If Tiera Stephen wasn’t on top of the world in April 2009, she seemed to be pretty close.
Stephen was a point guard for the Louisville women’s basketball team and the Cardinals were playing in the school’s first ever Final Four. The circumstances were pressure-filled, daunting by any standard. She was also just a freshman, 19 years of age and playing in St. Louis under the brightest of lights.
The Cardinals had just upset top-seeded Oklahoma and were taking on Connecticut for the third time that season. Widely regarded as one of the best teams in collegiate basketball history, a third loss for the Huskies was inevitable.
Connecticut thumped Louisville 76-54 in the NCAA National Championship game en route to its first of two consecutive undefeated seasons, but nonetheless, Louisville had still finished their best season ever, recording the only 30-win slate in the history of Louisville women’s basketball.
Stephen worked her way into the lineup all year, playing in 37 games and starting in 10. She appeared to hold a bright future in the backcourt for the even brighter future of the Cardinals’ program. Few people would consider leaving such a situation. But Stephen did.
She wanted something more than Louisville could offer her, a better fit for herself and the goals she held for herself as a player.
“It might not make sense why I left,” Stephen explained. “But me and the coach both decided that it would be best if I went somewhere else.”
That coach was Jeff Walz, finishing just his second year at the helm of Louisville, and, all things considered, Stephen’s departure actually did make sense.
She was a freshman with a defined role on a deep Cardinals team. She started games when she was asked to, but her role was generally limited to coming off the bench.
“She wanted the opportunity to play more and I think she wanted more of an offensive role, and that was just not really in the makeup here at that point in time,” Walz said. “She had talked about wanting to broaden her game and do more things, which I completely understood.”
Stephen was a consistent defender and a solid ball handler, fitting the mold of many backup point guards across the nation. This was also a fundamental reason for her departure.
Deseree’ Byrd was a sophomore point guard, boasting a year of experience more than Stephen. She had also earned Walz’s favor for the starting point guard position after starting 38 games for Louisville that year and averaging 32 minutes for the championship-caliber team. If she had continued to beat Stephen on to the court, it would take until her senior year for Stephen to become Louisville’s starting point guard.
And so a new direction pointed Stephen north, toward Madison, Wis.
Having not wanted to fully reenter the lengthy recruiting process, Stephen looked to the Midwest and the Big Ten, an area she felt comfortable with after growing up in Dayton, Ohio.
“I kind of went back to the pros and cons [of schools] from when I was a junior or senior in high school,” Stephen said of her new school search, which featured Wisconsin and numerous Big Ten schools. “I called Coach [Lisa] Stone up, came on a visit here and that was that.”
But it wasn’t that simple of a process. Per NCAA regulations, Stephen’s transfer to Wisconsin forced her to spend an entire season watching from the bench, exactly the fate she hoped to escape when she left Louisville.
Although she was only able to practice and could not travel to road games during her transfer season, Stephen still found her role as a supporter enough to carry her through the year.
During her year of sitting, a lesser-known freshman guard began making headlines for the Badgers. Taylor Wurtz burst onto the scene in Madison during the 2009-2010 season and the two quickly became friends.
“Since my sophomore year and out, it’s been Taylor Wurtz that’s my best friend,” Stephen recalled. “I was always her biggest fan and she was always my biggest fan, even if I didn’t play at all.”
Just as the two were getting comfortable as Badgers, Stone, the person who brought them to Wisconsin, was fired in March 2011. Stephen had played two seasons of college basketball, augmented by a year of sitting in between and had to say goodbye to her head coaches at the end of each season.
“I was about to experience my third coach in three years. It was just like, ‘Here we go again,’” Stephen said. “I was thinking, ‘Man, this is the most difficult, unscripted career ever.’”
Little changed for her when current head coach Bobbie Kelsey arrived at Wisconsin. Stephen made her first career start at the Kohl Center, but her playing time didn’t increase. In fact, she averaged even fewer minutes her junior season.
“It was hard. The freshmen see me playing pretty well now, and they think that it has always been like that,” Stephen said. “No, it has not [been that way]. It has been a challenge and it has been a struggle.”
Nonetheless, her tribulations have paid off. Just as it likely would have been in Louisville, it wasn’t until her senior year Stephen became the lead guard at Wisconsin, where she stands as a starter and a leader.
Nominated at the beginning of the season as one of three captains, Stephen’s recognition from her teammates and her coaches came from her leadership rather than statistical dominance on the hardwood, unlike her fellow captains, junior Morgan Paige and Wurtz.
It’s the same leadership that won the point guard position that earned Stephen the right to call herself a captain.
“The position was up for grabs, so to speak. … We were really looking for a rock at that spot,” point guard Coach Alysiah Bond noted. “Sometimes the thought is, well, whoever is the best ball-handler should play the point, but no, it’s the leader who can handle the ball and get people where they need to be.
Stephen hasn’t had the easiest of senior seasons, either. With a nagging back injury, fellow senior Wurtz elected to take a medical redshirt for 2013, leaving Stephen as the lone senior on the court for the Badgers.
Although she made the decision to transfer entirely by herself, not having her best friend by her side has actually become one of the more challenging moments in Stephen’s career.
“Tay and I were supposed to go out together, so that’s the most disheartening thing,” Stephen said. “Not being able to play with her, I would have never imagined that.”
To say her college basketball career has been riddled with difficulty would be a serious understatement. Stephen left a 34-5 team and a program in Louisville that annually appears in the Top 25 rankings.
Now, her current team has yet to crack the rankings since she transferred and hasn’t made the NCAA tournament since she has been eligible to play on the roster. The Badgers lost six straight games before snapping the skid against Ohio State this past Sunday and have opened the conference season 1-5.
But like much of her career to this point, Stephen remains unfazed. She cited her friends, family and, most importantly, her faith as the ropes that have helped pull her through these rough patches.
Stephen is the first to say she feels little regret — if any — with the choices she has made to this point. She has believed in each decision every step of the way.
Now in the middle of her last stretch of games as a college basketball player and her team winless in conference play, the idea of believing is exactly what the redshirt senior captain is asking of her teammates before every remaining game.
Believing in what?
“That we are going to win,” Stephen said.