Sunday, January 13, 2002

Life as a Lady Vol full of lessons




By Shannon Russell
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Every day, University of Tennessee basketball players Shalon Pillow and Michelle Munoz spend hours on the practice court, their legs aching and lungs burning when the last whistle sounds.

        Every day, memories of high school stardom fade as they face the challenges the nation's No.2 women's basketball program brings.

        Yet every day, they come back for more.

        The Knoxville program, renowned for its success under 27-year coach Pat Summitt, boasts six NCAA championships and 16 Final Four appearances. Pillow and Munoz are part of a team ranked second in the Jan. 7 Associated Press poll and third in the USA Today/ESPN poll.

        Before the season ends, the Lady Vols (13-1, 2-0 SEC) plan to bring home their first championship since 1998.

        Tristate native Pillow is in the midst of her fourth season with the team, but the 6-3 center is blunt when it comes to life after Taylor High School. As as Yellowjacket, she shattered 11 school records in scoring, rebounding and blocked shots, graduating in 1998 with 1,774 points and 1,003 rebounds.

        This year she has shot the ball only 20 times in 14 games. In her 6.7 minutes of playing time per game, Pillow has gone to the free-throw line five times and has pulled down nine rebounds.

        Most of the time she watches the game from the sidelines, waiting for the signal to check in.

        “It's frustrating at times to sit on the bench,” said Pillow, who played 337 total minutes as a freshman and 174 minutes as a junior. “But I also have an advantage because I get to watch the other team. If I see someone get beat over and over, I know how to stop them when I get in. If I'm only going in for five minutes, I want to say that I spent those five minutes helping the team.”

        Pillow didn't need much teamwork at Taylor, where she served as a one-person scoring and rebounding machine. But at Tennessee, Pillow learned she didn't have to score 25 points or pull down 10 rebounds every game, nor was she expected to.

        “You just find what you're best at and focus on it,” she said.

        It took a Tennessee career for Pillow to find her hidden strengths: experience and leadership. She enjoys giving guidance on the court and helping teammates like Munoz make sense of the transition between high school and college.

        Fresh from Mason High School, Munoz is still finding her way. The 6-1 forward was known in Cincinnati for leading the 2000 Comets to a state championship and leaving the program with 1,840 career points, 765 rebounds and 206 steals.

        The Lady Vols program has brought lots of surprises, Munoz said. The home crowds alone still shock her every time she runs out for pre-game warmups.

        “It's quite a change,” she said. “You get out on the floor and see all the people and you just say "Wow!' Especially when we played Connecticut. There weren't half as many people at our state championship game.”

        Top ranked Connecticut defeated Tennessee 86-72 Jan. 5 in front of 24,611 fans.

        The game itself hasn't changed from one school to the other, but the discipline has. Munoz is juggling 17 course hours with basketball practices, study tables and road trips. Her brother, Michael, lives just three minutes away, but their hectic schedules don't allow for much social time.

        On the court she's trying to adjust to 11 minutes of playing time per game. She's 18-for-31 from the field, 8-for-9 from the free-throw line and grabbed 18 rebounds.

        Munoz has had Mason visitors at UT games, but nothing quite compared to the warm reception she received at the Mason-Harrison girls game she attended over Christmas break.

        “It's different being a big name in high school and coming here and being kind of a nobody. You have to prove yourself again and again,” Munoz said. “It's been kind of hard because your role changes and you have to accept it. You have to grow up and learn those kinds of things.”

        Some things haven't changed, such as Munoz's indecision on a major. She hopes to continue taking classes in the College of Arts and Sciences until she finds a field that catches her interest.

        As for basketball, her biggest goal is to get more minutes by her sophomore year.

        Pillow is looking for more minutes too, but not necessarily on the collegiate level. She's planning to try out for the WNBA, either in the spring after graduation or in the fall after a summer's worth of overseas basketball.

        Lack of playing time hasn't put a damper on Pillow's UT basketball enjoyment. She was thrilled that 50 Taylor fans made the trip to the Tennessee/Connecticut matchup, even though she didn't get into the game.

        “The worst thing you can do is sit there and feel sorry for yourself. I still work hard every day,” Pillow said. “I always want to be ready for when Coach calls on me.”

OTHERS
               Northern Kentucky University will honor senior All-American Michelle Cottrell between games of the 2002 Homecoming doubleheader with Bellarmine Saturday in Regents Halls. The first 2,000 fans in attendance will receive a full-color card highlighting Cottrell becoming the Norse women's basketball all-time leading scorer Dec. 21. Cottrell will be presented her Kodak All-American plaque from last season. The women's game Saturday begins at 5:30 p.m.

        Jenny Weaver (Roger Bacon) was named the Ohio Regional Campus (ORCC) Volleyball Player of the Year after averaging 3.6 kills and 1.0 service aces per game for U.C. Clermont.

        Thomas More College's Patrick Eagan (Elder) earned an NCAA post-graduate scholarship after maintaining a 3.9 GPA in Pre-law/History and helping the Saints' baseball team to its first ever NCAA appearance in 2000. Eagan pitched a no-hitter in the 2000 Gene Cusic Collegiate Classic as Thomas More went on to post their winningest season (33-11).

        University of Cincinnati senior goalkeeper Christy Hoffman (McAuley) was named to the inaugural Verizon Academic All-District Women's Soccer Team. Hoffman set school records in shutouts (14.5) and goals-against average (0.58) her senior year while maintaining a 3.52 GPA.

        Xavier senior defenders Lauren Garber (Sycamore) and Liz Singer (Roger Bacon) were named to the Verizon Academic All-District Women's Soccer Team. Garber, a team captain last season, was part of 22 career shutouts. She holds a 3.698 GPA in her major, pre-med. Singer played a role in 29 career shutouts, including five this season. She has a 3.602 GPA in marketing.

        Northern Kentucky University's Craig Sanders (McNicholas) was named Great Lakes Valley Conference Player of the Week after averaging 24 points with 57.1 percent accuracy from 3-point range last week. Sanders scored in double figures in 34 consecutive games entering Saturday.

       



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- Life as a Lady Vol full of lessons
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