By Layne Weitzel, TTU Sports Information
This story about Tech seniors Asia Harper and Yaktavia "Shug" Hickson was first published in Tennessee Tech's fourth basketball game day program of the 2017-18 season (covering the Jan. 25-Feb. 24 home games). Harper and Hickson will be honored at Tech's final home game on Saturday, Feb. 24 against Jacksonville State. Tech's senior ceremony will recognize both the women's team and men's team seniors and will take place between games (with an expected start time of around 7:30 p.m. CT).
COOKEVILLE, Tenn. -- A huge narrative prior to and during this season of Tennessee Tech women's basketball has been Tech's class of nine newcomers: seven freshmen and two junior college transfers. Rightfully so – the Golden Eagles can claim one of the biggest freshman classes in the country, and it's been intriguing to see how Tech's latest additions have contributed to Tech basketball.
"I think we've tag-teamed it," said Harper. "Shug's the more boisterous one, and I'm the one who's behind whispering in your ear what you should do and when you shouldn't do it. We're a happy medium because we balance each other out."
"Somebody said we're Tupac and Biggie, so it totally fits," said Hickson. "Every year you have new teammates, but considering we have nine new teammates and it's our senior year, and it's only us two – I get a lot of comfort from Asia because of the way she handles things."
The pair have handled a lot in their four years as Golden Eagles, but now their time in purple and gold is slowly running out. During the off-season, they started counting off their "last" milestones – last time on the track, last summer workout.
"We just try to soak in the moments," said Hickson. "Away games, on the bus with our teammates – we just try to kind of take it all in."
Harper and Hickson began their basketball careers young. Harper was five years old, and Hickson was nine. Harper started thinking about college basketball in high school when her parents told her she could potentially get a scholarship and have school paid for.
"I was like, I'm going to take this a lot more seriously and really focus on getting better and trying to go to a school for it," she said.
Hickson's older brother influenced her. She loved the atmosphere at his middle school games.
"I was able to shoot a free throw in kindergarten," she said. "When my teacher called my mom and told her about it, I thought I was in trouble, but it was actually something good."
The pair, both Georgia natives with hometowns less than an hour apart, would become Tech teammates due to head coach Jim Davis and his staff's persistence in getting them to Cookeville.
"(Assistant coach Bart Walker) called me every single day and texted me every single day," said Harper. "It got annoying, but I was like, they must really want me. Other schools would call every now and then, but he was really adamant on getting me here. That's what made me really want to come."
Hickson agreed. "It was just the constant calling, texting," she said. "I didn't want to go too far from home, but I did want to go far enough just to feel like I was out on my own. I thought Tech was the perfect fit."
Although Tech was just two seasons removed from its 2012-13 OVC regular-season championship during Harper and Hickson's freshman season in 2014-15, the team struggled during their first two years on campus. Tech's administration announced Kim Rosamond as the program's newest head coach on March 31, 2016, forcing the pair and their teammates to adjust to a new coaching staff. It was a change the two then-rising juniors believed they were ready for.
"I feel like life is about changes, and it's just all about how you adapt to it," said Hickson. "We needed some new things around Tech. (Coach Rosamond) was going to be a great fit, and I knew she wanted to turn the program around."
"The coaches make it a point that we are together as a whole – coaches, managers and players alike," said Harper. "We're all in this together. We don't have to be best friends, but they want us all to have a mutual respect and love for each other."
Hickson credits assistant coach Allison Clark, the lone holdover from Davis' staff and one of Tech women's basketball's legends, as an influence on her collegiate basketball career because of how she loves.
"She always talks about grit," said Hickson. "She always talks about playing with pride. She knows what we've been through. What I learned from Coach Alli is her passion and the way she loves. She loves Tech and everybody knows that, but it's just how much work and love and passion she puts into this program and Tennessee Tech period."
Harper says that Rosamond has given her a new perspective on not just basketball, but certain nuances outside of basketball – "how to handle things, thinking about your future, being a positive person, how to work through adversity. I try to apply that with most of my life now, so I feel like her influence has really changed who I am as a person."
College athletics and the time commitment that comes with it are not for everyone. Harper and Hickson have made it work for various reasons.
"I really focus mostly for me on school, finishing early so I can start my master's," said Harper. "Education is important to me, so I feel like that was the main reason why I kept going with basketball."
"I love basketball," said Hickson. "I keep going because basketball is pretty much my life. It's tough at times, it's challenging, but that's life too. If you just quit or stop, that's what you're going to do in life when you hit a tough patch. I don't want to be a quitter. It wasn't a quit for me because that's my sanctuary. That's where I go to forget about the everyday issues, even though there's always somebody that's going through something way worse than you."
The pair of seniors agree on what they've taken away from their years as Golden Eagles – how to work with different people, how to overcome adversity and how to sacrifice. They also echo one another on what they want to leave behind.
"We want to be the foundation that turns the program around and helps people have a better view of Tech women's basketball, said Harper. "In the past, it hasn't been as close-knit, so I want it to always seem as a family when we leave."
"Personally, I want to leave my leadership, my competitiveness and my love for my teammates and the game," said Hickson.
Rosamond put her stamp of approval on the seniors' intangibles before the season even started. At a preseason press conference in October, she discussed how the pair have influenced the team, particularly the younger players.
"We talk about being servant leaders, and I think our kids are really embracing that. That starts with our seniors," said Rosamond. "I can't say enough about our senior leadership in Yaktavia Hickson and Asia Harper. The happiest people are the ones who serve others and do things for other people, and I think our seniors are setting the tone for that."
Photos by Thomas Corhern, TTU Sports Information, and Jim Dillon