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March 20, 2013

How Tianna Hawkins rose up

Greek mythology tells the legend of how the Phoenix bird "rose from the ashes."

Centuries later, the tale of how a Hawk(ins) "rose from the masses" is being written on the basketball court at the University of Maryland.

It's the story of senior Tianna Hawkins, who's gone from a little-hyped recruit to possible first round pick in the 2013 WNBA Draft.

It's a rise not often seen in women's basketball, where seemingly the elite players are identified early on and few players make big jumps to shake up the pecking order. Tianna Hawkins is one of the exceptions to that rule.

She was considered the 133rd best player in the 2009 senior high school class and chose Maryland over offers from Delaware State and George Washington. At the time, nobody on the outside made a big deal about Maryland landing a future franchise player or future All-ACC performer, but that's exactly what Hawkins would become.

She's done it, literally, with blood, tears and a lot of sweat. Which is an amazing transformation for a player who once shared with a coach that she'd just gotten her hair done for prom and didn't want to mess it up by going too hard in a workout. This is what happens when a player gets pushed beyond what she thought were her limits and her inner drive gets matched with development resources that maximize the results.

HAWK WATCHING

Brenda Frese first saw Tianna Hawkins play competitive basketball towards the end of her freshman season at National Christian. Maryland had received a tip from National Christian's boys coach that Hawkins might have a chance to develop. That was 2006, when Frese was about to lead Maryland on it's memorable march to the national championship.

Hawkins started at forward for the small private school and was playing a game in an event at Sidwell Friends High School.

"At that point, Tianna didn't look anything like the player our fans see today," said Frese. "She was over 6-feet tall, but she was physically still very young looking. She showed a willingness to shoot the ball, but had mixed results. At that point she was definitely a player we put in our database and there was a lot of potential there, but there was no guarantee she'd make enough progress to earn a scholarship offer."

Two years later, she was playing at Riverdale Baptist as a high school junior. One of the key people to enter her life was Riverdale assistant Keith Lynch. Lynch had coached multiple future division one basketball and football players in his career and saw something special in Hawkins. Plus, he had an ace up his sleeve.

Lynch owns horses and Hawkins loved to ride them. So when Lynch wanted to motivate her, he could use the horses as the reward.

"I won her over with those horses. She loves those horses," said Lynch. "She had great potential. She was a finesse player, but didn't want to get physical. She avoided contact."

"Something that most people don't know about me," smiled Hawkins, "I hate sweat. I would hate when people touched me, because there was sweat. Then when I got here (Maryland), you have to look past that and play through that. It's stupid. (laugh) You have to be aggressive if you want to be successful."

As a high school junior, Lynch had a player still very much in an embryonic stage.

"After getting to know her (in high school), it made me realize she was still learning the game," added Lynch. "There were a lot of things she didn't understand. So, her being aggressive or not had a lot to do with her lack of understanding the game."

Hawkins also played with a Fairfax Stars club team the spring of her junior high school season. At the same time Maryland knew it had a tall task to replace graduating frontcourt players Crystal Langhorne and Laura Harper, both of whom have their names and numbers hanging in the Comcast Center rafters and were "Top Ten" WNBA Draft picks.

"We were watching three or so other players in Tianna's class that were considered top 50 type players," said Frese. "At a spring event, I watched Tianna play head to head against each of them. While she wasn't capable of dominating games yet, Tianna showed me enough in each of those games to excite me more than anyone else. Based on what I'd seen from her to that point, combined with the fact that she was right in our backyard, I decided she was a player we were going to pursue."

Hawkins and Frese had an intangible in common. Tianna has a twin sister, Tierra (now a standout player at Delaware State), and Frese had just a few months earlier delivered twins of her own. A short time after Frese decided Maryland was going to offer Hawkins a scholarship, a mini twin conference was held at the Comcast Center. Hawkins was already going to be there to attend a friend's high school graduation. Accompanied by her sister and mother, they made an unofficial visit hosted by Frese, her staff and her months old twins. Hawkins' mom even changed a diaper while they were there.

