Senior Night beckons for Spani, Williams

Kamiko Williams, Taber Spani

The Lady Vols will say good bye to two seniors and then try to win an SEC championship. Go inside with InsideTennessee to get ready for the game.

Taber Spani and Kamiko Williams will be honored tonight before No. 8/8 Tennessee (22-5, 13-1) takes on No. 13/15 Texas A&M (21-7, 11-3). Tipoff is 7 p.m. Eastern (TV: CSS) at Thompson-Boling Arena.

It will be an emotional sendoff for two seniors who were on the last team that Pat Summitt coached and the first one under the helm of Holly Warlick.

Spani expects the tears to flow. Williams said she will remain stoic as long as Spani doesn't look at her until they take the court and are talking basketball, not senior exits.

It does help that this isn't actually the last time that Spani and Williams will take the floor in Knoxville. Tennessee is hosting first/second round games in the NCAA tourney so at least one more home contest is guaranteed for the pair, who both graduated in three years and undertook additional studies as seniors.

"That makes all the difference in the world," Spani said. "Obviously, the NCAAs are different, but there's going to be orange here, and it's going to be packed. That helps a lot in your own psyche, ‘OK, this isn't actually the last time I am going to run out.'

"It is special just because we know that this is our last SEC game here, and it is Senior Night. But the fact that we're hosting helps. A ton."

It is the final home conference game with a lot hinging on the outcome. Texas A&M, Kentucky and Georgia are tied for second place in the SEC with 11-3 records. Tennessee is in first place alone and can clinch the conference championship outright with a win Thursday against the Aggies.

"Once the ball goes up, it's a game and we understand what's on the line," Spani said.

"My plan is that she won't look at me so I can stay focused," Williams said. "I can't get emotional, because if I do I will be a wreck. I am going to tell her to stay in her box and I will stay in mine.

"We can get this ‘W,' then we can cry and do all that after the game."

The two have forged an unlikely Lady Vol sisterhood after a freshman season in which they could barely tolerate each other. On the outside they seemed completely different. Spani was home-schooled, disciplined and focused. Williams grew up overseas and was fun-loving and scattered.

Over time they discovered what they had in common – well-developed senses of humor, similar religious beliefs, talkative personalities and, later, serious injuries.

Spani has battled an assortment of injuries that deprived her of court time over her career. Williams tore her ACL in the summer after her sophomore season.

"I never knew what it was like," Williams said. "I thought my life was over, and she was the one I went to and she prayed about it and we talked about it over and over. I think that was what got us closer."

"There are so many common things that we've gone through, and we've really been through everything," Spani said." We talk about those things and how that brought us closer.

"I've spent a lot of time off the court with her and getting to know the person Kamiko and not just the player. I am going to miss her a lot."

Spani has organized a Bible study on a regular basis during her time at Tennessee and Williams was a "total regular" in terms of attendance.

"I don't think I've met someone so spiritual in my life," Williams said. "I got a better understanding of her and she got a better understanding of me. She understands where I am at in my walk, and I understand where she is at in hers.

"I always thought she was judging me. She probably thought I was judging her. Once we started talking and got to know each other we were like, ‘Oh, you're not that bad after all. I do like you. That's cool.' "

While Spani has been regarded, and rightly so, of all that is right about Lady Vols basketball, Williams, despite her carefree outward attitude, withstood an onslaught, especially from Summitt, that Spani never had to endure.

Spani was never on the other side of a soul-piercing Summitt stare, while Williams probably lost count of the encounters, even noting that she took a couple for her fellow senior.

"She is extremely strong," Spani said. "Somebody else would have just said, ‘Enough, I'm done" and left. But she is resilient. She's strong.

"She really epitomizes, as much as her craziness and all that gets on people nerves at time, a lot of that stuff is what a Lady Vol is about. She is awesome."

The two seniors will enjoy the ceremony with their families – all of Spani's sisters will make it and Williams' father, whose military career keeps him on the go, also will get to Knoxville – and then try to concentrate on delivering Warlick her first SEC title as a head coach.

The Lady Vols are ending the regular season against the conference's toughest teams and facing them for the first time in 2013, an oddity on the schedule. Tennessee travels to Kentucky for a Sunday afternoon game to close out the slate.

