KNOXVILLE — What began as a day meant to celebrate and reflect on the legacy of one basketball legend ended up with the mourning of another one.
Shortly after the start of the second half of the Tennessee women's basketball team's much-needed 63-58 victory over LSU on Sunday afternoon, the 23rd-ranked Lady Volunteers' first quality win of the season, news broke that former Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant had been killed in a helicopter crash in California.
A glance around Thompson-Boling Arena showed stunned faces as fans checked their phones for information.
With the Southeastern Conference matchup a "We Back Pat" game meant to embrace the legacy of the late Pat Summitt, a pioneer and ambassador for women's basketball during her time as coach of the Lady Vols, the 41-year-old Bryant's death hit many hard.
The five-time NBA champion and father of four daughters had started to become an ambassador in his own right, regularly being seen at NBA games with his 13-year old daughter, Gianna, who was one of nine people on the helicopter when it crashed. Authorities said all on board were presumed dead.
Bryant had been outspoken in his support of the Women's National Basketball Association, with WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert releasing a statement that Bryant's "support for the WNBA and women's basketball along with his passion for helping young girls and boys follow their dreams made him a true legend for our sport." Junior guard/forward Rennia Davis, who scored 30 points to help the Lady Vols (16-4, 6-1) beat the Tigers (14-5, 4-3), called Bryant "one of the best players to ever play the game" while also pointing out everything the former guard who is undoubtedly a future Hall of Famer had done to help women's basketball.
"It meant a lot. Kobe he's Kobe," Davis said. "For him to kind of reach backwards and try to help women's basketball, which is somewhat behind men's basketball right now, as far as fans and everything him using his platform to reach out to women's basketball is huge. That was huge for me."
Lady Vols junior Jaiden McCoy and sophomore Jazmine Massengill were visibly shaken. McCoy noted she had worn No. 24 before coming to Tennessee. Massengill, from Chattanooga and Hamilton Heights Christian Academy, called him "my favorite player."
"My teammates loved him," she said. "Everybody in basketball just loved him. You either hated him because he was good, or you loved him because of the kind of person that he was. He loved women's basketball. He supported it (and) had a daughter who was pursuing a career in basketball. He was a great person."
As far as the game was concerned, Davis was exactly who the Lady Vols needed her to be — the best player on the court. She had her fourth game with at least 20 points and second with least 30 this season. All but two of her points were scored in the first three quarters, which helped Tennessee stay afloat on offense. The rest of the team came to her rescue in the final period, but Davis — who also had eight rebounds and four steals — added a pair of free throws with 16 seconds remaining to seal the victory.
Tennessee found a way to win despite being outrebounded by 13, which is only the fourth time this season an opponent has beaten the Lady Vols on the boards but the second time Tennessee has found a way to triumph in such a situation. Making the performance even more impressive was that the other time was an 81-54 win over Air Force on Dec. 1, which didn't present quite the same caliber of competition as the Tigers.
Looking at Tennessee and LSU play basketball was similar to looking at the famous meme of two Spider-Men pointing at one another. Their similar style meant the game was going to be won on toughness, and that's what the Lady Vols exhibited in a 14-4 run over the final 4:28 of the second quarter, which turned a six-point deficit into a four-point halftime edge. Davis had eight points in the spurt built primarily on good defense.
WHAT IT MEANS
This was a win Tennessee needed. With Notre Dame having its worst season in recent history, the victory by the Lady Vols against the Fighting Irish looks a lot less impressive now than it did on Nov. 11 in South Bend, Indiana. The Lady Vols had no bad losses on their record this season, but now they have a standout win. They return to competition with Thursday's 9 p.m. EDT game at Vanderbilt (12-8, 2-4), which will be televised by the SEC Network.
Tennessee coach Kellie Harper on Bryant's death: "I think also for me, you don't just want to hug your family, you want to hug your staff and your players. He's a hero to a lot of people, and a lot of those people are on our team. It's just life, and we are so blessed, so, so blessed."
LSU coach and former Lady Vols player and assistant Nikki Fargas: "It makes you appreciate the time that you do have. Every day we should all wake up and feel blessed that we were able to get up. To lose a loved one, our thoughts and prayers go out to Kobe's family. When you play this game, you try to teach your kids the game of life, and that is the biggest takeaway from Coach Summitt. She taught us that you love people and you treat people how you want to be treated. You respect all (people), and I think with Kobe he left a legacy that will continue just like Pat has left hers. (It's a) sad day for all who know Kobe and the family and friends. It just breaks my heart to hear that. It just makes me want to hold (daughter) Justice a little bit tighter."