KNOXVILLE -- Sometimes it's bigger than basketball.
Tuesday night at Thompson-Boling Arena, the 20th-ranked Tennessee women's basketball team's 92-51 win over Arkansas-Pine Bluff was secondary. Just the night before, the visiting Lady Lions, already in town, learned that teammate Sierra'Li Wade had been shot and killed while playing basketball at Henry Augustus Johnson Park in Lake Village, Arkansas. One of her older brothers also was shot, suffering non-life-threatening injuries.
Prior to the game, there was a moment of silence for Wade, who had joined the UAPB team after tryouts. Coach Dawn Brown said the plan was for Wade to be ready to play with the team once conference play began but that she hadn't been traveling with the team on weekends due to the fact that she was serving in the ROTC.
"She participated in everything we did," Brown said. "We were teaching her plays and allowing her to get in shape."
But the observance of her passing had started long before.
Brown said she learned of the news Monday evening. She reached out to Tennessee chaplain Chris Walker, who within an hour arrived at the hotel along with "at least" 15 other members of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes who prayed with the UAPB players. The next morning, members of the Lady Lions were brought breakfast, and Brown noted postgame that Tennessee fans on social media poured in condolences during the day.
"That meant a lot," Brown said, "because we are so far away from home. It's not like you can just get on the bus and try to go back and be there with the Wade family, so for us that meant a lot. This is a special place; the legacy and the foundation that has been laid here just speaks volumes for this program. To have those type of people to continue to grow and to be a part of what has been established here speaks volumes for the type of people that stand up and represent Tennessee."
Then before the game started, members of the Lady Volunteers team gave personal, hand-written cards to the UAPB team and to the staff.
"The cards we gave were to offer condolences. Obviously they're going through a tough time, and I can't imagine how they must feel right now," said junior guard-forward Rennia Davis, who had 17 points and 11 rebounds. "It kind of made me appreciate my teammates a lot more; it made me step back and look at life for what it is, because I know that's tough for them."
As for the game, there was little intrigue. The Lady Vols never trailed, running out to a 26-7 lead after a quarter. Tennessee did shoot 55% from the field by getting out in transition. Sixty-two of the team's points were in the paint, but the Lady Vols missed all 10 of their 3-point attempts and turned the ball over 19 times, although they were also credited with a season-high 25 assists.
Rae Burrell had a career-high 17 points in the win, while Kasiyahna Kushkituah added 15.
"You don't want to have to go through a tragedy for something to put things in perspective, but it does, it does put things in perspective," Tennessee coach Kellie Harper said. "All afternoon, it weighed on me because I cannot imagine being in (Brown's) shoes. That's a young life, gone way too soon."