By the time it was all wrapped up, everybody was celebrating, because Tianna Hawkins decided she wanted to attend the University of Maryland. Which was fine by mom, Latanya Hawkins, who had attended Maryland.

Her college scholarship was secure, but the road to becoming a great player was still in front of Hawkins. There was a lot of work to be done, challenges ahead and no guarantee that Hawkins would separate herself from hundreds of other players in her class. In the Washington Post's annual "All Met" selection of the best players in the D.C., Maryland and Virginia area for 2008, Hawkins did not make first, second, third or fourth team. Her name does appear alongside 50 others as an honorable mention.

CLIMBING THE LADDER

Her senior season at Riverdale Baptist, Hawkins put together a string of double-doubles and averaged 17 points and 11 rebounds per game. And she earned a spot on the Washington Post's 1st team of All-Met selections. Nationally, however, she still wasn't considered a "Top 100" recruit or any type of All-American. Many other ACC signees in the 2009 class were rated considerably higher, including three future North Carolina Tar Heels alone in the Top 25.

"When Tianna got to Maryland, we were in a time of transition," said Frese. "We had just won the 2009 ACC regular season and tournament championships, but we also graduated Marissa Coleman and Kristi Toliver. So we had a lot of available playing time and nobody on our roster had proven they could help us win."

The increased intensity and level of competition in college is a challenge for every freshman and Hawkins was no exception. Conditioning, practice and games are harder. One of her biggest challenges was playing hard for long stretches without getting winded. Nevertheless, Hawkins showed flashes of her potential and gave Maryland fans reasons for excitement. She earned her way into the starting lineup, but then her numbers dipped. She felt more comfortable coming in off the bench as a freshman.

"I think it was all nerves. Just being nervous. What if I mess up?...It was just me being young," said Hawkins.

There were a few moments from the latter part of Hawkins' freshman season that left impressions in the memory banks that she had a chance to become a player at the core of the program. In a head to head battle against a future WNBA player, Hawkins refused to back down and had her more senior opponent asking for help. Then, in the ACC Tournament, Hawkins helped Maryland upset North Carolina by putting up 13 points and 11 rebounds.

With a year of college competition completed, Hawkins and the Maryland staff knew where she needed to improve. She'd already shown good touch on her shot, but it needed to be "tightened up" so it was a more efficient motion. They also worked hard on low post positioning and learning a variety of post moves. One of the biggest hurdles between Hawkins and elevating her game was improving her conditioning and mental fortitude. That was the toll-booth where she'd have to be willing to pay the price to get to the next level of performance.

"Coming here, I knew I wasn't in shape. But even when I thought I was in shape, I wasn't really in shape," laughed Hawkins. "It's having the coaches like Coach (Marlin) Chinn push me. Telling me I need to do more. There were times in practice that I cried. Looking back now, it's funny. (laugh) I've come a long way."

MAKEOVER

Little did Tianna Hawkins and her teammates know how their lives were about to change when Brenda Frese hired Kyle Tarp to be Maryland's "Basketball Performance" coach. Not only did Tarp bring cutting edge training techniques that are specific to basketball movements, but he also has an extensive nutrition and performance recovery background. One of the first things he did with his new players was take a trip to the grocery store.

Hawkins and her teammates got an education in choosing the healthiest foods in any circumstance. Which led to Hawkins parting ways with her beloved Outback "kookabura" wings.

"For me it took a couple weeks. It wasn't immediate. Once I got into it, I was going to follow it and see where it would take me."

Kyle Tarp backed that up.

"I would say the biggest thing with Tianna I learned was she needed a reason for doing something. Once she got that reason, she was 100 percent invested. She's not halfway in anything she does. When she decided she wanted to improve, she did it."

In just three months that first summer, she dropped seven percent body fat.

"She really likes competition," Tarp added. "Any time we added that element to our training, she elevated her intensity."

"The smiles she gave when she made a personal gain were the best. That makes it all worth it."

The "new" Tianna Hawkins was immediately apparent to those that knew her best.

