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Villanova basketball player Jannah Tucker overcame a nightmare and kept playing

Jannah Tucker, a Baltimore native, survived a domestic violence ordeal that sent her former boyfriend to prison. Now she's asking the NCAA for an extra year of eligibility to play at Villanova.

Villanova women's basketball player Jannah Tucker, pauses during practice at the university in Villanova, PA on March 2, 2018.  DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer
Villanova women's basketball player Jannah Tucker, pauses during practice at the university in Villanova, PA on March 2, 2018. DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff PhotographerRead moreDAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer

As Jannah Tucker describes the ticking clock on her college basketball career, and her role on Villanova's NCAA tournament-bound team, and her transfer from the University of Tennessee — and the reason for her delayed start at Tennessee — and the attempts now to extend her college career by one semester, her words veer away from knee surgeries and her play on the court.

"I got the protective order the day after I escaped," Tucker said in a recent interview in Villanova's basketball office.

Tucker talked of once having "a whole plan" for her hoops career. She was Tennessee's first recruit in the post-Pat Summitt era, one of the top dozen high school players nationally in her class coming out of Baltimore, a 30-points-a-game scorer as a high school junior.

Two knee surgeries changed her physical abilities, but her story isn't about damaged ligaments. Tucker recites a psychological torture straight out of a movie — not just a teenage relationship filled with domestic violence but an actual hostage situation spanning weeks. She was the hostage.

She'll tell you about a dozen weeks inside her boyfriend's house, even as her family and soon-to-be Tennessee coach went to his door. Tennessee's coach chartered to Baltimore with her assistants expressly to go to Tucker's boyfriend's house, trying to intervene. Her boyfriend, Tucker said, told her to keep quiet as the visitors stood outside the door. Tucker followed that directive instead of trying a fastbreak for freedom. Her family finally convinced the police that she needed rescuing, that she wasn't simply living with a boyfriend against their wishes.

All this comes back to Tucker, 22, as Villanova compliance officers interview her as part of their attempt to persuade the NCAA to grant her an extra semester. They are asking for a waiver that would allow her to go past the five-year window of college play since her eligibility clock kept ticking as she kept reliving her nightmare.

"It was surprising to me how much it affected me over the last four months or so," Tucker said.

The last two seasons, Tucker has been a starter, if not a star, for Villanova. The 6-foot player guards those she used to be, usually the opposing team's best outside shooter, while she averages 8.6 points for her 22-8 team. Her shining moment was a recent ESPN highlight when her shot from three quarters of the court away against Providence went in to end a quarter. It is a shot that maybe defined her career beyond the trajectory of a basketball.

"She's a good leader," said Villanova coach Harry Perretta, whose team is expected to play in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2013 after finishing 12-6 in the Big East, third in the league. "She's been through it all. You can't go through more than what she's been through."

Abuse all the time

That plan she had?

"All of a sudden that plan just doesn't happen and not only doesn't happen, probably isn't going to happen," Tucker said

Tucker had made arrangements to enroll at Tennessee for the 2013 summer session, starting her freshman year early.

"I went to see my boyfriend before I left," Tucker said, describing herself as "an 18-year-old. You know, this is the love of my life. My first love. I'm going to be with him forever."

She describes how her boyfriend had similar ideas.

"He would not let me leave," Tucker said. "I remember every moment of that day so vividly. He took my phone. I had no contact with my parents, my family. They're freaking out. They go to the police. The police are like, 'No, she's 18. She's got to come on her own.' "

She talked about how her boyfriend "would email my coaches at Tennessee back as if he were me just saying, 'I'm not going. I've decided to stay with my boyfriend, I've decided to live with him.' "

Then there was abuse, which had begun, she said, before that fateful day.

"Physical and verbal abuse all the time," Tucker said. "He would hit my knee because he knew I'd had surgery. Just trying to tear me down, telling me I was worthless. You start to believe those things."

He was her age, a basketball player, too.

"I tell people all the time, it's so psychological," Tucker said. "It's so much of a mind game that you start to believe that you are the problem. I 100 percent started to believe that I was just not doing the right things, like, 'I make him do this. I'm just a bad person.' Because when they're nice to you, you think that's them. That's genuinely who they are. But that's not the case."

Her father had been to the door. No luck getting it to open. Finally, after a couple of months, her boyfriend started a new job, and she found her phone, called her mother. They arranged to meet up. She was out.

And then pulled back in.

"He reached out to me. I was super naive," Tucker said. "Again I thought that super nice person was him. He said, 'Can we just talk?' "

Tucker didn't tell her family about this. "We met at a grocery store near my mom's house. I got in the car with him," Tucker said. "Wasn't smart. And then he drove me back to his house while hitting me in the car. Got to his house. At this point I already told my mom I was being physically abused and verbally abused and emotionally. He took my phone and texted, 'Hey, I've decided to stay.' "

Her mother didn't buy that. She went to the police, who began saying the same things about her age and the need to come out on her own.

