At the risk of sounding Hollywood sappy, Lawlor’s story is “Rudy” with a ponytail.
“I think that’s fair to say,” Shea Ralph said of the movie parallel. And Ralph, as an assistant coach and a former Husky star, had every right to brag on the program’s standing as the women’s basketball equivalent to Notre Dame football.
Lawlor, now a senior on scholarship, reported to Ralph in the fall of 2013 after being tipped to a Twitter post from months earlier by the then-blossoming star Breanna Stewart. Stewart had tweeted that Auriemma, who seldom carries a deep bench, was looking for a walk-on — traditionally a roster-filling player who seldom sees action — or two.
Lawlor had been a three-sport athlete at Ansonia High School, which is in the southwest part of Connecticut about an hour and 15 minutes from Storrs. Her parents had accompanied her on tours of colleges with Division II and III programs, places where she might have counted on court time, meaningful minutes, an extension of a solid high school career.
John Lawlor, who works for the school district in Naugatuck, a short drive from Ansonia, had voiced his preference for UConn, for the big-campus experience he and his wife had shared. He didn’t have to push hard.
In “Rudy,” the popular 1993 biographical sports film, Daniel Ruettiger, better known as Rudy, overcomes significant obstacles — none more daunting than academics — to become a Notre Dame practice player. Conversely, Tierney Lawlor was an academic all-state player in high school, a straight-A student with plans to major in engineering — not a staple course of study at most of the smaller colleges she had visited.
She chose Connecticut over Penn State “strictly for the academics,” she said, and enrolled thinking she would be the fan she always was, attending games with family members from as far back as she could recall.
A friend referred her to Stewart’s post and soon she was interviewing and being put through the workout paces by Ralph, a fierce competitor who, as a player, had persevered through multiple knee operations.
“I had no idea of what I was getting myself into,” Lawlor said. “But I am more of a person who puts her head down and gets to work.”
In a telephone interview, Ralph said she had heard it all before from various aspirants, talking the talk, until they discovered the process was no cake walk.
“Most of them give up, and some of them quit after five minutes,” she said. “In my nine years coaching, I’ve had kids come out who didn’t even know the rules of basketball. For a lot of them, it’s eye-opening when they find out how hard they have to work, two weeks of being run ragged.”
Lawlor, she said, was an exception, along with Briana Pulido, who joined Lawlor as a 2013-14 season walk-on as a sophomore, doubling as a pre-med student before graduating last spring. In her interview with Ralph, Lawlor told of shooting baskets in her driveway, imagining taking passes from Diana Taurasi, from Sue Bird. She talked about her black belt in karate, her unglamorous but arduous work on a farm with horses.
In shooting drills, Ralph estimated that Lawlor was accurate about 70 percent of the time. In scrimmages with the Huskies, she was never outworked, however much she was out of her league.
“She was different from Briana, who was already a college athlete, running track,” Ralph said. “Tierney had to go out every day and scrimmage against players that were head and shoulders above her, talent-wise. Players who didn’t know her, never played against her in A.A.U. ball over the summers. When people see her on the bench, I don’t think they have any idea of what she’s had to go through these last four years.”
Along the way, she switched majors to animal science, hoping for a career in farming. She has had one of the best seats in the house for what has been arguably the greatest stretch of winning in any team sport, experiencing one lone defeat (in overtime at Stanford in November 2014) to go along with 148 victories since she first laced up her sneakers.
Put on scholarship by Auriemma for her junior season, Lawlor’s games played — overwhelmingly a few minutes at the end of Connecticut’s many blowouts — number roughly three times as many as her points scored. But ask for a personal highlight and she will not cite any one shot, or crossover dribble, or reach-in steal.
“I think I have had a pretty large impact on every game as someone who can help us prepare, encourage my teammates, help call plays, so many things,” she said, surmising the existential point of it all.
Rudy famously had his one endgame moment in the South Bend sun, while Lawlor has heard the crowd’s roar many times the moment she stood and pulled off her warm-up shirt. But her personal career peak came late last month, in her final regular-season home game at Gampel Pavilion.
Two busloads of fans — her fans — from Ansonia watched her parents escort her to center court to receive her framed No. 20 jersey. The tearful ceremony concluded, and John and Eileen Lawlor settled into their seats with their three other teenage children near the parents of more celebrated Huskies to watch Tierney start her first game ever, alongside her fellow senior Saniya Chong in the backcourt.
Ten minutes. Four shots. Zero points. Two rebounds. Two assists.
Just numbers in a box score. But also, as John Lawlor said, “An experience in commitment and hard work that will serve Tierney well in life and memories that will last her forever.”