCAA Tournament at 7 p.m. Eastern on ESPN.

Coach Holly Warlick and the Lady Vols have the resume and good reason to believe they will be a No. 1 seed. Tennessee will play in its 33rd NCAA tourney, the only Division I women's program that can claim such a feat.

"I think we deserve one, but I don't get caught up in it all," Warlick said during her weekly media chat. "We are glad we are playing the way we are playing, and we want to carry it over into the tournament."

A key reason the Lady Vols are playing well now – and there are several from the inside dominance of Isabelle Harrison to the precocious play of the three freshmen – is Cierra Burdick.

"I am expecting a No. 1 seed," Burdick said. "I think we have earned it and worked for it. I would be surprised if we didn't get one, honestly, but at this point in time we are willing to take whatever we can get.

"We are going to be in March Madness and that is all that matters."

March and April are what matters at Tennessee. A Final Four and competing for a national title are standard preseason goals. But the Lady Vols haven't been to the game's biggest stage since 2008, when Tennessee won back-to-back titles.

All-Everything Candace Parker was a major reason for those national championships, but so were two players who handled the role of enforcer – both of teammates and when opponents got out of line. Nicky Anosike and Alexis Hornbuckle had their teammates' backs. If an opponent threw the proverbial punch, those two were seizing control and punching back.

Tennessee has lacked that singular level of toughness in one player since 2008, but Burdick has emerged as one capable of claiming that role. It takes a fiery player but one who can also keep her overall composure, something Burdick did in Duluth, Ga., during the SEC tourney.

"I have become more of an emotional leader and just trying to be there for my teammates," Burdick said. "I tell them every day that I love them and that I've got their backs. I think that is one of the biggest things to a successful team is knowing you can trust one another."

The seeds for such trust began last summer when the players basically spent the off-season in Knoxville.

"We've been with each since the summer, and all we had was each other," Burdick said. "Through the punches, through the ups and downs, through all the adversity, all we've had is the 11 players and the four coaches.

"I think that's why we've become so close, why we've become so strong, and why we are able to take the punches and continue to get back up."

Throughout the season, the coaches have told the players to "trust the process." It hasn't been easy as Warlick and her staff have pounded the players with the Tennessee tenets of defense and rebounding.

In Duluth, the players were imploring each other to get stops on defense. That is not something that happened two months ago.

"I think we are finally starting to realize how important defense is," Burdick said. "I think we have always rebounded the ball extremely well, but defense has been our nemesis. Last year, that is why we lost. That is why we got kicked out (in the Elite Eight). We couldn't get stops when we needed them.

"This year, you are seeing us get stops down the stretch when we really need them. And that is because we are doing these drills in practice that are making us play defense. We realize if we get down, it is because we aren't getting stops that we need.

"It all starts on the defensive end, and it's just been drilled into us. I credit IzzyB because she is always sayings, ‘We've got to get a stop. We've got to worry about defense. We've got to take care of the defensive end, and the offense will come.'

"It's just been drilled in our minds so much."

The starting lineup changed frequently and the coaches continued to deploy assorted combinations, sometimes to the detriment of offensive continuity. Tennessee lost five games in the regular season – to top teams Notre Dame and Stanford, but also home losses to LSU and Kentucky and a road loss at Vanderbilt.

The starting five seems to be set now – Harrison, Burdick, Meighan Simmons, Andraya Carter and Bashaara Graves have gone 12-1 – and the Lady Vols are hitting a postseason stride after undergoing tremendous growth since November.

"A crazy improvement, so much," Burdick said. "I think that's why we are here. That's why we are in this position. That's why we won the SEC championship. We had high hopes in the beginning. We were ranked extremely high. We fell off. We took some punches.

"But we continued to take the punches and learn from them. The growth that we have made, credit to the coaches. They continued to push us in practices. Practices are brutal, and we battle every single day.

"I think that is why we have made the strides that we've made. And we've found some consistency. We have a consistent lineup now. We have a consistent rotation. That helps all players because we know our roles. We know what we are supposed to do."

Burdick left Duluth with the SEC tourney trophy, an All-SEC Tournament selection and apparently the ire of Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell. He singled out Burdick in his post-game comments after Tennessee's 71-70 win.

"I was talking to (the officials) before that, that 11 for Tennessee was starting that kind of activity in the game," said Mitchell, who was asked about the double off-setting technical assessed in the second half.

"If you don't get control of that, you get competitive players going, I mean, our players wanted to win today, but we certainly don't want that kind of activity going on.

"So it's not the first time that's happened with that player. So you watch film. You see how players act. So I noticed it early on. It's a loud arena. It's a tough game. I guess they didn't see it."

