Jackson inspired, prospers in tournament play

It shouldn’t have surprised anyone that Gwen Jackson’s sneakers were covered with more graffiti than the exterior of a New York City subway car.

The heart and soul of the Tennessee women’s basketball team wears her emotions just above the sole.

On the outside of her right sneaker, one could see a touching tribute scribbled in black magic marker.

R.I.P. 3-24-03 Grandma.

On the toe of the shoe, one could find a Bible verse.

Isaiah 54:17.

A portion of the passage states, “No weapon that is formed against thee shall prosper.”

Jackson, a native of Eufaula, Ala., has been drawing the scripture on her shoe and drawing inspiration from it before every game after enduring a midseason slump that belied her All-America talents. After battling bouts of inconsistent play in the regular season, the 6-foot-2 Jackson has not allowed any weapon formed against her to prosper in the postseason.

Her effort in Tennessee’s 66-56 NCAA semifinal win over Duke Sunday night at the Georgia Dome underscored that point. The Lady Volunteers will play for a national championship Tuesday night because Jackson wouldn’t settle for anything less.

Not after coming up empty in two previous Final Four trips. And most certainly not after her grandmother, Laura, died of cancer last month at age 76. In their last meeting with one another, Laura Jackson provided a stern but effective directive to her granddaughter.

Play hard.

“I didn’t get to go to my grandmother’s funeral,” said Jackson, who led Tennessee with 25 points, 15 rebounds and two blocked shots Sunday night. “Every day that I play, every day that I step on the floor, I’m going to leave it all out there.

“I don’t want to come off the court and have regrets about how I’ve played.”

If Jackson maintains her NCAA tournament pace for one more night, that moment may not arrive until she’s well into a WNBA career. Jackson carried her team through the Sweet 16 with a 24-point effort against Penn State and scorched Duke for 16 second-half points. The Lady Vols needed every one of them to offset the ineffective play of standouts Kara Lawson and Tasha Butts.

“Gwen was the one player that stepped up and played really big,” said Tennessee coach Pat Summitt, whose team avenged its 21-point loss to Duke in November. “Gwen has made a decision to show up for us every night. She is playing with a great deal of confidence and a lot of heart.”

Of course, Jackson’s play often tested Summitt’s patience these last four years. She could dominate or disappear, depending on the day. She could score 10 straight points, then resemble a piece of driftwood floating lazily in the current.

For perhaps the first time in her career, however, Jackson has made the puzzle pieces fit seamlessly. When the Lady Vols needed a nudge in the second half of a tie game, Jackson provided it with a 3-pointer for a 52-49 edge at the 4-minute mark. She helped protect the lead at the free-throw line, too, hitting 10-of-12 in all.

After sinking a pair at the 1:03 mark to extend the Lady Vols’ margin to six points, Jackson pointed skyward as she jogged downcourt on defense.

Jackson was thinking of the woman who lived just down the road from her, the woman who filled her stomach with homemade banana pudding and her heart with love.

“I feel like she’s sitting on my shoulder,” Jackson said. “We were real close. I used to go everywhere with her.”

She still does.