KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The last remaining Tennessee players to suit up for former Lady Vols coach Pat Summitt want to end their careers by getting the program back to what they believe is its rightful place.
Cierra Burdick, Ariel Massengale and injured center Isabelle Harrison played for Summitt as freshmen and would like to cap their senior seasons by helping No. 6 Tennessee (27-5) reach the Final Four, which this year is in Tampa, Florida.
Tampa also was the site of the Lady Vols’ last Final Four appearance, when Summitt led Tennessee to the 2008 national championship.
“We owe it to Pat,” said Burdick, a 6-foot-2 forward. “She gave us a chance to put on this Lady Vol uniform and to have confidence in us to get the job done. We want to get to Tampa for this program, for this team, for (coach) Holly (Warlick), for Pat. We deserve to be there.”
Summitt stepped down in April 2012 after being diagnosed with early-onset dementia, Alzheimer’s type. She led the Lady Vols to eight national titles and 18 Final Fours before being replaced by Warlick, her longtime former assistant.
Warlick has guided Tennessee back to the women’s NCAA Tournament the last three years. The No. 2 seed in the Spokane Region this year, the Lady Vols open on Saturday by hosting Boise State (22-10).
Harrison tore the anterior cruciate ligament in her right knee last month, so she’s forced to watch from the sidelines. Her injury is the latest setback for a senior class that’s withstood plenty of adversity.
Before they began their Lady Vol careers, they learned of Summitt’s diagnosis. They went through a coaching change after their freshman seasons. They’ve faced postseason disappointment, including two exits in the regional finals and a loss to Maryland in last year’s regional semifinal.
Massengale, a 5-7 guard, missed the last 16 games of her junior season due to a concussion. Burdick and Massengale now lead a team that played the entire year without reserve center Mercedes Russell and lost Harrison and forward Jasmine Jones to injuries during the season.
“This is my last time to play for a national championship,” Massengale said. “I’m excited for it and I’m going to take full advantage of it.”
Burdick and Massengale have asserted themselves even more since Harrison’s injury. Warlick said earlier in the season Burdick and Massengale often deferred to Harrison, who was Tennessee’s leading scorer and rebounder.
“When she went out, somebody had to step up, and both of them have really done a fantastic job,” Warlick said. “They’ve both stepped up their game as well.”
Burdick has averaged 13.4 points and 8.4 rebounds without Harrison over the last seven games, up from 10.2 points and 6.8 boards before the senior center’s injury. Massengale is averaging 13.9 points over the last seven games, up from 10.4 beforehand.
Massengale does enter the tournament in a shooting slump. After tying a school record by sinking eight 3-pointers in Tennessee’s regular-season finale, Massengale shot 4 of 25 overall and 1 of 11 from 3-point range in the Southeastern Conference Tournament.
Massengale said she benefited from the time off since the conference tournament. Massengale and Burdick used part of their free time to coach an eighth-grade basketball team to second place in a local tournament, an activity that left Burdick hoarse and exemplifies another way they’re trying to uphold the legacy Summitt established.
Burdick has made the SEC community service team the last two years. All three seniors — Burdick, Massengale and Harrison — have appeared on the SEC Academic Honor Roll. Harrison graduated last summer and Burdick and Massengale are on track to follow suit in May, assuring that every Lady Vol who ever played for Summitt and completed her eligibility will have earned a degree.
They regularly keep in touch with Summitt, who remains on staff as head coach emeritus and watches many Tennessee home games from the stands. Burdick says she occasionally visits Summitt’s home and would love to celebrate a Final Four appearance on a future visit.
“It’d be a great feeling, just to say, ‘Pat, that was for you. You gave us a shot, and I wasn’t able to get to a Final Four my first (three) years, but this last year I’ve been playing for other people. I’ve been playing for Izzy B (Harrison) and I’ve been playing for you,’ ” Burdick said.
“Just to be able to finally get there, that would be huge.”
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