A 4-Year Journey Through the Circle of Lady Vols Life and Death

On a week in January of 2007, a friend of mine had a couple tickets to a Lady Vols game that he couldn't use.  I had been intending to go watch a game for a while but had yet to go to one, so I took his offer to go in his place - totally free.  (They were pretty nice tickets.)  The game happened to be against Arkansas in Thompson-Boling Arena in the final year of the Candace Parker era.  At the time, Tennessee was ranked #2 in the nation (having lost in Palo Alto to Stanford earlier in the season), and Arkansas was 16-4, with all four losses coming in conference play.

That may have been the year where Tennessee won the national championship and sent all five starters to the WNBA via the draft, but that night belonged to a freshman.  Alexis Hornbuckle was out for the game, so Pat Summitt placed Angie Bjorklund in the starting lineup.  Her stat line read:

  Minutes FGM-A 3PM-A FTM-A OFF REB AST PF PTS
Angie Bjorklund 30 11-20 7-16 0-0 0 3 2 3 29

 

The three-point mark is a bit misleading; Bjorklund was actually 6-8 from three during the first half.  By the end of the game, the rest of the Lady Vols were so enamored with Angie's hot streak that they kept feeding her the ball, hoping for more threes.  Angie was too tired at that point to be accurate anymore, but the message was clear; Angie had the green light to shoot threes anytime she felt like it.  She was given Player of the Game honors for her efforts.

I never would have believed how that girl's journey would look throughout the rest of her career as a Lady Vol.

We know at this point how things are ending.  Bjorklund is the all-time career leader in threes and is likely only to be challenged by Simmons if the new freshman du jour gets more consistent.  Angie is up for many postseason honors; the only real question is whether she will bookend the career with another national championship - a prospect that seems far more real today than it did three weeks ago.

But between that momentous performance against Arkansas and today, Bjorklund and Sydney Smallbone went from the national championship to the season of 2007-2008.  The year started well enough, with Tennessee racking up an 11-2 conference record prior to conference play, with only close losses to #15 Virginia and #5 Texas, and including an overtime win against #4 Stanford.  But despite being the year where Pat Summitt earned her 1,000th career win, the wheels began to fall off in the latter half of the season.  The close wins gave way to close losses, which eventually gave way to inexplicable losses.  The Baby Vols had been unleashed on the court, and maturity wasn't their strong suit.  Low points included a 9-5 conference mark, a drubbing against Auburn in the conference tournament, and a first-round loss to Ball State in the NCAA tournament.  Having felt the joys of a national title the year before, Bjorklund and Smallbone suddenly felt the sting of a first-round exit, falling behind early and never being able to catch up.

The catastrophe ended up costing the Lady Vols their locker room - a penalty they suffered for much of the 2008-2009 season.  National Championships were not a birthright of the Lady Vols uniform, and the players needed to learn that their jersey gained them nothing but their opponents' best shot.

Still, there were transitions to be made by players and coaches alike.  While the team was busy trying to earn their locker room back, Summitt recognized her team for what it was - very tall and long, but not very mobile - and opened up against Baylor in 2009 in a zone defense.  Having never really executed a zone in the entirety of Summitt's tenure in Knoxville, Tennessee took to it like a fish to water, handcuffing freshman Brittney Griner and the Bears for a 74-65 loss that would send Tennessee to a 27-2 regular season record.  The only two losses on the season were on the road to #2 Stanford and #8 Georgia.  Tennessee also won the SEC tournament in convincing fashion and earned a #1 seed for the NCAA tournament.  All seemed well with the Lady Vols.

And perhaps all was well.  But Tennessee found out just how much a 7-minute stretch of a game can mean; against Baylor in the Sweet Sixteen round, the Lady Vols went stone cold at the eight minute mark.  Leading 55-50 at that point, Tennessee suddenly found themselves trailing by nearly 10 points in the final minute of the game, eventually losing 74-65 to the team they beat to start the season.  The team was clearly back on track after the disaster of the previous year, but a tendency to get streaky cost them at the worst possible time.  Brittney Griner became Brittney Griner, and Tennessee was sent home to figure out what went wrong.

Enter 20010-2011. 

Just as a freshman lit up my first-ever live Lady Vols game, another freshman gave Tennessee a spark to open the season in Lousville's brand-new arena.  With 22,000 in attendance, Meighan Simmons permanently marked herself as the NCAA's most intriguing freshman with a 22-point, run-and-gun night that gave the Lady Vols the speed dimension they had lacked in the previous two years.  Simmons played  31 minutes off the bench and shot 2-7 from three in what is now a familiar pattern: jack up threes all day long and make the ones that happen to be daggers.  Her two made threes were two consecutive bombs that helped turned a 4-point contest into a 55-44 lead with five minutes to go.  The game was never in question at that point; nobody had a scouting report on Simmons and nobody had an answer.

That's changing now, but what didn't change was Angie Bjorklund.  The senior kept calmly making threes and taking care of the ball - two features of her game that have held her in the starting lineup for four years.  She passed Shanna Zolman for the all-tie three-point mark at Tennessee and has helped Simmons learn to pass and sense the team around her.  And when Bjorklund went down with a foot injury for a couple of weeks, her mentorship and leadership helped the Lady Vols find their way without the dependable long-range threat.

And in the final regular season game of their careers, Angie Bjorklund and Sydney Smallbone respectively went 4-4 and 2-2 from three-point range, ending with 17 and 6 points in their final farewell to the Tennessee faithful.  We're going to miss them terribly, and next year's Tennessee team will be the first year that I watch a Tennessee game without the living memory of Angie Bjorklund raining threes down on Arkansas, with Candace Parker and company imploring her to run her point tally through the roof.

But the mantle has been passed.  When Meighan Simmons made her record 8 threes against Lamar, Bjorklund was the one who fed her the ball for number eight, breaking the previously record of seven held by, among others, Angie Bjorklund herself.  The one-time freshman who was green-lighted by Parker from downtown was now green-lighting the next generation of Lady Vols.

And I happened to be at that game as well - my first live game of the season.

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