Gabby Smith will not forget the first time she met fellow seniors Elan Brown and Tiffany Clarke. She laughs at the moment today as she recalls how a bond that will last a lifetime began with such an uncomfortable introduction.
It was January 11, 2009 and Smith and her father were in attendance as Vanderbilt defeated Tennessee at Memorial Gymnasium. A few rows away, Brown and Clarke were seated together. She knew who the two AAU teammates from Georgia were and wanted to introduce herself to her future classmates.
"I was kind of shy at first and I was standing up and they were both sitting down in their seats," Smith recalled. "There was an open seat next to Elan and I was standing there awkwardly and Elan was like, 'You can sit down, you don't have to stand there so awkward.' That was my first experience with Elan so I was a little intimidated. Tiff didn't say anything."
It may not have seemed likely during that first meeting, but with time the relationships between the three blossomed. They adjusted to living away from home together, experienced the wins and losses on the basketball court together and most importantly grew up together.
Fast forward to present day and Brown, Clarke and Smith are nearing the conclusion of their Vanderbilt careers. On Thursday, the senior class will take the floor one last time at Memorial Gymnasium when the Commodores host Auburn at 8 p.m. CT (Senior Day festivities begin at 7:40 p.m.).
Thursday will also be the final opportunity for fans to donate to the Hoops for Kids program, which is the organization the senior class chose to raise awareness for. Five hundred t-shirts supporting the cause will be distributed at the door.
Just a few days from concluding their home careers at Vanderbilt, the senior trio gathered together outside their locker room to reflect back on their careers from the first "awkward" meeting to the friendships that have been formed. They remember the laughs they shared, the fun they had and the 84 wins and counting they have contributed to, but no one can believe the ride is coming to an end.
"You never think that it is going to come," Smith said. "I try so hard to tell the freshmen that you think you have so much time. Then all of sudden it just slaps you in your face and you are like, 'oh shoot, I have Senior Day on Thursday."
"It definitely comes quicker than I thought it would," Clarke added. "Time travels pretty fast. When you arrive as a freshman, four years seems like a long time, and now looking back, it is hard to believe that it has really been four years."
The summer before freshman year (photo courtesy of Gabby Smith)
As freshmen, Brown and Clarke roomed together, while Smith roomed with fellow freshman Stephanie Holzer, who redshirted her first year on campus and still has eligibility remaining after this season. Four years later, the class that arrived together is still living together, albeit with different roommates. Clarke and Smith have roomed together for the past two years and Brown and Holzer are currently roommates. "They are finishing each other's sentences now," Joked Brown about Clarke and Smith.
"We are complete opposites, but we get along great," Clarke said of her roommate situation.
During their time at Vanderbilt, the class has won 53 of 64 home games and has played in three NCAA Tournaments. Each player has made multiple starts over their careers and contributed significantly to the ongoing success of the program.
This season, Brown and Clarke have started every game, while Smith has started eight, including the last four. The team sits at 18-9 overall and is in position to advance to the NCAA Tournament for the 14th season in a row. Should the Commodores' season end in the NCAA Tournament, the class of Brown, Smith and Clarke will be the 11th in a row to play in the NCAA Tournament all four years of their Vanderbilt careers.
It's a day that is difficult to prepare for, and everyone has their thoughts on how they will react when they are introduced one last time, but there is no way to simulate the flood of emotions that accompany the day.
"I probably will be emotional when it happens," Brown said. "But just because I haven't been though it, I guess I can't really say what it will be like."
Smith, on the other hand is already prepared for what she fully expects. "I'm going to be a wreck," she conceded. "I'll just put it on the table and give everyone a warning."
The trio will each graduate in May and will then head their separate ways as another chapter of life begins. Brown and Clarke have early intentions of continuing their playing careers and Smith has her sights on attending graduate school and receiving a master's degree in sports psychology.
"If not playing basketball, Brown envisions herself, at the very least, staying close to sports. "I still want to stay in sports with whatever I do. It is just going to be so weird to spend my whole life in sports to just cut it off and do something else."
Wherever the road takes the seniors, they know they will have one another there for support every step of the way, no matter their distance apart, because of unforgettable life experiences that brought them together and formed a friendship that is timeless.
"What people see is us on the basketball court, but there is so much more to the reason we have gotten so close," Smith said. "When someone has something happen in their family, we experience it together. We may get angry at each other sometimes, but we resolve it and it ends up better than it was in the first place. The basketball part is fun too and it means a lot but what really means the most is what happens off the court."