“"It's like I'm lost. In a nightmare, in a daze constantly."”
Lakelyn Bouldin recalls a conversation she had with her father on Feb. 25, one day before he was killed in a car accident.
Kevin Bouldin was working on the family farm in Spencer, Tennessee, and had just fixed a fence that had been broken.
"He said, 'I really didn't want to go out there and fix that fence today, but I did,'" Lakelyn recalled last week. "Sometimes you've just got to tell yourself to put one foot in front of the other and you've just got to push through. No matter how bad you don't want to or how hard it is, you've got to keep pushing.
"That's my motto from here on out. That's how I get by day to day, honestly."
Kevin's sudden death was a huge blow not only to the Bouldin family but also for the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga women's basketball team for which Lakelyn is a key player. He was a regular at Mocs games and routinely interacted with all the players.
As the only male in the house, the 44-year-old had the primary duty of day-to-day operations of the farm, something that Lakelyn assisted with. She routinely travels home on the weekends to help.
On the day of the accident, Lakelyn's mother, Jill, got in touch with UTC assistant coach Jon Goldberg, who was on the road recruiting. Goldberg contacted then-assistant Katie Burrows, who handled the job of pulling Lakelyn out of class and relaying the information to her.
"One of the hardest things I've ever been involved with," Burrows said.
Meanwhile, then-senior Aryanna Gilbert had started a group text, informing the other players of what had happened.
"If it was anyone else on our team, I don't think it would have been handled in the manner Lakelyn handled it," senior Shelbie Davenport said last week. "It never seemed right: Something was wrong the whole day; then the coaches came in and told us, and that was a moment we realized that basketball isn't the most important thing we did together.
"It's not a day I like to relive or think about, but it's a part of her now. It's part of who she is. All I can think about is how she handled it."
Bouldin was handling things well — on the surface.
"I was very overwhelmed," she said. "I was almost like numb. You can't process that in a day, and it took me a little while and I still try to process that, honestly, because you never go through something like that but once, and you don't know exactly what it's like until you're actually in it. It's different for everybody; it's different for me, my mom, my sister. We have a sense of where do we go now? Where do we go from here?
"It's like I'm lost. In a nightmare, in a daze constantly."
With everything fresh on their minds, the Mocs had to travel to Asheville to face UNC Greensboro in the quarterfinals of the Southern Conference tournament, the same day that Jill, Lakelyn and younger sister Layla were at the Layne Funeral Home chapel for Kevin's funeral. The team turned in a solid effort, with then-freshman Brooke Burns scoring 36 points in a double-overtime loss to the Spartans.
The team honored the Bouldins by laying a Mocs jersey with the number 33 — Lakelyn's number, as well as Kevin's — on one of the chairs on the bench.
Two weeks later, the Mocs found out they were going to the Women's National Invitation Tournament, where they traveled to Birmingham and lost 60-50 to the UAB Blazers. Bouldin returned and hit a 3 for the first points of the game and finished with 16, tying Arianne Whitaker for team scoring honors.
She admitted last week that she nearly had a breakdown before the game started.
"That was a hard thing for us," Burrows said. "We had just kind of resolved this was the way we were and we were probably done. The WNIT gave us another opportunity, but we weren't ourselves. In the practices leading up to it, the energy level was struggling and our minds were elsewhere with that whole situation."
Bouldin said she considered quitting, walking away from the game she loves. But she also knew Kevin would not have let that happen, so she pushes on academically and athletically. She twice has been named all-conference and also has made the dean's list.
"Lakelyn has strapped it up," Burrows said. "She's a constant for us; we know what we're going to get every day. She's getting used to her new normal. While difficult, she realizes life has got to move forward. I know a lot of what drives her is her dad and understanding this is where she knows he would want her to be. She wants to make him proud and honor his life by doing that.
"The kid loves the game; if she didn't, she wouldn't be a part of it. We know what we're getting out of her and I've been proud of the way she's bounced back. Now she's taking care of her family and it's incredible how close they are. She supports them and is a phenomenal person, probably the toughest person I've ever coached."
Practice has become a refuge, in a sense. When the Mocs take on NCAA Division II member Lee University tonight in the season opener, it will be another opportunity to get away, get used to her new norm.
And use basketball to help do that.
"Practice gives me two hours to take my mind off of everything," she said. "In a game it's going to give me 40-plus minutes to relax, take my mind off everything and do what I love to do and do what I know best.
"I think it's going to be emotional for me (tonight). I don't know how emotional, but either way, I'm going to find a way to handle it, and we're going to go out there and play ball just like normal."
A new normal.
Contact Gene Henley at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @genehenley3.