"I was telling someone how I've noticed the change in her body," said Lynch. "You should've seen her before she came to Maryland. She's so toned and tight now. Her body has developed into a basketball player. I see the difference. She's become physical because of the confidence of how strong she is now. She's definitely in good shape. She's now an aggressive, strong post player."

With her newly found fitness, Hawkins could not only play longer and harder, but she could cover more court, much faster. Hawkins also got busy on her skill level. She'd already shown a desire to get extra shots on holidays and now with her improving strength and endurance she could attack workouts with more intensity and consistency.

"That's one lesson I've had to learn being here. You put in your work, but you're not always going to get the results right away. You have to keep on being consistent and then you'll start seeing results."

As a junior, the staff really started working on Hawkins' face up game, operating out of the high post and especially on finishing in a variety of ways around the basket and in transition. The payoff was Hawkins was voted 2nd team All-ACC. She led the nation in field goal percentage. Her points and rebounds per game numbers made big jumps. She set a Maryland single game record by grabbing 24 rebounds in a win over Wake Forest. Maryland won the ACC Tournament championship. And perhaps the single biggest compliment a coach could give a player. In a crucial, late game situation in Maryland's NCAA Tournament win over Louisville, Maryland ran an inbounds play specifically to get Hawkins a mid-range jump shot. Everything invested in the previous years paid a dividend at that moment, when the ball swished through the net and Maryland advanced, eventually reaching the NCAA Elite Eight.

"Tianna made a huge jump her junior season," said Frese. "I don't think I've ever seen a player improve this much. She's the face on the poster for our player development program. But we also knew that she could keep getting better and our job was to not let her be complacent."

"I can understand why," said Hawkins. "For me, I didn't see the potential in me that they saw. It's good to have coaches like that."


SENIOR SEASON

Surely, Hawkins felt a great sense of satisfaction coming off a junior year that saw her do things very few ever projected. She was putting in the perspiration and she received constant inspiration.

"We talked before the summer about increasing her scoring," said Maryland assistant Tina Langley. "We set high goals for her. We wanted her to demand the ball and be more aggressive. We also wanted her to continue to work hard on expanding parts of her game, like ball-handling, so she could expand her area of attack."

Somewhere during her college years, Hawkins became a workaholic. She's kept a schedule most adults couldn't keep pace with. An honor roll student, she's done a summer internship with the U.S. Secret Service, taken summer classes, worked part-time jobs, worked Maryland basketball camps and continued to work out to keep her game sharp. Her days started early and ended late.

She's also morphed into an "alpha" personality on the court and a "franchise player" for the Maryland program. She has the unique combination of a feathery jump shot and the thunder and explosiveness to dominate down under. The once finesse player and recruit who wasn't considered one of the nation's best is a legitimate All-American candidate.

"Coach (David) Adkins, he actually mentioned it before this season, all the players that were ranked higher than me and how well I've played against them and what we're doing now. They were ranked higher and I was ranked lower, but I've improved every year. I would say that pushed me to play hard."

"For one, it's been hard work. Two, it's believing in your coaches, believing in your teammates, believing in yourself and believing in the system," said Hawkins.

That system, combined with her skills, inner drive, mental toughness and a work rate that can be called "sweat equity" has put Hawkins in a position to be able to think about playing professionally. WNBA coaches and scouts have made regular appearances at Maryland games.

"For me, it's still unbelievable to see how far I've come, because I would never have imagined it. My freshman year, I wasn't even thinking about playing after college. I thought I would just use this time to get a degree and play. Now I might have the opportunity to play after college."

And given Maryland's decimation by injuries this season, Hawkins' consistency on the court has been crucial to the team's success. As a senior, she earned 1st team All-ACC, finished second in the ACC in scoring and rebounding and grabbed her 1000th career rebound, something only two other Maryland women's players (Crystal Langhorne and Marissa Coleman) have done. Attacking rebounds is one of the most physical parts of the game. Reaching that milestone will be another indicator of the transformation that has taken place since Lynch first saw a player he described as "finesse".

"She has become a great competitor. Her skill level has gone to the potential I thought it could be. She works hard. She's also doing stuff in games that surprises me," said Lynch. "She is playing very comfortably and with confidence. She's come into her own."



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