Practice underway for Lady Vols

Alexa Middleton has been called “tough as nails” by the coaching staff. Give an assist to her big brother. Go inside with InsideTennessee for the latest on the Lady Vols.

Basketball practice got underway Monday for Tennessee at Pratt Pavilion, and head coach Holly Warlick met with the media, along with seniors Cierra Burdick and Ariel Massengale. InsideTennessee sat down with freshman Alexa Middleton for a newcomer’s perspective on the official start of practice.

During Warlick’s first meeting with the players when they arrived on campus in August, she told the freshmen to get to work and earn playing time.

“That is exactly what I want to hear,” said Middleton, a 5-9 freshman guard from Murfreesboro, Tenn. “I want to come in and be able to make a difference and make an impact on this team and help as much as I can. I like hearing that because I feel like I am ready. I am capable of being able to contribute.”

Assistant coaches Kyra Elzy and Jolette Law already have cited the freshman’s tough mindset. Middleton gave credit to her brother, Killen, who turned 23 on Sunday.

Middleton is polite – her interview is peppered with yes and no ma’am – but a fiery attitude lurks beneath the smile.

“I guess my brother beating up on me all those years,” Middleton said by way of explanation. “We played one-on-one in the backyard. We had two basketball goals.”

Middleton will be 19 years old at the end of this month – on Halloween. Despite the four years in age difference, Killen didn’t go easy on his little sister.

“He would post me up all the time,” Middleton said. “Having an older brother and hanging out with his friends I just developed that mind-set. He would make me mad, but it helped in the long run.”

Middleton sometimes would retaliate by, in her words, “clawing at him,” so don’t expect her to back down to anyone this season.

Middleton was born in Nashville and grew up in the Volunteer State so donning orange and white is literally her dream come to life.

“It’s so special,” Middleton said. “The first time we put on our uniforms for picture day, it was just like, ‘Wow. This is really happening.’ Because so many girls dream of this and to play for your home state and all of your family and friends live here and that is the team that they root for and they get excited about you being on that team, you just have all that extra support.”

Middleton will wear No. 33 for the Lady Vols, the same number her brother wore in high school.

“When I got to high school I had to pick a new number,” Middleton said. “I had been 23. I got to high school and said, ‘OK, I want to be 23, because that’s what my brother was. I stuck with it. I loved it. Larry Bird wore 33, and he was a great shooter.”

Middleton can play point and off guard positions and is a long ball shooter, as evidenced by her performance at the Powerade Jam Fest when she won the three-point shootout in conjunction with the McDonald’s All-American Game.

“I work on my shot a lot,” Middleton said. “One person I train with said, ‘Every day you have got to make threes. No matter what you work on, every day make sure you hit some threes, because those are important.’ Because in big-time games, threes are going to be shots that have to be hit.”

When asked to provide a scouting report on herself, Middleton said: “I have got to get stronger dribbling through traffic and knowing when to slow down and when to push. Coach Elzy and coach Law have already been helping me, making sure I am conscious of that during practices.

“I really worked on my pull-up game and being able to pull up off the dribble and knock down that shot. I have worked a lot on my shot and being able to get that little bit of space and get my shot off and knock it down.”

The transition from high school to college can be a steep one – shots that are wide open in high school have just a sliver of time to be lofted at the next level. Middleton also is leaning on her teammates for assistance, with redshirt sophomore Andraya Carter especially lending a hand in the weight room.

“All of them have been helpful,” Middleton said. “They are all positive and when we go to work, we are telling each other, ‘You’ve got it. Keep working hard.’ Draya has been great, especially in the weight room.”

As Middleton set personal records in strength and conditioning, one of her best cheerleaders was Carter.

“She gets excited with me,” Middleton said.

Middleton also noted assistance coming from transfer Diamond DeShields, who must sit out this season, and point guards Ariel Massengale and Jordan Reynolds.

“They are giving me tips and giving me some of their knowledge from experience,” she said.

Elzy was a Lady Vol guard, while Law played point for Iowa. Middleton is all ears when it comes to instruction from the staff.

