Feb. 28, 2013
MADISON, Wis. - Wisconsin women’s basketball coach Bobbie Kelsey can relate to her lone senior, Tiera Stephen. Kelsey ended her Stanford playing career as the lone scholarship player remaining in her recruiting class.
"I came in with five but I went out by myself,’’ said Kelsey, who also went out on crutches after tearing her ACL. “I know how Tiera feels being the only one in that class; it’s kind of lonely, it is.’’
Stephen will be honored following Thursday night’s game against No. 20 Nebraska and the 5-foot-7 point guard expects her family from Dayton, Ohio, to be well-represented at the Kohl Center.
"Mom, dad, sister and brother – I don’t know how they’re getting here, but they’re getting here,’’ Stephen said. “That definitely means a lot. They’ve been with me every step of the way.
“I appreciate my family so much and I’m thankful that they’ll be able to walk me out (during senior introductions) and get recognized as well.’’
Taylor Wurtz is the other senior on the roster but she’s hoping to receive a medical redshirt after a back injury derailed her season after playing in just five games. Wurtz had surgery in early January.
On top of that, Stephen’s original recruiting class was at Louisville, not Wisconsin. After playing one season with the Cardinals, which included a Final Four appearance in 2009, she transferred.
“When you get down to the end, it’s a little sad and you wish you had someone who could share those emotions with you,’’ said Stephen, a starter in 26 of 27 games this season.
"Last year, I didn’t know what they (seniors Jade Davis, Ashley Thomas and Anya Covington) were going through. You try to put yourself in their position but you really can’t.
“It would be nice if Kelly (Supernaw) was still here and I would give anything for Taylor (Wurtz) to be walking out with me. It’s going to be a little emotional and tough when you’re the only one.’’
Bobbie Kelsey can also relate one-on-one with Stephen. That would have been a breaking news story last year. After taking over the UW program, Kelsey struggled to get through to Stephen, a Lisa Stone recruit.
“I think she thought that she was just going to be handed the point guard position,” Kelsey said, “because of where she came from (Louisville) and her pedigree and I wanted her to (take it).’’
But it wasn’t a good fit. Davis took over at point guard while Stephen came off the bench in all but two games. “We didn’t bump heads a lot, but we did a little bit,’’ Kelsey conceded.
Stephen confirmed as much about agreeing to disagree. “That’s true,’’ she said. “We really didn’t get on the same page at all. Granted, it grew a little bit at the end of the year.
“But there were different expectations, different mindsets. At the same time, it’s her program and it’s more on the players to adapt to the coach and I probably didn’t do a very good job of adapting.’’
What a difference a year has made in the relationship between coach and player. “That was a learning experience,’’ Stephen said, “and I didn’t want to go through the same things as a senior.’’
Added Kelsey, who doesn’t pull punches, “She realized, ‘I’ve got to work, I’ve got to earn it.’’’
She also referred to Stephen’s “maturity’’ and “coming of age’’ making a difference.
“They call me the ‘Grandma’ on the team – I’ll be 23 next week,’’ Stephen said. “Knowing where I am now is amazing. It’s been a roller coaster ride, like most careers are. But I’ve matured so much.’’
Kelsey can attest to that growth. Moreover, she wondered aloud, “Oh, my God, what would we do without her? We’d miss her greatly. I wish she was a junior. I never thought that I would say that.’’
Stephen can relate to Kelsey on this one. “I wish I had one more year,’’ she said. “Everybody says that you don’t know what you have until it’s gone. But I don’t know if my body could handle it.’’
Because of a short bench, Stephen has been averaging 34 minutes a game. “It’s been hard for her this year because she really hasn’t had a sub, somebody who can give her a little break,’’ Kelsey said.
But she has still embraced the challenge which has earned Kelsey’s respect.
“She has become more of an adult in her thinking and approach to adversity and things that don’t go her way,’’ Kelsey said. “It’s most rewarding because she has made a 180 turn.
“She probably feels like if I just had one more (year) she could play with Taylor and Michala Johnson (the Connecticut transfer who’s redshirting this season).
“It would take some of the pressure off of her to always have to be the leader. I said to her, ‘It’s hard to lead, isn’t it?’ Everybody wants to lead but people don’t realize it’s hard to bring folks along.
“You’re carrying yourself – and what you’re going through – and you have to bring some freshmen and sophomores along. Our upperclassmen are not as vocal as she is, so it falls on her a lot.’’
Stephen had to learn how to get others to follow here lead.
“It’s definitely challenging,’’ she said. “I always thought I was a leader. But to be honest, I never knew what a leader was until this year. Last year, we had Ashley (Thomas) and I led in a different way.
“Everyone wants to be a leader or take credit when things are going good. But you have to be able to do the same things when things aren’t so good, when they’re rough.’’
Sometimes you learn by trial and error. As a freshman, Stephen played in 37 games and started the last 10 for Louisville, including the NCAA championship game against UConn, a 76-54 loss.
Just playing in the national finals, the dream of every college player, was a moment that she will cherish forever. “That one is going to the grave with me,’’ she said.
But it wasn’t playing out like she wanted at Louisville, so she made the decision to transfer. “Off the court, it was different,’’ she said. “You have to find your niche and that wasn’t the program for me.’’
Stephen re-opened recruiting. “It was very draining, but something had to be done,’’ she said. “The girls welcomed me here (Wisconsin), coach Stone was cool and it made it very easy for me.’’
Kelsey, in turn, became her third head coach in as many years.
“Last year was a little rough for me and coach Bobbie; she was my third coach and it was a new program,’’ she reiterated. “But, man, I wish I had more years; I wish she had been my coach from the start.’’
What she will take out of her senior year with Kelsey is the memory of making the game-winning shot against No. 7 Penn State with six seconds left and handing the Nittany Lions their only loss in the Big Ten.
That bodes well for the foundation of Kelsey’s program.
“I’m excited with what’s to come,’’ Stephen said.
That goes for the Badgers and her pursuits outside of basketball.
“That’s the million dollar question,’’ Stephen said. “What are you going to do next after being a student-athlete all your life? Now there’s a transition to being a grown women. But it’s time.’’
Time well spent, according to Kelsey, who wants to send Stephen out the right way. “I told the young ones, the underclassmen,’’ Kelsey said, “that you’re going to be there (a senior) one day and you’re going to know how Tiera feels (on Thursday).
“I told them, ‘If you don’t want it for yourself, at least play hard (against Nebraska) for her because she doesn’t have another opportunity to play in the Kohl Center.’’
Kelsey can now relate to Stephen, and Stephen to Kelsey. And both can relate to the old cliché: it’s not how you start but how you finish. “I’m very proud of how far Tiera has come,’’ Kelsey said.