Andraya Carter doesn’t even want to talk about the Sweet 16 game last March. Ask her to react to the loss to Maryland, and she offers a one-word reply: “Awful.” Carter would have been fine stopping there, but when asked to expand, she obliges.
“I don’t even talk about it,” said Carter, who was taking care of an interview with InsideTennessee before addressing a bank of television cameras before practice. “This might be the first time I have ever talked about that game. When people talk about it, I usually leave the room. I’ve tried to watch it a few times and can’t even really get through it.
“As a team and then my personal play, I think that’s the most nervous, timid that I have ever played. I have no idea why. Maybe it’s because it was one of the biggest games I’ve played in, if not the biggest. They punched us really hard first, and I didn’t know how to get up. We didn’t get up and swing back. My leadership and my play, it was almost nonexistent. It was kind of like I was just out there taking up space.”
That is a tough and honest assessment by Carter. The NCAA Tournament is when the pressure descends on a team, especially one trying to make the Final Four in Nashville. It was her first tourney, and while Carter may not want to talk about it, she did do something about it.
Carter attended Point Guard College for a week over the summer in Atlanta. During the preseason, the coaching staff has lauded Carter for her leadership on and off the court.
“Point Guard College was an incredible experience,” Carter said. “I learned so much. The director, Sam Allen, was incredible. He had so much basketball knowledge, and he wanted to teach me so many things.”
Carter’s role ended up being student and teacher, an invaluable combination of both learning and executing.
“I really got an opportunity to lead those girls,” Carter said. “I was the oldest one there. A lot of times with the drills and the training that we would learn, they would give me an opportunity to lead the group. That was huge for me just really directing the girls.
“If a group was sloppy, they would send me over there to fix it. I learned point guard skills – seeing them on film and being able to practice them, it’s a great experience.”
Carter may not want to discuss the Sweet 16 game with anyone, but that doesn’t mean it’s not on her mind,
“It has been a motivating factor for me since that game,” Carter said. “I think about it in the mornings. I think about it before I go to sleep. It was just awful.”
She did laugh when reminded of John Wooden’s famous quote that the best thing about freshmen is they become sophomores. Carter has made that leap, especially being confident to use her voice to lead.
“I think my summer and the growth that I’ve had and the confidence that the coaches and my teammates give me,” Carter said by way of explanation. “My coaches and my teammates, especially Ariel, they always are giving me confidence: ‘Andraya, we want to hear your voice more. I need to hear you, Dray.’
“All last year I kind of led by example, and they always wanted more. This summer it clicked. After that Maryland game, I really wanted to change a lot, just about who I am as a person and a player. I feel like a new person, I feel like a new player and a better leader. I know that is what they expect of me. My teammates expect me to be vocal now and the more you do it, the easier it becomes.”
Another leap Carter needs to make is in the scoring column. She was a reluctant shooter at times last season but she can connect – Carter shot 45.7 percent (85-186) overall and a team-leading 39.4 percent (28-71) from long range among those with at least 20 attempts.
Carter missed her true freshman year to have surgery on a shoulder that dislocated at least three times in a month. After the operation and rehab, Carter had to restore her natural shooting motion, which had suffered as she compensated for the injured arm. Her mechanics and confidence were, no pun intended, rather shot.
“Shooting was super hard coming back from shoulder surgery,” Carter said. “Coach (Jolette) Law and I still talk about my first individual workout after surgery. She said I was kicking my feet and leaning and moving and shooting in two different motions and how pretty much busted my shot was.
“It took a while to come back from that and feel good about that. This year, I am getting consistent a little faster, getting more confident. Those are the steps I tried to take this summer – being able to consistently knock that shot down.”
In the absence of a go-to player on this year’s team, all five on the floor have to score – or at least be a threat to do so.
“This summer I worked on getting more comfortable with the ball in my hands and being more confident on the offensive end,” she said. “I think everybody knows defense and hustle plays, I have full confidence in that. That is what I take pride in.”
