March 6, 2013
Tiffany Clarke's cell phone was constantly buzzing on Tuesday as messages were pouring in. Each time she thought she had caught up, her phone would buzz again and her face would light up as she read the latest message to herself.
Tuesday was a big day for the Vanderbilt senior forward. The day began with news that she had been named First Team All-SEC for the first time in her career and it ended with her back in her hometown of Duluth, Ga.
After practice on Tuesday at Memorial Gymnasium in Nashville, Clarke and her teammates boarded two sleeper buses for the four-hour trek to Duluth, where the 2013 SEC Tournament gets underway later this week.
For Clarke, the tournament couldn't be played in a more fitting location on her Vanderbilt farewell tour.
In 2009, as a senior at Norcross High School, Clarke walked across the stage at The Arena at Gwinnett Center and received her high school diploma. Nearly four years later, Clarke's illustrious college career is making one of its final stops at the same building where she officially transitioned from being a high school senior to a college freshman.
Clarke and the Commodores will open tournament play at 5 p.m. CT Thursday against Missouri.
Growing up in Duluth, Clarke spent many hours at The Arena at Gwinnett Center between attending concerts, basketball games or other events. But she never played a basketball game herself in the building until her freshman year at Vanderbilt when the Commodores advanced to the semifinals of the 2010 SEC Tournament in Duluth. Clarke had 16 points and 19 rebounds in the three games, all of which she started.
"It is a great feeling," said Clarke of the opportunity to play in her hometown again. "I remember our first SEC Tournament when I was a freshman we got to open up there, so to close out my senior year playing there again is exciting."
With this week's tournament being one of the final times friends and family will be able to watch her play, Clarke is expecting a large cheering section of familiar faces.
Playing in front of so many family members and friends could heighten a player's nerves, but Clarke recalls the hometown atmosphere having just the opposite effect on her in 2010.
"I didn't feel any extra nerves (as a freshman)," Clarke said. "It was just playing an away game in a different area so I didn't feel any nerves or anything; I was more so excited and happy to be home."
Clarke expects those same feelings of excitement this week as she takes the court for the last time in Duluth, where she hopes her stay ends very much like it began Tuesday - with her phone buzzing with congratulatory messages.
Georgia on Their Minds
Tiffany Clarke is not the only Commodore feeling at home this week. Three other members of the team hail from the Peach State. Senior Elan Brown and freshman Morgan Batey are from Atlanta Fellow freshman Jasmine Jenkins is from Gainesville, Ga., which is northeast of Atlanta.
Like Clarke, they too are looking forward to the opportunity to play in front of family and friends for the second time in less than a week after playing at Georgia Sunday.
In regards to who will have the largest number of people supporting them in the stands this week, the odds on favorite is Brown, who has been known to attract large crowds at all of her games played in Georgia.
"I had 20 people at the UGA game (Sunday) so I am hoping to get to the 30 range," Jenkins said. "But Elan might beat me though. She had 30 people at the UGA game so I am kind of in competition with her."
Brown doesn't think it will be much of a competition at all given her track record.
"I know (Jasmine's) parents are actually staying with my mom. If she wants to steal some of my family members and call them her own that is fine with me, but I think I might take the cake on this one," laughed Brown.
No matter who has the most fans in attendance, each player can agree that the opportunity to play in front of family and friends is something they all cherish.
"Obviously, playing at home, it is comfortable to be right there with your family," Batey said. "It is a pretty exciting opportunity."
"To go back home and represent my small town of Gainesville, Ga., is a really big deal and I'm excited to see all the familiar faces in the crowd," Jenkins said.
Playing at The Arena at Gwinnett Center will be nothing new for Brown, who played in the SEC Tournament there as a freshman in 2010 with Clarke and Gabby Smith, but it will be for Batey and Jenkins. However, the arena is not an unfamiliar venue to Batey.
Growing up, Batey recalls attending SEC Tournament games in Duluth and even watched games in the high school state tournament at the arena. Now being able to play in the venue she grew up as a spectator in is thrilling.
"It will be neat to experience the SEC Tournament there as a player," Batey said. "I've seen games played there before and I will enjoy the opportunity of playing there after seeing so many others do so before me."
Though the Commodores will be hundreds of miles from Nashville, the team will feel right at home this week with so many players with Georgia roots, and the large contingent of supporters those members of the team will have donning the black and gold at all of the games.