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Leap of faith pays off for University of Tampa women's basketball F Faith Sanders

University of Tampa senior women's basketball player Faith Sanders (Courtesy of the University of Tampa)
University of Tampa senior women's basketball player Faith Sanders (Courtesy of the University of Tampa)
Published Dec. 22, 2017

TAMPA — At her lowest moments, when she wasn't happy, when she switched schools, when she wondered if her smile and love of basketball would return, University of Tampa senior Faith Sanders had a singular thought.

Her first name.

"As a kid, I didn't really like my name because it was so formal and spiritual," said Sanders, a 5-foot-10 forward. "But I grew into it. And I found myself saying, 'You are called Faith for a reason. Whatever the situation, you need to have faith.' Life has a way of working out."

For Sanders, it has worked out beautifully.

After two lost seasons at Northern Kentucky University, she transferred to play for the Spartans. Sanders said she never has been happier.

"I got caught up in the title because I wanted to go (Division I), which I thought was the real thing," Sanders said. "But my choice didn't work out for me at all. I was doubting myself. I lost track of who I was and I didn't even know how to be happy anymore.

"The one thing I could always depend on to make me happy — basketball — wasn't going well. So I basically had to start over."

Out of high school at Savannah (Ga.) Jenkins, where she compiled 1,140 career points and 1,170 rebounds, she never considered Tampa (or any Division II school). But upon her transfer, after being contacted by Spartans coach Tom Jessee and visiting the UT campus, she was blown away.

"Coach Jessee was a super genuine guy," Sanders said. "We just clicked. When you hear D-II, you expect a hole in the wall. You don't expect something this beautiful.

"Great school. Great facilities. Great city. You're near the water. I still can't believe how lucky I am. I'll probably stay in Tampa after graduation. This is where I want to be."

From a basketball standpoint, Sanders has been a perfect fit for UT.

Although best suited for shooting guard or small forward, her athleticism and ball-handling ability allows her to play any position.

Last season, she averaged 12.1 points per game and she's hovering near the 10-point mark this year. But her game is about versatility — scoring, rebounding, defending and distributing.

"When you're in this business 32 years, you run into different personalities and basketball skills are not always the defining quality of a person," Jessee said. "When Faith visited here, you instantly knew she'd be perfect for us. You can coach her. You can approach her. She's a kid you cheer for every day.

"You don't see her without a smile on her face and that's really what it's all about. She finds a way to brighten the day up. She lights up the room. She has a really positive presence."

Yes, Sanders' smile has returned.

"Once I got here, I felt like I belonged," Sanders said. "That makes all the difference."

Jessee has dealt with dozens of transfers during his career. He said there's generally a common thread.

"There's usually a common denominator that they have lost their love of the game, for whatever reason," Jessee said. "You might blame it on the coaches or the situation. Some of the kids realize it's their fault, too. Something changes and the passion goes away.

"It's always nice when you see that given back to them, when you see that re-generated back in their bodies and games and the smile returns. It's not always about winning. It's just feeling comfortable and knowing someone cares about them. Slowly, that bubble they've built begins to disappear. They start trusting again."

Sanders, who is majoring in communications, hopes to work in public relations after her May graduation and exhausting all basketball possibilities. Whatever happens, she's excited about having a positive finish to her college experience.

She's the daughter of a pastor and the middle sibling in a family of five children. The first two kids were named Lori and Jeffery.

"Then they went kind of crazy," Sanders said.

Faith was followed by Revelation, then Patience.

By any name, though, Sanders has learned how to be true to herself and create happiness. For a while, it went off track. The finish has been perfect. Somehow, she knew it would work in her favor.

Maybe her name had special powers. Even at the lowest point, she always had faith.