Long-awaited debut nears for Jannah Tucker

When Jannah Tucker walked into Pratt Pavilion in the fall of 2013, she had no idea what her basketball future held. What Tucker encountered were future teammates who stopped warming up and sprinted to hug her. Go inside with InsideTennessee for an interview with the redshirt freshman.

Jannah Tucker was Holly Warlick’s first commit as a head coach from a high school player. Tucker, an athletic scorer and defender from Maryland, committed just before the summer of 2012 started. But her basketball and personal life would unravel over the next year beginning with a torn ACL suffered later that summer while playing USA Basketball and then a jolting decision in July 2013 to forego college.

But none of that mattered in October of 2013 when Tucker walked into Pratt Pavilion with her parents and two younger siblings, while the Lady Vols were stretching and loosening muscles with foam rollers.

“We walked into Pratt and as soon as I walked in, everybody saw me and said, ‘Jannah!’ And they all dropped their foam rollers and stopped stretching – they completely stopped everything – and ran over to me and gave me the biggest group hug,” Tucker said.

“I cried because I was so happy to be embraced like that. I was so happy to be out of the situation that I was out of. They loved me as a person. They didn’t care that I wasn’t playing with them or playing basketball.”

Tucker had not arrived in July of 2013 with the other two freshmen in her class – Jordan Reynolds and Mercedes Russell – and the Lady Vols coaching staff had been notified by email of the decision that she had decided not to enroll in college for personal reasons. Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood, who had recruited Tucker for three years, was crushed. His disappointment wasn’t just because she was an outstanding basketball player, but also because Lockwood had gotten to know Tucker during the recruiting process, and he spoke of her upbeat personality and love of the Lady Vols.

Three months later, the reason for Tucker’s absence was revealed. She had been in an abusive relationship with a boy she had met in high school, and she had been afraid to leave him because of physical and verbal abuse. She had been living with the boyfriend for three months. The 19-year-old later was charged in the case. He pleaded guilty in July of 2014 to second-degree assault, served 28 days in jail and will be on probation for five years.

Tucker approached Tennessee about enrolling in college – a decision about basketball would come later – and a campus visit was arranged so Tucker and her parents could talk to the coaches. At this point, Tucker didn’t know what she wanted to do next, and she needed to ask Warlick if returning was even an option. The group hug told Tucker all she needed to know.

“They responded like that to me before any of that was decided,” Tucker said. “I really appreciate that. I love all of them so much from the bottom of my heart. That is a moment I will never forget.”

Tucker enrolled in January of 2014 to acclimate to college and return to rehabbing her left knee. She quickly decided she wanted to play basketball again and attempted to practice, but her knee didn’t respond well. Tucker required additional surgery, and her return to basketball was delayed yet again.

Tucker missed her senior year of high school because of the torn ACL. She missed her freshman year of college after a circuitous path to Tennessee. She last played in a live basketball game in Puerto Rico in mid-August of 2012 while suiting up for the U18 team at the FIBA Americas Championship.

She finally has been cleared for full practice and is expected to play soon in a game for Tennessee. So far, Tucker said, her knee has responded “really well” to practice.

“I don’t have any pain when I am playing,” she said. “I am not scared to plant and cut. Right now it’s just a matter of getting back into the ‘basketball feel.’ It’s been a while since I have played. That’s an understatement. The last game I played in was USA when I tore it. So it’s that process of getting back into that, but it’s been responding really well.”

Warlick said that Tucker’s offense hasn’t suffered during the long layoff. Tucker is capable of draining shots from all over the court and has done so in warm-ups while waiting to be cleared.

“I don’t think I am in complete game shape, but you can still do different things off the court,” Tucker said. “I was cleared to run. I was still putting shots up. I was working on my ball handling. I was still working with the team.”

Tucker’s return to game action also was delayed for missed classes. Warlick required that Tucker serve her game suspensions after she was medically cleared, and that has been done.

“I have gotten that behind me,” Tucker said. “I have taken my consequences and made some mistakes. I have learned from it and will keep moving. I am done with exams. It went well.”

Tucker is with the team on its trip to New York – the Lady Vols departed Thursday and play Sunday at Rutgers at 3 p.m. Eastern (TV: ESPN2). It is possible that Tucker could play, but she indicated her first game was more likely to come at home. Tennessee has three home games this month against Wichita State, Stanford and Oregon State.

“We want to make sure when I get back on the court that I am 100 percent me and not 70 or 80,” Tucker said. “Right now it’s day to day. How is practice going? How am I looking in practice that week? I want to be on the court. Coach Holly says she wants me to be on the court. My team wants me to play so bad.

“It’s really just making sure that when I am on the court, I am full go.”