"I found my phone when he wasn't in that room, and I sent my mom a message like, 'Please don't call the cops. I'll meet you. I'll try to get out again.' "

A family member had a security job at a college, and he went to the police, convincing them this wasn't a teenage love story. A police report noted a large bruise on Tucker's cheek. She got a protective order against him. According to news reports and court records, he eventually pleaded guilty to one count of second-degree assault. He was sentenced to eight years, all but 28 days suspended.

His name appeared in reports, but this is the first time Tucker has spoken at length about the ordeal. Tucker's family requested that her assailant's name not be used. According to court records, he is in prison in another state on other charges.

Tucker stayed home for the fall semester of her freshman year before going to Tennessee.

"As soon as I got to Tennessee we put in plans for games for my safety," Tucker said. "When we traveled, we would have an extra undercover person who could protect everyone there. It was a lot implemented for my safety. I was extremely anxious. I would get updates, like if he moved to somewhere else. I was having to fly back home in the middle of my academic semesters for court, just to be told it was postponed. That also took a toll on me."

Tucker still raves about Tennessee coach Holly Warlick.

"She has the most kind heart," Tucker said.

And when she thinks about how to be a leader at Villanova, Tucker immediately talks about the seniors who were at Tennessee when she got there.

"I went to a practice after everything, and they all stopped practice, ran up and hugged, and we all just started crying," Tucker said. "This moment I really felt comfortable and safe. And my seniors always looked out for me, always made sure I got everything done. They got on me a lot, especially with my academics. I was not doing well. They kind of set a precedent of what a senior leader should be. Here, I've always tried to implement what I learned."

After sitting out as a freshman, Tucker played only two games as a sophomore before hurting her knee again.

"Why is my knee not getting better? Why am I still not playing?" Tucker said of that sophomore year. "I felt like I was OK to play some days, and other days it was just completely terrible. I struggled academically. It was a tough, tough year."

The clouds descended quickly.

"I really felt like I was wasting my time," Tucker said. "Why are you doing this? You can stop doing this. You can go somewhere and stop playing basketball and be fine. Whatever. I'm here, but I don't know my place. I don't know what direction I should be going in. … I immediately entered this downward spiral of complete negativity. I struggled in school. I often was like, 'Why does it matter?' "

As for the awful events she had endured, "Going through it, I never realized how much I was affected by it. I felt like I had detached myself a lot from it, especially since I saw there was an opening for me to speak out about it and be an advocate for awareness of domestic violence. So I think a part of me became detached and became the spokesperson, letting myself heal through" that role.

She decided to transfer closer to home, and Villanova had recruited her in high school.

"She just called us and said she wanted to come home," Perretta said. "I said, 'Fine.' There was really no recruiting process. This was her second choice [in high school]. We knew she had 2½ semesters left. But we figured it was a no-brainer to get the last semester back. We figured there was no way with her knee injury and then the abuse thing that the NCAA wouldn't allow her an extra semester. I was shocked when I was told we couldn't use the abuse stuff to ask for a waiver."

Now the school is asking for a legislative-relief waiver, essentially asking for the governing body to put aside its own bylaws given all the circumstances.

For Tucker, who has next fall's semester to play and is waiting to hear about next spring, words Perretta spoke to her soon after she got there provided perspective.

"Harry was like, 'You have to be able to come to terms with [that] you might not be as good as you were. You have to deal with that,' " Tucker said.

Perretta gave her permission, in a sense, to leave her past behind.

"That was a big adjustment for me," Tucker said. "I'm like,' I can still do this, do that.' I had to really self-reflect and focus on my health first and then know it was not a be-all and end-all because I had made basketball a be-all and end-all."

Tucker is still close to her family. Her father makes it up to her games. She calls her mother her role model in life. If she can be the person her mother is, she said, she believes she would be a great person, a great mother, a great wife, a great sister. Everything.

"It's so weird. This is obviously an awful thing that happened, but it has taught me so much," Tucker said. "It forced me to mature, to have an open perspective to a life bigger than basketball, to other things people might be going through. I was brought up in a house where you're tough. You don't show this much emotion. You don't let people get you riled up. You're just a very tough person, and you can handle whatever. And it broke me."

So, now, Tucker said, if she can help someone and try to understand that person's circumstances, she's going to do it. She's finishing up her bachelor's degree in sociology, starting on a masters' degree.

In writing a statement to the NCAA, she said, she explained her fights against adversity.

"The whole thing with my domestic violence," she said, "he targeted certain body parts of mine, so that I wouldn't play basketball again. So for me, this is very deep in the sense of, 'No, I will play basketball, and I will continue on the path that I am on. And I will do it with excellence."