|Rhodes basketball player Lauren Avant, center, hangs out with teammates Natalie Goodrum, left, and Blaire Smith, right, before practice.|
At 8 a.m. on Thursday, the day before what could be the final home game for one of the most dominant and dazzling basketball players produced by this hoops-mad city, Lauren Avant flipped open her laptop and called up a presentation for her Biomedical Science class titled, “Metabolic Regulation of Apoptosis.”
A St. Jude researcher was instructing Avant and 14 other Rhodes College students about the process of cellular death and how organisms adapt to changing conditions. At this juncture of Avant’s basketball life, in a career defined by transcendent on-court brilliance but also excruciating physical torment, the topics seemed apt.
Avant, a 5-8 senior guard, leads Rhodes into this weekend’s Division 3 NCAA Tournament feeling more joy than pain, but keenly aware that her playing career is coming to an end.
“I feel like I’m playing some of my best basketball, really moving fluently,” she says in one breath.
And in the other: “It is sad to see my career at this point is dwindling down.”
Avant, the key player on a 25-4 Rhodes team harboring national championship ambitions, was featured in Sports Illustrated as a 10th-grader at Lausanne Collegiate School, for a series on future stars called “Where Will They Be?” At the time, the Avant plan envisioned four years with the University of Tennessee’s mighty program and legendary coach, but she claims no regrets about the events that led to a detour back to her hometown.
“Staying positive is something I’ve learned on this journey basketball has taken me on,” Avant said. “Even the good parts came out of the bad parts.”
A string of injuries that began shortly after her junior season at Lausanne sabotaged her career and contributed to her leaving Tennessee after her freshman season in 2011. She landed at Rhodes, joining her former Lausanne teammate Sharwil Bell with plans to take advantage of the rigorous academics to pursue a career in medicine.
Then, in her first week as a Rhodes student, Avant tore her Achilles tendon in a pickup game. She got back midseason in time to lead Rhodes to an 18-8 record that sophomore year, then needed postseason ankle reconstruction surgery.
“It’s hard to really love and have a passion for the game when all you can think about is the pain you have to go through to participate,” Avant said. “It took a mental toll on me, too, just feeling like I couldn’t catch a break and things of that nature.”
But the love has returned, helped by a junior year that saw Rhodes advance to the second round of the NCAAs and a senior year producing a statline that seems unreal — 25 points per game, 7.5 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 2.7 steals and, on shots inside the three-point line, a crazy .611 shooting percentage.
She scored 36 points in Saturday’s conference tournament title game victory over Centre College.
The coach of Rhodes’ opponent Friday, Charles Just, says Avant is “the most talented player” his Spalding University team will have seen this year.
“She’s got the whole package,” he said.
Her Rhodes co-captain, junior guard Sarah Johnson puts it like this: “You are not going to see a player as dynamic. She is the most athletic player I’ve ever played with or against, and she’s also got a very high basketball IQ.”
It started, says her mother Dana Avant, on a basketball half-court installed at the house in Raleigh where Lauren lived until the fifth grade. Neighborhood kids, mostly boys, would come over most days, and the one rule Dana insisted upon — they had to include young Lauren in the games.
“They definitely didn’t treat her like she was a little girl, they were just as tough on her,” Dana said on Thursday. “They didn’t give her any sympathy. A couple of months ago, we were sitting back reminiscing and I said, ‘You know, you went from the last one picked every game to being up there in the top two or three.’ ”
One reason Dana installed the court, she said, was to give her less grass to mow. She was a widow, after all.
When Lauren was six months old, her father, Navy 2nd Lt. Darrell Avant, was shot and killed sitting in his car on Vance. A 15-year-old was arrested and eventually convicted of a murder that Dana said was described in court as a gang initiation, with Darrell a random victim “in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
The first of what would be dozens of mentions of Lauren in this newspaper came in her father’s obituary.
A stepfather, Andre Pruitt, helped guide Lauren’s youth career, serving as a coach in the summer. She attended Harding Academy, spent one year at East in middle school before moving to Lausanne and winning state titles there.
The one year she spent at Tennessee, Avant said, did allow her to gain invaluable insight from Hall of Fame coach Pat Summitt.
“I look back at all the life lessons I learned from her, and wasn’t even mature enough to realize,” Avant said. “But it helped me to become the woman that I am today.”
Her love for the game renewed, Avant said, she now wants to pursue coaching after graduating from Rhodes in May. Her mother said she blames Rhodes coach Matt Dean for the transformation.
“She looks up to him so much,” said Dana Avant, who is a nursing supervisor for Methodist Le Bonheur. “She said to me, ‘Mom, I think I can make a difference.’ She is like me in that she doesn’t want to live life with regrets and so if she is not happy with that path, she can change her mind.”
Avant has been accepted into an NCAA program for aspiring coaches, and will attend the Division 1 women’s Final Four in Nashville.
But the young woman who developed her game on that backyard half-court in Raleigh plans to play for at least a few weeks more.
“That hypercompetitive nature is still there but now it’s more fueled by a love and appreciation of the game,” Lauren said. “It’s been coming out more lately. With all the injuries, it’s hard not to get in preservation mode, it’s basically all or nothing.”
Rhodes in NCAA Tournament
What: First- and second-round games in Division 3 NCAA women’s basketball tournament.
Where: Mallory Gymnasium at Rhodes College.
Friday: 5 p.m., University of Texas-Tyler vs. Maryville (Tenn.) College; 7 p.m., Spalding University vs. Rhodes.
Saturday: 6 p.m., first-round winners play for Sweet 16 berth.