Since stepping foot on “The Summitt” in Thompson-Boling Arena for the first time, Tennessee junior guard Taber Spani has continued to impress her coaches, teammates, teachers and fans with her faith, actions and basketball skills. One of just 13 Lady Vols to start her first career game as a freshman, Spani has lived up to her reputation as a player and a person, and won the respect and love of the people who surround her.
    
A leader among her teammates and community, Spani has made a lasting impact on the people surrounding her. UT chaplain Roger Woods has seen Spani grow and mature over the last three years as she continues to live out her faith and lives more and more for her team.
    
“As a person and a player, (what stands out is) her genuine love for people, but really over the years her love for her teammates,” Woods said. “She genuinely loves her team.”
    
Deeply involved with Team United on campus (a part of Athletes in Action and Fellowship of Christian Athletes), Spani has considerable time constraints, which is one of her biggest challenges to overcome the last three years.
    
“It’s difficult at times because I want to be making as big of an impact as I can,” she said. “You gotta focus during the season and I try to cut down on extra stuff and save that for the offseason. You have four years and it goes by really fast, so if you can be involved in things and keep it managed and under control and keep your priorities straight, I say go for it, and that’s what I’ve tried to do.”
    
Staying focused and accomplishing her priorities is something Spani does best. Woods said she is one of the most focused student-athletes he’s interacted with, if not the most.
    
“You can’t say enough about her,” Woods said. “She’s definitely a diamond in the rough. You only see kids like this every five to 10 years. Only every now and then do you run into someone of this caliber.”
    
For Spani, the opportunity to play college basketball under legendary coach Pat Summitt has been a dream come true and worth the sacrifices that come with it. Working through the adversity that faces every team as well as several injuries, Spani is thankful for the experiences and the growth she has seen as the fruit of that labor.
    
“It’s every athlete’s dream to be able to play in college and especially at a university like Tennessee,” Spani said. “There’s been a lot of ups and downs with our team, and then, just physically and stuff, but I think the Lord is showing me a lot and that’s the most important thing.”
    
More recently, the challenges facing Summitt, who announced in August she was diagnosed with early onset dementia, Alzheimer’s type, have been hard for Spani to watch. Even through this season, her respect for her coach has grown stronger on a daily basis.
    
“It’s hard on me because I have such an amazing relationship with her,” Spani said. “I love her and I respect her so much, and so for me to see what she’s going through and how difficult that is for her sometimes, that’s hard. But I think it’s been amazing how she’s used that to even further her influence and show how amazing she is as an overall person. It’s been hard, but when you go through those trials I think the joys comes through it too, so it’s been amazing to see.”
    
Unable to separate herself from her deep-rooted Christian faith, Spani has won the respect of her teammates and she loves them for it.
    
“It’s been amazing because my teammates have really accepted (my faith) and love that, and I think more importantly respect that about me,” Spani said. “It’s been an amazing journey to watch how that transitioned over the last three years.”
    
Senior guard Briana Bass said Spani’s role as a leader on the team is a great addition. Her positive attitude, humility and work ethic stand out above all else.
    
“I really love Taber,” Bass said. “She definitely brightens up this team and she’s always so positive.
    
“If you listen to her answering machine on her phone you can tell how positive she is. We definitely need Taber and we really appreciate her. She’s humble and goes out and works hard.”
    
Looking forward, Spani has high hopes for the upcoming NCAA women’s tournament, which UT enters as a No. 2 seed. The Lady Vols begin their run for a potential ninth national championship Saturday at 4:10 p.m. against UT-Martin, Summitt’s alma mater.
    
“I want our team to finish out strong,” Spani said. “I want us to be playing our best at the end of the season, and we believe that that’s going to be good enough to compete with anyone in the country.
    
“We’ve gotta control what we can control and that’s gonna be going out and giving 100 percent effort and leaving our hearts out there.”