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Can Diamond DeShields lead Tennessee back to the Final Four?

Diamond DeShields, who is now Tennessee's gem, would like to emulate one women's basketball player in particular. Wanna guess who that is?

DeShields began her career at North Carolina as part of a famous-turned-infamous recruiting class of four standouts, all of whom are no longer in Chapel Hill. DeShields was the first to go, exiting after leading the Tar Heels to the Elite Eight as a freshman in 2014. She then sat out 2014-15 as a transfer year and now is ready to don the orange for the rest of her college career.

"It affected me more so emotionally and mentally than it did physically," DeShields said of spending last season on the sidelines. "I feel like I matured a lot. You know, I was like a little firecracker at North Carolina -- any challenge or anything, I was speaking my mind.

"And, in a way, I want to always be that person. But I've really thought more about the team -- how what I do, what I say, how I act is going to affect them. I don't want to bring any type of negative energy or influence."

So have you guessed the player whom DeShields greatly admires, even though she knows her only from watching her on television and through reputation?

"Diana Taurasi. I love her," DeShields said. "Yeah, she gets technical fouls sometimes, and she speaks her mind. But that's OK; I don't think anything is wrong with that. I hope to be one of those people who pushes the envelope a little.

"You can do that and still be a good teammate. If you're acting only off your emotions, you can get caught up in them. But DT is a great mind to emulate; she knows what she's doing. She embraces who she is and doesn't try to change it, but at the same time understands she's in a team environment and that the team is the most important thing."

OK, Tennessee fans, take a deep breath. DeShields is indeed a big fan of the former UConn star who perhaps will forever be persona non grata in Knoxville. But DeShields also looks up to Tennessee icons, too, such as Candace Parker and Chamique Holdsclaw, who between them accounted for five of the Lady Vols' eight NCAA titles.

In Taurasi, though, DeShields sees that mix of edgy entertainer, wry jokester, big-shot taker and respected leader, and that is so appealing to the 6-foot-1 multidimensional guard. Has DeShields had a chance to talk with Taurasi, pick her brain about basketball?

"No, but I would love to," DeShields said. "I hear what people say about her, but I know as well as anybody that what people say about you is not necessarily always true."

The road taken, then altered

So what do we know for sure about DeShields? Her athletic pedigree, of course, with a father, Delino, who was a longtime major leaguer, and a mother, Tisha, who ran track at Tennessee. Her mom was an All-American in the heptathlon in 1991. That's the same year the Lady Vols won the NCAA women's basketball title -- the program's third -- in overtime against Virginia.

Of course, Tisha wanted Diamond, who grew up in Norcross, Georgia, to go to Tennessee all along.

"She's getting ready to bus all of Georgia up to Knoxville for every game," Diamond said, laughing, about her mom's excitement level now.

"I was like a little firecracker at North Carolina -- any challenge or anything, I was speaking my mind. ... But I've really thought more about the team -- how what I do, what I say, how I act is going to affect them. I don't want to bring any type of negative energy or influence." Diamond DeShields

How DeShields still ended up initially at North Carolina is one of those strange circumstances that can be chalked up to being a teenager, pretty much. DeShields had befriended players Allisha Gray, Stephanie Mavunga and Jessica Washington through club basketball, and one day they all decided, "Let's go to North Carolina!" (The chatty Mavunga once told at least a 45-minute version of that story, but it still added up to the same thing: "Let's go to North Carolina!")

"It wasn't hard for us to make the decision," DeShields recalled. "Our parents were on board, with the exception of my mom. But looking back, I made plans to take five official visits but didn't do it. I feel like I should have gone to all those schools and did more talking.

"I made a very emotional decision, which wasn't the wrong decision, necessarily. I am appreciative of everything that happened at North Carolina. But I do believe we all should have given it a little more time and a little more thought."

"Diamond is an exceptional athlete, an exceptional basketball player. Those type of kids come around only once in a while, and I think she's that type of player." Holly Warlick on Diamond DeShields

North Carolina coach Sylvia Hatchell was battling leukemia during DeShields' freshman season, keeping in touch with the team but not able to be at games. During her rookie year, there were times DeShields clearly seemed to be having the blues, as it were.

If you had watched her body language and listened to the tone of some things she said, it wasn't then a huge shock when she left UNC. Nor was it a surprise that Tennessee was the destination.

There's no other way to say it: For a player who feeds off crowd energy -- positive and negative -- like DeShields does, the stage that exists at North Carolina for women's basketball is not the same as that at Tennessee. She knew, after her freshman season, where she belonged. And Tennessee coach Holly Warlick knew, too.

"Diamond is an exceptional athlete, an exceptional basketball player," Warlick said. "Those type of kids come around only once in a while, and I think she's that type of player.

At home in Rocky Top

DeShields averaged 18.0 points, 5.4 rebounds, 2.6 assists and 1.7 steals in 2013-14 wearing Carolina blue and No. 23. Now, we'll find out how close to that player she will be at Tennessee, where she dons jersey No. 11. The No. 23 at Tennessee was Holdsclaw's, and it was retired.

Some say DeShields has panache, others call her cocky. She knows it might always be this way, with those who adore her passion, confidence and humor -- and those who grumpily mumble, "Oh, get over yourself, Diamond."

The funny thing is, Tennessee fans might previously have been the latter but now will most assuredly be her biggest supporters. And that's as it should be.

Tennessee does need her, and vice versa. Some great players have passed through Knoxville since Parker left after the 2008 season, but there hasn't been that "one" star who is not just a go-to but a can't-take-your-eyes-off-of player. That is, until DeShields.

Too much hype, you say? No, because everyone saw it from her freshman season: Those games and moments where DeShields was at her own level.

Her admiration of Taurasi, though, suggests she knows that she can't win games by herself and shouldn't try. Tennessee lost three seniors from last season, and only one returner off that team averaged double-figure scoring (senior Bashaara Graves, 10.6 points per game). Junior guards Andraya Carter and Jordan Reynolds, in particular, have impressed Warlick in practice with their improvement and leadership. Center Mercedes Russell, who had an injury redshirt last year, is also back in the mix.

But DeShields, as long as she's healthy -- she has been dealing with lingering issues such as shin splints and patellar tendinitis -- will be one of the Lady Vols' key threats.

DeShields embraces that and also wants the whole Tennessee experience and accompanying expectations beyond the court, too.

"I want to be a role model, to be influential," she said. "I want to get my hands on work in the community and do all of those things that make up the Lady Vol brand. You could play the most or play the least, you're still a Lady Vol, and that sisterhood is empowering."