The remarks were rather stunning in that Mitchell singled out Burdick – not by name but by number – and basically blamed her for the double technicals and a history of such actions. The whistles blew after Kentucky's Samarie Walker sent Harrison to the floor on a hard foul without making a play on the ball. The crowd, which was clad overwhelmingly in orange, was enraged.

Burdick came to Harrison's defense and on the ensuing in-bounds play, more words were exchanged between UT's Jasmine Jones and Kentucky's DeNesha Stallworth. All four players were assessed technical fouls.

The video of the press conference:

Warlick didn't agree with that assessment and said she didn't see anything during the game that would have ultimately led to the double technicals. She repeated her support for Burdick on the radio in Knoxville the day after the game.

The video of the press conference:

The remarks were especially odd considering the physicality of the game, a style of play that Kentucky has embraced. Also, during the game, Mitchell chest-bumped a player on the bench during live action in the first half as his team built a double-digit lead.

A Kentucky staff member stared into Tennessee's huddle during timeouts throughout the game, forcing the Lady Vols to put a human barricade on the outer edge of their huddle. When Simmons was leveled late in the game and sent into the scorer's table, Mitchell walked towards center court and applauded for several seconds while Simmons remained down.

The post-game remarks were rather baffling and wholly unappreciated by Burdick.

"When the Kentucky coach said I started everything, I was in shock," Burdick told InsideTennessee. "I try to let my actions speak. I think he did a lot of talking, but at the end of the day I came home with an SEC championship. We're the ones wearing the rings.

"I think what he said, I do find that disrespectful, and I think he acted in an unprofessional manner. But at the same time, this is a classy program, and I am not going to stoop down to his level."

Harrison and Burdick are both juniors. They are also close friends.

"I love IzzyB to death," Burdick said. "I look at her as a sister. I don't think blood could make us any tighter. So, when Samarie Walker did that, it was just instinct.

"When you see a family member get disrespected, especially physically like that, it just came out of me. No physical altercations happened. Everything was chippy, but I pretty much just told her to chill out. Because that wasn't about to go on much longer.

"It's important. It's important to have one another's back."

Warlick had Burdick's back after she reviewed the game.

"Holly watched the film again, and she said she didn't blame me," Burdick said. "I realize some people may take my actions as uncharacteristic or not very Lady Vol-like, if you would.

"Everybody knows how I am off the court. I wouldn't hurt a fly. I really do love everybody."

Tennessee entered the game with motivation after photos were posted on Twitter that showed Mitchell dancing on chairs in the visitor's locker room after the win in Knoxville in February.

Copies of the photos were attached to Tennessee's board in the locker room in Duluth and can be viewed by CLICKING HERE.

The dance is called the "NaeNae" – which Jordan Reynolds delighted fans with during the post-game celebration in Duluth, twice pointing to her championship hat. The antics in Knoxville weren't well received by Tennessee, though Burdick laughed when she was asked to explain the dance and its name.

"No idea. It's just a current dance that everybody does right now," Burdick said. "Jordan is so goofy. She added her own flavor to it."

Burdick was all smiles after the game. She was enveloped in a hug by her mother, Lisa Burdick, and Warlick wrapped an arm around the junior forward and smiled after Burdick got the All-Tournament trophy.

"I just try to go out there and play with a lot more passion, not think so much about the game," said Burdick, whose struggles midway through the season stemmed from needing to get out of her own way and let her basketball instincts flow.

"My first two years here I was more of a role player, definitely. This year, especially down the homestretch I think I have stepped into a new role."

Tennessee fans would like to see the Lady Vols play with a lead for the rest of the postseason. They came back from double-digit deficits in all three games in Duluth to defeat LSU, Texas A&M and Kentucky. All three are NCAA-tourney teams.

"That would be nice," Burdick said. "I would love to get up by 15 and be able to keep the lead. Just to be down by double digits in all three games and to be able to fight back and win, I think that speaks a lot of the type of team we are.

"We've been in every position. We've been up. We've been down. I don't think anything can be thrown at this team that we haven't handled before. That is going to help us in the postseason."

The Lady Vols had an early morning workout Friday and then got this weekend off, a rare occurrence during the season.

"It's huge," Burdick said. "Physically our bodies need it but mentally and emotionally, those days off will help, as well. I know I am more exhausted emotionally and mentally than I am physically after games like that.

"I think it comes with playing with so much heart, passion and giving it everything that we have. It's going to be clutch. It's going to be a nice weekend."

The team will reassemble for practice Monday and then gather for the announcement of the brackets.

"I am looking forward to it," Burdick said. "I think we did our job. We competed and hopefully bracketology will be in our favor."

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