Commentary

GloJo still fighting for Final Four spot

Updated: March 18, 2012, 7:45 PM ET
By Mechelle Voepel | espnW

ROSEMONT, Ill. -- Tennessee senior forward Glory Johnson doesn't care what challenge you present her on defense. She's up for whatever: Go out on the ball and guard smaller players, stay in the paint to wrestle with those as big or bigger than she is, or switch between both.

At 6-foot-3, she's quick and athletic enough -- wow, is she both of those -- to handle any kind of assignment. There's only one player, actually, that Johnson doesn't want to have to defend. Luckily, she'll never have to.

"I wouldn't want to guard myself," Johnson said with a chuckle.

She has plenty of company. Although they may have to deal with it sometimes in practice, teammates Vicki Baugh and Shekinna Stricklen said they want no part in trying to stop Johnson. Likely neither does anyone else. But for DePaul, someone will have to try Monday night.

"She's probably the most relentless rebounder in the country," said coach Doug Bruno, whose No. 7 seed Blue Demons will face No. 2 Tennessee for a trip to the Sweet 16 at AllState Arena (ESPN2 and ESPN3, 9:40 p.m. ET). "She just really pursues the glass with a vigor that is a remembrance of what all the Tennessee players and the program is about. Glory is really active, and we know we have to do everything we can to reduce their second shots, but it's a lot easier said than done."

Johnson's enthusiasm once she hits the floor has no dimmer, let alone an off switch. She plays every game with the long-limbed energy of a frisky colt just set out to pasture after being cooped up inside. You might want to take your chances guarding a real colt rather than trying to check Johnson. Both will leave you lunging after them and looking for help. You'll probably be a little worse for wear, too.

"I just try to play as hard as I can, and sometimes it's taken the wrong way," Johnson said. "If the game gets physical, that is probably when you see me play a lot more physical. If not, I would just get taken advantage of. People think I'm mean, but I'm not, and I don't want them to get the wrong idea. I know I look that way, but it's just that when you step on the court, you have to be serious.

[+] EnlargeGlory Johnson
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhSenior forward Glory Johnson has yet to reach the Final Four with Tennessee.

"I try to be the 'beast' inside in the paint and hold my ground, but I also really do like going out and guarding guards. Whatever my coaches ask me to do. If they say, 'You need to stop this guard from scoring,' forget that I'm a post player. I am going to stop that guard as much as possible."

WNBA scouts love to hear that, and the best of Johnson's basketball is still coming as she's expected to be a good pro. But, right now, all her focus is on getting Tennessee to what could be the program's 19th Final Four, and her first.

When she joined the Lady Vols as a teenager, Johnson was so polished -- bright and well-spoken with an engaging personality -- that people may not have realized how relatively immature her game still was. She loved soccer and track growing up before settling on basketball as her college sport.

Johnson had attended The Webb School in Knoxville, Tenn., and was as familiar with Lady Vols tradition coming into the program as anyone. She saw it all first-hand as a high school student in the city, so the expectations and legacy were nothing new to her once she was part of the program.

However, it's one thing to know it, and another to have to live it. And the timing was unfortunate. Candace Parker and Nicky Anosike graduated the season before Johnson came in and had gone on to the WNBA. A year's mentorship from two such accomplished, cerebral and straight-talking-to-the-point-of-blunt post players would have been helpful to Johnson. As it was, there was only one senior during Johnson's freshman season, the oft-injured Alex Fuller, and not much in terms of real peer leadership, especially from post players.

"If I needed some help on my post moves, who would I go to?" Johnson said of that first year. "That's where you have to rely on your coaches, but they can't be on the floor with you all the time."

Johnson was never averse to listening to the Tennessee staff; but the amount of time away from practice that is needed to improve skills is something older peers can have more influence on than coaches. Johnson had to figure that out more on her own.

"We relied so much on her as a freshman," Tennessee associate head coach Holly Warlick said. "I don't think her skill level was quite there for us to really lean on her. Now she's obviously matured. She's really carried the load for us. I'm just proud of her and how she's handled every situation that's been thrown at her."

In her four seasons at Tennessee, Johnson has removed the wasted movement she had as a shooter, both from the floor and on the line. Working alone and with assistant Dean Lockwood refined Johnson's athleticism from being just that of a naturally gifted leaper to her having the repeatable offensive skills of a basketball player. This season, especially, that's included a better face-up jumper for Johnson, who is averaging 14.1 points and 9.5 rebounds.

None of that happens in practice alone, though. It's that on-your-own work ethic that Johnson now has helped pass on to the younger players with Tennessee. Cierra Burdick and Isabelle Harrison, both freshmen posts, have the advantage of playing alongside the likes of Johnson and redshirt senior Baugh this year.

"I'm excited to see how we have taught the underclassmen and how that's going to develop in the next few years," Johnson said, sounding almost like a coach. "I know this: If you're willing to learn, there's always something more to learn."

Johnson hopes no Tennessee player in the future will have to learn a hard lesson by losing in the first round of the NCAA tournament, as she experienced as a freshman in 2009. But that is pretty distant in the rearview mirror now. Even though Tennessee hasn't been to a Final Four with Johnson, her career has been a success. Tennessee has won three SEC tournament titles, and she was MVP of the most recent league tourney in Nashville. One team will be very glad to pick her next month in the WNBA draft.

"There's nothing she can't do," Baugh said. "Especially when she challenges herself, she can really do anything."

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.