Diamond DeShields was glued to the television.
There was no way she wasn’t going to watch Game 5 of the WNBA Finals. She and teammate Jordan Reynolds not only witnessed an instant classic, but an unforgettable moment of vulnerability and sincere passion.
Nneka Ogwumike hit the series-winning shot – a dramatic put back off of one leg during the season’s dwindling seconds – but Candace Parker stole the show both on the court (28 points and 12 rebounds in the deciding game) and during the postgame interview.
After a turbulent offseason full of personal and professional heartbreak, Parker struggled to compose herself.
No player understood Parker’s emotions better than DeShields.
“She could’ve folded,” DeShields said. “But she’s very resilient and pushed toward the ultimate goal.”
Prior to spearheading the Los Angeles Sparks to their first championship since 2002, Parker was the catalyst of the last two Tennessee Lady Vol championship teams in 2007 and 2008.
But as DeShields witnessed one Tennessee legend hoist up a championship trophy, in the back of her mind rested a goal that would potentially elevate her to Parker’s status in Lady Vol lore.
“I want to be thought of the as the player who helped put Tennessee back on the map,” DeShields said. “Not as if we fell off at any point, we’ve never fallen off. But, we have yet to get to the Final Four, we have yet to get a championship in the post-Pat era.
“I want them to remember me as someone who sacrificed and (did) her all to make Tennessee relevant again in a National Championship conversation.”
Since Parker departed for the professional ranks in 2008, a ninth championship banner continues to collect dust as it awaits its turn to be hung in the rafters at Thompson-Boling Arena.
As DeShields explained, Tennessee hasn’t fallen off the map. They still remain a staple in the NCAA Tournament. In the Holly Warlick era, the Lady Vols have reached the elite eight three times in four seasons.
But after three decades under the reign of coaching legend Pat Summitt and iconic players such as Parker, Tamika Catchings and Chamique Holdsclaw, the eight year championship drought on Rocky Top is inescapable for the current players donning orange and white, especially for the team’s premiere player.
The questions and critiques reached new heights late last season after the Lady Vols returned to Knoxville fresh off two losses against SEC cellar dwellers. Losses that kicked Tennessee out of the AP Top 25 for the first time since 1985.
“We hit a wall,” DeShields said. “We were struggling. We lacked confidence, we were embarrassed, we were disappointed and we were not doing a good job of banding together to get through that wall.”
The wall built itself and stopped the Lady Vols in its tracks at the worst possible time. With only regular season game remaining until postseason play, the whispers of Tennessee potentially missing out on March Madness for the first time in program history gained momentum.
Then, almost immediately, a flip switched for the Lady Vols. Gone was the team that had set program highs in conference and total losses. Gone was the team that shot itself in the foot with turnovers and unforced errors. Gone was the player who pushed herself to physical limits she just couldn’t reach.
“I think the difference between the team then and later on in the season … was that we came together,” DeShields said. “… there was a motivation to do more and understand what we were doing wasn’t working. We kinda had to swallow our pride a little bit and get back to the drawing board.
“The difference for me was accepting where I was physically wasn’t going to get any better. I was forcing it a lot of the time just wanting to get better … I eventually just accepted where I was at and making the adjustments to my game that I needed to make in order to perform on a day-to-day basis whether it be in practice or in games.”
Prior to this past summer, DeShields had never reaped the benefits of a complete offseason. Instead, she nursed nagging injuries and entered seasons as a shell of her physical self.
But DeShields is such a fierce competitor that she continuously pushed herself to overcome her physical limitations, even to the detriment of her own team.
“Sometimes her competitiveness can come across as selfish,” head coach Holly Warlick said. “Because she’s so wrapped up in the competition and she wants to do everything by herself. She hates to lose. She’s extremely competitive and it shows on the basketball court.”
This offseason has been a breath of fresh air for the entire program, but for DeShields particularly. She can now engage with her teammates in ways she couldn’t before. Every challenge she faces and weight she lifts earns more of her teammates’ trust.
Entering her second season as a starter, DeShields is not only a well established leader and healthy, but she’s receiving preseason accolades other Tennessee legends received, such as her selection on the SEC All-Preseason First-Team.
Of course, DeShields is no stranger to accolades. During her freshman season at North Carolina in 2013, the Georgia native was dubbed the Freshman of the Year and set numerous ACC freshman records, including points scored.
She was instrumental in the Tar Heels’ upset victory over the top-seeded South Carolina Gamecocks in the sweet sixteen.
“She can do things most normal women’s basketball players can’t do,” Warlick said. “… You know, she sat out with a major injury. There’s some doubt that you won’t ever go back to the way you were. But she’s back now and better than ever. When she’s on her game, she’s one of the best players in the country.”
As DeShields watched Parker hoist another championship trophy – like she had seen in the past as a little girl wanting to play at Tennessee one day – she’s perhaps witnessing an older version of herself.
The positions on the court are different, but both Parker and DeShields had moments where they were misunderstood. Both dealt with bouts of adversity.
The difference is that Parker has reached the pinnacle, but if DeShields can help put Tennessee back on the championship radar, her legacy could perhaps surpass all those iconic players who wore orange and white before her.