"It is different," Spani said. "We played Kentucky early last year and then A&M is new to everyone in the conference. I think it adds to the excitement of this last week of SEC play because we are playing those two teams. They are both challenges.

"Right now we are just focused on A&M."

PROBABLE STARTERS

Tennessee coach Holly Warlick is expected to start: Ariel Massengale, 5-6 sophomore guard, No. 5, hails from Bolingbrook, Ill. (8.5 points per game, 2.7 rebounds per game, 4.8 assists per game); Meighan Simmons, 5-9 junior guard, No. 10, hails from Cibolo, Texas (17.8 ppg, 3.7 rpg); Kamiko Williams, 5-11 senior guard, No. 4, hails from Clarksville, Tenn. (6.1 ppg, 3.9 rpg); Taber Spani, 6-1 senior forward, No. 13, hails from Lee's Summit, Mo. (10.2 ppg, 4.4 rpg); and Bashaara Graves, 6-2 freshman forward, No. 12, hails from Clarksville, Tenn. (14.4 ppg, 8.7 rpg).

Texas A&M coach Gary Blair is expected to start: Adrienne Pratcher, 5-7 senior guard, No. 32 (8.7 ppg, 4.4 apg), hails from Memphis, Tenn., 2.73 assist-to-turnover ratio leads conference and is third in the country, tallied six assists against Vanderbilt, nickname is A-Game;Courtney Walker, 5-8 freshman guard, No. 33 (10.6 ppg, 4.0 rpg), hails from Edmond, Okla., tallied 20 points four times this season, McDonald's All-American in high school;Courtney Williams, 6-1 freshman forward, No. 1 (5.1 ppg, 2.4 rpg), hails from Houston, Texas, has started 17 games this season; Kristi Bellock, 6-1 senior forward, No. 5 (9.9 ppg, 7.4 rpg), hails from St. Rose, La., has started every game this season after coming off bench in her first three seasons; Kelsey Bone, 6-4 junior center, No. 3 (17.6 ppg, 9.3rpg), hails from Houston, Texas, familiar to the SEC as she played at South Carolina for one season before transferring to her home state to Texas A&M, which was then in the Big 12, three-time SEC player of the year this season.

ON TAP: All 14 SEC teams are in action tonight. The other matchups are: Arkansas at Florida; Alabama at LSU; Georgia at Mississippi State; Kentucky at Ole Miss; South Carolina at Missouri; and Auburn at Vanderbilt.

GAME NOTES

Tennessee leads the series with Texas A&M, 2-0. This will be the first meeting between the programs in the Volunteer State. The last meeting was an April 1, 2008, regional final in Oklahoma City in which Candace Parker dislocated her shoulder and returned to the game in the second half. The 53-45 win was sealed with a Parker pass to Alexis Hornbuckle, who drained a deep three with the shot clock expiring. The first meeting between the two programs was in 1997 in a tournament in Alaska. Gary Blair, however, has faced Tennessee multiple times as he was the longtime coach at Arkansas before taking the job in the state of Texas. … The Lady Vols are wearing black armbands on the left shoulder strap of their uniforms in memory of Paula Towns Jones. Jones, who died Feb. 9 in Alabama, played for Tennessee from 1980 to 1984 and scored 1,104 career points. … Tennessee is shooting 75.1 percent from the free throw line this season. It would rank as the best in program history, nipping the 74.2 percent connection mark set by the 1982-83 team. … Ariel Massengale is averaging of 4.8 assists per game. That would rank her fourth all-time among Lady Vol sophomores behind Dawn Marsh (5.6), Lea Henry (5.4) and Holly Warlick (5.0). … Meighan Simmons has been named among the 30 finalists for the 2013 Naismith Women's Player of the Year Award. She leads the SEC in scoring and has tallied 20 or more points nine times this season. Simmons is the only Tennessee player to start every game this season. … Texas A&M has performed well as a member of the SEC. The Aggies leads the league in field goal percentage, three-point field goal percentage, assist-to-turnover ratio and assists per game.

INSIDE TENNESSEE VIDEO COVERAGE

Wednesday practice clips

Taber Spani

Kamiko Williams

Holly Warlick

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