IOWA CITY — A sometimes painful reminder of the three ACL tears she had dealt with, her knees occasionally ache but there’s no doubt about it.
"Grandma" has game.
Theairra Taylor, the only senior on the Iowa women’s basketball team, has carried the nickname “Grandma" this season while helping lead the Hawkeyes to a 23-win season which equals the most victories Iowa has had during coach Lisa Bluder’s 14-year tenure.
The Hawkeyes will look to add to that total and improve their NCAA resume beginning today at the Big Ten Tournament, where Iowa faces Illinois in a 1:15 p.m. game at the Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.
There, Taylor will look to continue a late-season surge that is allowing the 5-foot-11 guard from St. Paul, Minn., to finish her collegiate career on her terms.
“It feels good to be finishing the year strong and to be finishing it feeling good," Taylor said. “I feel like we’re playing our best basketball of the season at the right time of year. We need to keep it going."
Taylor is doing her part.
All five Iowa starters average in double figures, part of a Hawkeye offense which leads the Big Ten with averages of 78.8 points and 18.2 assists.
Taylor averages 12.1 points per game and has reached double figures in 12 of Iowa’s last 14 games. She enters the Big Ten tourney after averaging 19 points, 5.5 rebounds, 4.5 assists and 4.5 steals last week in victories over Ohio State and Illinois.
“Her feel for the game right now is very comfortable as it should be for a fifth-year senior," Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said. “She’s been shooting the ball effectively from 3-point range and letting the game come to her. She’s not forcing things and that is only helping her compete."
Taylor credits her teammates with making that happen.
She believes the balance that Iowa has in its lineup has helped take the pressure off of every Hawkeye, herself included.
“This has been such an amazing team in the way everything fits together," Taylor said. “We like sharing the basketball and getting it to a teammate in position to score. It’s something that has worked for us all season long and I feel like it has made us a very difficult team to defend."
Taylor has found herself with some open looks as opponents concentrate on slowing other Hawkeyes.
“I don’t mind that at all," she said. “It’s been interesting to watch how people try to defend us in different ways. If they lay off me, it’s giving me a chance to drive or hit an open jumper. Those are all good things. I just keep working."
That’s nothing new.
Taylor’s story is one of perseverance.
It has been nearly two years since she underwent her third surgery in a 20-month span to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament.
Some players are never the same after working their way back from a first ACL repair. Most don’t continue after a second.
Taylor was given the opportunity to call it a career and remain on scholarship after she underwent her third surgery during preseason workouts in 2010, provided with a chance to help the Hawkeyes as a student assistant.
But that wasn’t what Taylor wanted.
“I couldn’t see not trying to come back again. I had done it before, so I knew it could be done and I was confident I could make it work," Taylor said.
She worked her way back into the lineup a year ago and is expected to make her 65th consecutive start today for the Hawkeyes.
“She never lost her passion for the game and while there have been some tough times along the way, Theairra has stayed positive and been so mentally strong," Bluder said. “She has become an incredible example to every young player on our team."
“Grandma" wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I’ve tried to lead by example and be there for my teammates," Taylor said. “I’m just thankful to have the opportunity to play and I don’t take that for granted. I want to give it everything I have."