Cierra Burdick: 'Cherish every day'

Cierra Burdick put her best basketball in front of her, and the timing could not have been better for the Lady Vols. Go inside with InsideTennessee for an interview with the indispensable senior forward.

During a radio interview this month, Cierra Burdick was asked about how much she had changed from freshman to senior year. Her grandfather had mentioned to Mickey Dearstone, the longtime radio voice of the Lady Vols, how much Burdick had matured. The forward from Charlotte, N.C., readily agreed with that assessment.

Burdick sat down recently with InsideTennessee inside Thompson-Boling Arena to discuss her turnaround and final postseason. She was wearing orange shoes and red socks after dashing from class to make the interview in time and not having time to change into basketball socks. She smiled when asked about a temperament that sometimes was as red-hot as those socks.

“I was a hothead coming in, and I was even a lot better my freshman year than what I was in high school,” Burdick said. “I have so much passion and love for this game and if I am going to do something, it’s wholeheartedly. I had to figure out the right way to channel that.

“At times, people would see me storm off the court, not shake my teammate’s hand, throw the towel. And it wasn’t because of anything somebody else did. I would never be mad at my teammates. I was mad at myself for making a bad play or not shooting the ball well, and I just had to channel that in the right way. I think I figured that out.”

It is a fairly common practice for athletes to need time to adjust from being all-everything in high school to competing for playing time at the highest level of women’s college basketball. Alexis Hornbuckle butted heads with Pat Summitt for two years before finally realizing the futility of bucking her head coach. Hornbuckle went on to become one of Tennessee’s best-ever floor leaders.

Burdick seemed to have turned the corner a year ago after making the SEC All-Tournament team in Duluth, Ga., in 2014. But then came the NCAA postseason and a wretched loss to Maryland in the Sweet 16. A lack of leadership on the floor was one of the primary reasons for that defeat.

“I had a terrible spring,” Burdick said. “I was so distraught after the loss to Maryland. I was heartbroken. I had been bottling so much anger and frustration, and I kind of just snapped. It was like you had to hit a breaking point and you had to experience the bottom of the bottom to finally start climbing up, and I think I finally did that.

“I finally broke. I snapped. And now I have slowly been making my way up the mountain to see the peak.”

Part of that climb was getting back in the good graces of her head coach, Holly Warlick. Burdick missed the exhibition game and first two games of the regular season because of missing curfew – she slipped off to the Final Four in Nashville, along with two teammates, without permission – and then recoiling at Warlick’s disciplinary decisions.

“This spring was a rough spot,” said the always candid Burdick. “I did some things I shouldn’t have done. I had to grow up. Holly gave me a second chance. I think we’ve grown from that. I think from the beginning Holly knew I was 100 percent bought in and that I wanted nothing but the best for this program. And then I kind of lost that trust, and I had to build it back up.

“She gave me another opportunity, and I’ve taken it and ran with it. And I don’t ever want her to doubt what I can do for this program and that I am all in. I am all in behind her.”

Warlick has no doubt about that. She consistently has praised the senior this season for her leadership, even more so after senior center Isabelle Harrison was lost to a torn ACL in mid-February. Burdick has filled the scoring and rebounding void and went over 1,000 points for her career at the SEC tourney last week in Little Rock, Ark. Burdick also was named to the SEC All-Tournament team in 2015 and was selected by the coaches as First Team All-SEC.

Burdick, Harrison and fellow senior Ariel Massengale — those two also joined the 1,000-point club this season – are the last ones to play for Pat Summitt. They arrived in Knoxville at the same time Summitt announced she had early onset dementia. Summitt coached their freshmen year and then became the head coach emeritus. It was an emotionally crushing experience for the trio and the entire program.

“With Pat, you learn to cherish every day,” Burdick said. “Nothing is promised to one of the most prominent coaches to ever coach the game. This was taken away from her. Izzy B. This game was taken away from her for the year. You learn to appreciate every single day.”

Burdick had to get used to a new head coach. The highly touted high school All-American also had to adjust to the college game. She wasn’t strong enough to play power forward and didn’t shoot the long ball well enough to claim the small forward spot. Burdick also lacked the foot speed to play on the perimeter. She moved in and out of the starting lineup — and had her sophomore season interrupted by a broken hand while working out on her own on New Year’s Eve in 2012.

Burdick’s work ethic has never been in question during her Tennessee career, but she had to get stronger, improve her footwork and expand her shooting range. Burdick did all three. After last season, she tweeted that she refused to believe that her best basketball was behind her. This season, she made the permanent leap from role player to must-be-on-the-court player.

“I think it started this summer,” Burdick said. “Everything just fell into place. Everything worked out. I thank God. He kept saying to me, ‘The best is yet to come.’ My final blog this summer was the best is yet to come.”

Burdick wrote a blog for the Lady Vols’ website this summer about playing for USA Basketball and working as an intern for Good Morning America. Both stints brought a lot of positive press for Tennessee, especially her social media posts with Robin Roberts.

“I met great people,” Burdick said. “Everything fell into place. I just let go and let God. He took care of it. It was like he was telling me, ‘Look, Cierra, let me handle this. Continue to work hard. Keep your faith. Stay patient. Stay positive.’ I am seeing that right now, and I hope other people see that as well.”

Burdick also credited assistant coach Dean Lockwood with helping her on and off the basketball court.

“I have learned so much from Dean,” Burdick said. “He is one of the greatest guys I know. He spent hours upon hours with me in the gym. I have fine-tuned my game and learned to keep things simple. Right now, I am just trying to play with passion and heart. I want people to see Izzy B through me if that’s possible.”

Burdick also is playing for Warlick, who, perhaps more than anyone, had to forge ahead despite the devastating news about Summitt.

“I want nothing but the best for her and this team and this program,” Burdick said. “I know she is trying to honor Pat, and I want to honor Holly and Izzy B every single time I step between those lines.”

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