Carter led the team with 56 steals and became a crowd favorite as a freshman because of her willingness to always play hard. She also had 92 rebounds. No other guard came close to that board tally, a number made even more impressive by the fact the bulk of Carter’s 26.3 minutes per game was played at the point position.
“This summer I really tried to work on becoming a more-balanced player and fueling the offensive side,” she said. “I don’t think I’ll ever be a player that thinks about points first, but what I really tried to change is my mind-set and be more aggressive on offense. It is more of a mind-set thing – being aggressive, being able to attack and thinking, ‘Attack. Go. You have to go.’
“Be more of a threat because even if you’re not the one that’s putting up the points, if you’re still a threat, you can get your teammates open. If you’re attacking, you can get somebody else open that can knock down shots or is hot that night.”
How does a player get confident? Get in the gym. That is the only solution.
“Someone close to me once told me, ‘Confidence is repetition,’ ” Carter said. “I am really getting in the gym, getting up shots, working on my game. That is what gives me confidence and that is what I did this summer.”
If Carter is in attack mode, the Lady Vols become a better basketball team. She is an outstanding ball-handler with 81 assists to 49 turnovers last season. Carter doesn’t get stripped of the ball. Her turnovers tend to come from hustle plays –and coaches can live with that – or ill-advised passes, something coaches will want fixed. But Carter can cleanly get to the paint and either shoot or dish.
“I think the skills are there,” Carter said. “It is a mind-set. My teammates probably have more confidence in me on offense than I do. Ariel is always, ‘Shoot the ball, Dray.’ She will tell me in practice, ‘You are looking very average right now.’ That is what she tells me to motivate me.
“I don’t want to be average. I feel like I am above-average on defense. I don’t want to be average on offense. She is holding me accountable on offense and to have that above-average mind-set.”
Carter will benefit from the return of Ariel Massengale, as the two played very well together last season. The senior point guard is back after an extensive absence under the program’s concussion protocol. Massengale took a blow to the head last January – after sustaining several concussions in high school and college – and missed the rest of the season.
Freshman Alexa Middleton also is likely to get into the guard rotation. The newcomer is a competitor who already has impressed teammates and coaches with her toughness. After breaking her nose in practice, she returned to the court that day, practiced until her surgery date before fall break and returned when the team reconvened.
“She is the toughest one on the team,” Carter said. “Alexa will play through almost anything. This summer we played pick-up and her body wasn’t used to the way we worked out, the way we lifted. She would be so sore and you could see it all over her face, but she would keep playing. We would ask her, ‘Lex, you need to come out? You need to stretch?’ She would say, ‘No, I am good.’
“Broke her nose, came back that practice and got in. You could see it was broken, and we said, ‘Lex, are you supposed to be practicing?’ She said, ‘I don’t care. I am practicing. They told me I could so I am.’ She could have easily sat out. No one would have given her a hard time about sitting out. But she didn’t want to.”
Lady Vol fans are anxious to see the 2014-15 team and are as ready as the players to forget last March.
“I think they can expect to see us having a lot more fun with each other,” Carter said. “A lot more high energy, a lot of smiles. Because when we play hard and we’re playing with high energy, we’re having fun together out there.”
Why the change? Three years ago, the program was rocked by the announcement that Pat Summitt had early onset dementia. The news was crushing to the staff and players. And while Summitt has been the head coach emeritus for two seasons, the emotional weight still hung heavy, especially for the players who had played for Summitt or been recruited by her. Three years later, the majority of the roster was recruited by Holly Warlick and the current staff. Those players arrived on campus having never expected to play for Summitt. The rest have had the benefit of time to deal with the monumental change.
“It shows a lot in practice,” Carter said. “We’ll finish a drill or we’ll beat our practice guys, and we’re feeling it. We’re high energy. Everyone is giving high fives. There is good team chemistry.”