“They played a high level of basketball obviously,” Middleton said. “They have the experience and pass down information to us about certain situations. They have already been through that.”

Early workouts were the introduction to college concepts and tempo for the freshmen and now they must segue to full-scale practice sessions.

“The mental aspect of it – you can push yourself harder every day than you really think you can,” Middleton said. “It’s being able to find that extra little bit of ‘oomph’ to go further and get better. That is definitely one thing that I have learned here.”

Middleton is joined by freshmen Kortney Dunbar and Jaime Nared, along with newcomer Jannah Tucker, who arrived on campus over Christmas break in 2013 and had surgery on her left knee last spring. Tucker is cleared to practice but won’t be allowed contact until likely November.

“I know she is really excited about getting back,” Middleton said. “She has been watching for so long and is ready to get on the big stage herself. I think she is really excited. She is so sweet. I hug her every time I see her during the day. She is a fun person to be around.

“Kortney is super outgoing. She is a great roommate, fun to be around and always wanting to go do something fun. Jaime is so sweet. We have become really close over the past couple of months we have been here. We are always laughing and cutting up. We love to go shoot at night in the gym. We go together. She is my gym buddy so that is great to have.”

The slogan for the 2014-15 is “all in.” For Middleton that means “everybody has to come in every day and know what their job is to get the team better that day. Everyone has to buy into our plan to get where we want to be.”

Middleton knows the history of the Lady Vols and has known Warlick for years – first as Pat Summitt’s longtime assistant and now as the head coach who recruited Middleton. Warlick’s passion made an impression on the freshman when she got to Knoxville.

“The love she has for the game and for us and how much she really cares and how much she wants to push us and make sure that we get to where we want to be because she wants us to be there,” Middleton said. “And she knows that we want to be there, so she is going to make sure she pushes us.”

Assistant coach Dean Lockwood primarily worked with the posts in early workouts, but Middleton loves his overall energy. She will get the full effect of Lockwood’s unquenchable enthusiasm now that practice has started.

“I love Dean,” Middleton said. “I remember I came up for the South Carolina here last year (on a visit) and they were playing really well and after the game was over, I came in the locker room and then Dean came in and just threw up his papers and was like, ‘That’s how you kick in doors and take over neighborhoods!’ Everyone got excited.

“I love his enthusiasm. That’s great to have. That gets everybody motivated.”

Middleton was well aware of the significance of Monday for a freshman.

“I am excited. I can’t wait to get out there,” she said. “We’ve had individual workouts and other team functions, but this is the day it all starts and the journey begins. We have been working this whole summer trying to get in condition and doing weights, but now it’s finally basketball time.”

Middleton was introduced to the infamous Gate 10 over the summer. The steep incline leading to Neyland Stadium is the site of intense sprints designed to separate players in terms of overall physical fitness and mental will.

“Oh, my goodness,” Middleton said. “Love-hate.”

Middleton laughed when she was told that Gate 10 was slated for demolition when the stadium was renovated but ended up being spared. She joked that Lee Taylor, the team’s strength and conditioning coach, probably lobbied to keep the ramp.

“It was a good day for us as a team when we ran up it 100 times it felt like,” she said. “But it’s tough.”

What does a freshman do when she loses her shoe at the start of Gate 10? In Middleton’s case, keep going. Stopping to put on the shoe would have meant not making her time.

“I took off running one time and my school came off,” Middleton said. “So, I had to run up with one shoe on. I did make time. You have to push through it. But, Gate 10, you just walk by it and you’re like, ‘Ugh, Gate 10.’ ”

Putting on practice gear is a big day for freshmen. The next major milestone is pulling on a game uniform.

“It is going to be awesome I think,” Middleton said with a huge exhale. “All the practices we’re going to have leading up to it and this new chapter that is starting, it is going to be a great feeling. I can already tell.”

VIDEO COVERAGE FROM UTSPORTSTV

Holly Warlick

Cierra Burdick

Ariel Massengale

Practice underway


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