Tucker smiled when asked about what would go through her head when she walked to the scorer’s table for the first time at Thompson-Boling Arena.

“Excitement,” Tucker said. “I will be anxious. I will be a little nervous. My adrenalin is going to be going just because the atmosphere is so great. Practice is going to give me the confidence to play in the games, and our practice guys are so great as far as preparing us for games. That is where I am really getting most of my confidence from.

“I will be a little nervous and excited and happy to be out there.”

Tucker watched from the bench during the second half of last season when she knew she would be redshirted. She has been a spectator for the Lady Vols first eight games in 2014-15 when she had hoped to be back on the court.

“It is frustrating because you just want to play so bad,” she said. “You have to respect the process, and that just helps me want to get out there so much more because you know what it feels like to not play.”

Tucker has felt the warmth of Tennessee’s fan base. She already was beloved for being the first high school recruit to say yes to Warlick – just a few weeks after it was announced that Pat Summitt would become head coach emeritus – and the circumstances surrounding her delay have made fans even more anxious to see her back on the court.

“I appreciate all of their support,” Tucker said. “The situation I was in and them embracing me, I do realize how much they appreciate me being here and support me, and I am excited to play for them.”

Tucker’s focus now is basketball and academics – she noted the latter with a wry grin – but she also wants to educate about the warning signs of toxic relationships.

“I do want to be an advocate,” she said. “I would not necessarily say I am taking it on as my cause right now, but I do want to help. I think I can help. I was just a regular person. I wasn’t a celebrity. The people that knew me, I didn’t show it.

“If people saw me right now, they would not think anything had ever happened. I do think people are in relationships that are toxic and that becomes normal for them. I do want to help in that regard.”

Tucker’s career ambitions involve communications, perhaps media relations for a sports team. She has smoothly handled all interviews, including those that discuss the abuse case.

“I was talking to Mr. Thornton, whose name is on the Thornton Center, and he thought I would be good in public relations,” she said. “I just like people. I like talking to people. I like figuring out how people work, how society works. I really like that.”

Tucker also is always smiling. She wasn’t just on time for the InsideTennessee interview but arrived early and offered expansive answers.

“I just think there is positivity in everything,” she said. “My dad told me that you can always beat frustration with a smile. That is just how I am. I do think that positivity is contagious. I go through things just like everybody else goes through things, but I don’t want to affect anybody else (in a bad way). I want somebody to always have this energy when I am around them, and I want to spread that to everybody and be very lighthearted and just brighten the day.”

Tucker already felt bonded to the Lady Vols before she arrived on campus. She had stayed close to Ariel Massengale before she returned to Knoxville, and the senior remains a confidante.

“But I go to any one of my teammates and talk to them about anything, and they feel the same way about me,” Tucker said. “The chemistry on this team is great.”

That chemistry has been cited by several players, but it hasn’t yet translated to the place it matters most – the basketball court.

“With certain people, me being one of those people, not being able to play (the early games), it kind of messed up some of the flow,” Tucker said, referring to the game suspensions of four players for missed classes and the injury absence of Isabelle Harrison. “We are getting back to that now. I think everybody realizes we’ve got to get everybody on the same page. We all want to win.

“But now it’s a matter of coming together and playing together like we did in the SEC Tournament last year. I think we are going to see it very soon.”

Exams have officially ended, so the players have a month to concentrate on basketball, with a few days for a break at Christmas. The schedule affords an opportunity to make a statement before heading into the SEC slate of 2015.

“We know,” Tucker said. “Dean said the other day in the huddle, ‘Summer is over. It’s time to say good bye to vacation. It’s time to work. You’ve got to make a statement.’ Now, you can focus on just basketball, and it’s a lot easier.”

Tucker got to know Lockwood during the time he spent recruiting her. She has enjoyed getting to know him as a basketball coach.

“I love Dean,” she said. “You think I bring positivity? Dean can get you so motivated. I have never seen or met anyone like that to where he can get you so motivated to do anything. And he is so loyal.

“His energy feeds off into us. We will be at practice, and he will be sweating harder than we’re sweating. I love everything about Dean. He is so committed and he cares about us as people, too, more than anything else.”

Tucker also has gotten to know Warlick and not just as her basketball coach.

“Holly is very goofy,” Tucker said. “When we have music on, she comes in and dances and says, ‘Who is this?’ Holly is a unique dancer. I will say that. Unique. It makes our day better. It makes us laugh.

“Holly is an open book. Holly is going to be so genuine and so real. What you see is what you’re going to get. It’s not like some coaches were the recruiting is all golden and when you get here, it’s horrible.

“Holly has always been consistent. She loves us. She cares about us as young women and as basketball players. And, as you can see, academics are important.”

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