NCAA Tournament

Tennessee’s Spani gets chance to play closer to home

The Wells Fargo Arena is about as close to Lee’s Summit as it gets for Tennessee forward/guard Taber Spani.

And next year, she may get a chance to play even closer to home if the Volunteers play at new SEC rival Missouri.

But for now, Spani, a 6-foot-1 junior and daughter of former Chiefs and Kansas State linebacker Gary Spani, will be happy to play just 200 miles from home when the second-seeded Volunteers face Kansas at 11 Saturday morning in the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16.

Unfortunately for Spani, a 2009 McDonald’s All-American who played high school basketball for Metro Academy, her role for the Volunteers has diminished this year because of a posterior cruciate sprain and severe bone bruise in her left knee.

After starting the first 10 games, averaging 11.9 points per game and making nearly 50 percent of her three-point shots (24 of 50), Spani sat out the next nine games. Since then, she’s started just five of the last 15 and is averaging just 7.0 points for the season, down from last year’s 8.0.

“I got hurt in the third game of the season,” said Spani, who scored 20 against Miami in the second game and 22 against Virginia in the third. “I kept playing on it because I wanted to play through it, but I made the bone bruise a lot worse. Now, it’s kind of maintenance trying to get through the end of the season, just because I want to play.”

Not having full strength in the knee has affected Spani’s three-point shooting. She’s made just two of her last 11 from behind the arc in her last six games.

“I’ve tried to learn and adjust to how I feel and what I can and can’t do,” she said. “Hopefully we’ve got that figured out. I’m still a three-point shooter, I need to do that, but also be a leader and defensively do my job.

“It’s been frustrating personally, but team-wise, we’re hitting our stride, and all that matters right now is getting Ws and moving on.”

Spani received an early scouting report on Kansas from her older sister, Shalin, a former Kansas State player and now the director of office operations for the Wildcats women’s program. She also knows Kansas freshman guard Natalie Knight of Olathe South and her family, which will add to the intensity of today’s game.

“Lawrence is like 40 minutes from my house, so I’ve definitely been there a lot, driven through there a lot, so that makes it fun,” Spani said. “Growing up you could never cheer for KU in our household. It was never an option, especially in football with my dad … when KU’s men won the national championship, it was good for the Midwest, but the Spani family wasn’t very happy about it.”

Spani, the 2009 Gatorade Kansas Player of the Year as well as the first Missouri player to play for the Vols, has no regrets about leaving the Midwest for Tennessee.

“I would never change my decision because I know I’m supposed to be here …” she said. “We didn’t finish the seasons like we wanted to. Going 32-3 (and 34-3) the first two seasons, playing under coach (Pat) Summit … and now we really believe we have a great chance …. It’s been up and down, probably not as I envisioned it, but it’s been great.”