The Lady Vols enter this game in the rare role of revenge as the Lady Mocs beat Tennessee a year ago in the season opener. Andraya Carter was a true freshman then – she played seven games before multiple shoulder dislocations forced her to surgery and the sideline – and shook her head Wednesday when asked about her memories of that game.
"I just remember being so nervous, a sense of nervousness in myself and in the team," she said. "We didn't feel as together as we do this year. We weren't there yet at all. We are so much further ahead than we were last year at this point.
"Watching it unfold, it was just like it was happening, we knew it was happening and we didn't want it to happen, but it just kept happening. It was a terrible snowball effect that none of us could stop. The more we pressed, the worse it got. It was a tough game. It was tough on everybody. It was a big letdown."
Carter played in that game – she was a factor on defense – but she didn't enter in the second half until nearly midway through it because the Lady Vols needed offense.
Carter can score, but she is sometimes reluctant to shoot, instead looking to set up teammates and find the open player. That had to change at Tennessee, because the Lady Vols need offense at all five spots to keep defenses honest.
"I did want to come in this year and have defense as my specialty – I wanted to focus on defense and make hustle plays, because that is something you can control – but I knew in the off-season when I was training and working with coach Law and my teammates that I needed to a threat on offense," Carter said.
"I needed to be able to hit open shots. I needed to be able to get to the rim if I had to. It was motivation. No one wants to be out on the court and not be able to produce and no one wants to be that player that people just don't fear on the offensive end."
Carter could chat with junior point guard Ariel Massengale about what happens when opponents don't expect a player to launch shots. Middle Tennessee and North Carolina sagged off Massengale. She struggled offensively in the first game but torched the Tar Heels with five three-pointers.
"To be able to knock down shots like that, it helps you but really it just helps the whole team," Carter said. "People are coming towards you and it opens everything else up for everyone else. Being more of a threat on offense … I never worry about scoring, but I do want to be able to contribute. It was a focus in the off-season."
Although Carter's season was truncated last year, she showed what she was capable of in the fourth game with 16 points against Miami. But the shoulder injuries and subsequent surgery and rehab shut her down for months.
When Carter reported last summer for her first individual workout with Jolette Law, she had a dismal shooting start.
"It was so terrible," Carter said. "Coach Law makes fun of me all the time. She threatens to bring up old video of our first individual workout. It was just me and her in the gym working on shots, because Ariel was playing USA basketball.
"She exaggerates a little bit, but she says I was kicking my leg and my elbow was out and I didn't hold my follow-through, and it was just awful."
Carter knew the only solution was repetition. So, she turned Pratt Pavilion into her summer home.
"We were in the gym all the time," she said. "Getting up shots, working on it, trying to have good form and doing it over and over and over."
Carter carried over that dedication to this semester and continues to spend extra time in the gym after practice with Amber Smith, a former point guard for Kentucky and now a Lady Vols graduate assistant who rebounds for Carter.
"It was shoulder surgery, and it affected my shot," she said. "But it's all coming together now."
It has indeed. Carter is 5-7 from the field overall in the first two games and 4-5 from the arc. She is a perfect 6-6 from the line.
Carter also benefited from a year in the system. While she wasn't able to play much a year ago, the redshirt freshman has shown the maturity jump that happens from year one to year two.
"Last year I was a big ball of nerves all the time," she said. "I just have a better understanding of time management, my goals, the team goals, how I want to play. I just have more confidence after an off-season of working in the gym and being around my teammates.
"I think the way our team is this year also has made me more confident. We are such a close team. We are such a close group. The way this team is, it almost gives us all a greater sense of maturity because we all lean on each other. I have my priorities in check and I am just focused on basketball and school.
"I learned so many things about myself and about what I want to do and how much I love this program."
Freshman Jordan Reynolds has already developed good synergy with Carter on the court. Reynolds also is somewhat of a free spirit.
"She is just so silly," Carter said. "Her and Cedes (Mercedes Russell) actually, they are just a dynamic duo of silliness. She is just so goofy. She says random things. She has random thoughts. She's always got something sarcastic or witty or clever to say.
"She cracks all of us up all the time. We are either confused or laughing when it comes to Jordan."
Reynolds is serious on the court and has demonstrated the ability to knock down corner threes, a skill that will get her playing time in her first year. She also is nimble around the basket.
"Jordan will make some last-second shots that you don't even know how it went in," Carter said. "She just gets her shot off so quickly, it literally falls right into the basket. She is such a good player, and she can score. I love that she is on my team."
Carter showed enough last season to create anticipation of her return. During the national broadcast of the game against North Carolina, commentator Carolyn Peck said Carter restores a level of intense play that had been missing at times at Tennessee in recent years. Broadcaster LaChina Robinson posted tweets of effusive praise for Carter.
Carter isn't the only one getting national attention – so is her beloved pet snake, Nothing.
"I don't even tell him about it because I don't want him to get cocky," Carter said, referring to Nothing. "He is just such a humble boy right now, and he is such a sweetheart, so I just don't tell him about all this press that he's getting."
The Lady Vols have two games this week and then a week off before Oakland comes to Knoxville on Nov. 24.
"It is a fun week," Carter said. "It's funny because, we tell friends, we're like, ‘We play UTC on Thursday,' and they're kind of like, ‘Oh, no big deal,' but it's a big deal for us.
"They beat us last year. They played well last year. So it is a big game for us. Thursday's game is huge."
On Sunday, Carter, who is from Flowery Branch, Ga., will face former high school teammate Kaela Davis, who had committed to Tennessee as a sophomore. She de-committed in her senior year and ultimately chose Georgia Tech.
"I think we're all just trying to take it as another game," Carter said. "I talk to Kaela two or three times a month catching up and asking how she's doing. I don't have any hard feelings with Kaela. She's happy at Georgia Tech, and I am happy for her."
Carter has played so much basketball on the summer circuit that crossing paths with former teammates isn't unusual.
She went against North Carolina and Diamond DeShields – Davis and DeShields are also from Georgia – on Monday. She collided in that game with another friend, N'Dea Bryant, and was left with a visible bruise on her right eye.
"With most teams I can name a few people that I am either really good friends with or that I know," Carter said. "That is how it is with USA basketball, AAU basketball – playing at a high level, you start to see the same faces. We are all connected.
"Your friends off the court, but when you get on the court, you're competitors."
Carter is happy to be back in Thompson-Boling Arena after two tough road games to start the season at Middle Tennessee and then North Carolina.
"It is really nice to be home," she said. "I don't mind away games, but I feel so much better when I am home in my own bed where I can go see my snake.
"We love our fans. It's our gym and our place. Knoxville is a safe haven for us."