Lawson's last chance

ATLANTA -- The question has been asked so many times. Superstar Duke guard Alana Beard wanted to play for Tennessee. Beard's high school coach even sent a video. But still, Beard got no interest from Pat Summitt. How did that happen?

"We blew it," Summitt answered once again Saturday at the news conference on the eve of Tennessee's national semifinal game against Duke. "I'm just happy I still have my job."

The room broke up in laughter, but at least one person didn't even crack a smile. Kara Lawson, sitting two seats away from her coach, wore the same intense expression she has shown for four years. Everyone wants to know why Alana Beard isn't a Lady Vol, but no one thinks about how Lawson must feel hearing about the better guard who got away.

It's the story of Lawson's basketball life. She has been to three Final Fours when most players dream of getting to just one. She has scored more than 1,400 points on the court, and more than 1,300 on the SAT. She captained Team USA in the World University Games in Beijing last year, at about the same time she was mastering the piano. And most importantly, she has just as many accolades as a Knoxville community volunteer as she does as a Lady Volunteer.

But, in the words of her coach, "Kara's always been overshadowed."

Overshadowed coming into school, when the campus still mourned the the loss of Chamique Holdsclaw and the end of a three-peat dynasty. Overshadowed as a freshman, when she ran up against Sue Bird in the 2000 national championship in Philadelphia and got dismantled by a player who would go on to become the No. 1 WNBA pick. Overshadowed last year in San Antonio by Bird and the "Greatest Team Ever." And overshadowed now by Connecticut's Diana Taurasi and Beard -- perhaps the two greatest women's college players ever.

Bird morphed from the shy Syosset girl to a WNBA marketer's dream, Taurasi evolved from loudmouth Cali girl to AP Player of the Year, and Beard transformed from homesick "mute" into team prankster.

But Lawson has had to undergo an even bigger change. Never mind the fact that she has had to move from 1 to 2 after her sophomore year and learn an entirely new motion offense; Lawson has also had to learn to be the on-court extension of Summitt -- a role that has broken past players. But there was Lawson on national TV at halftime of the SEC final, screaming at her teammates after a poor first-half performance.

"She has changed a lot," junior Tasha Butts said. "She's now very vocal."

Summitt says simply: "I love Kara. She is an awesome role model. So fierce. I love her like a daughter."

And Saturday, while the low-key Beard led her team through a loose practice and the always-ebullient Taurasi traded jabs with her charismatic coach, Lawson looked like she was preparing for a final exam more than a basketball game. The rest of the Lady Vols looked just as serious.

"She is the unquestioned leader of this team," Butts said. "She is so competitive, so intense."

Beard, Taurasi and Texas leader Jamie Carey can all lead their teams back to the Final Four next year. But this is Lawson's last chance. And fittingly, she will have to go through Beard -- who she has never beaten -- and perhaps Taurasi - who she has never beaten -- to get that title.

"There is a greater sense of urgency this time," Lawson said. "This is your do-or-die. Every game since the end of the SEC tournament could be the last."

Don't expect Taurasi playmaking or Beard slashing from the understated Lawson on Sunday. Don't expect anything that could make it onto a highlight reel or even into a WNBA scout's notepad. But do expect Lawson to be what she always has been -- smart and steady beyond her years.

And in a Final Four more wide open than any in recent memory, that might make all the difference.

"She hasn't scored in great numbers, and she doesn't have the amazing stats," said Summitt with a twinkle in her eye. "But you know, that just may help us in the end."

Eric Adelson is a staff writer for ESPN Magazine. E-mail him at eric.adelson@espn3.com.