Kortney Dunbar and two other newcomers, Jaime Nared and Alexa Middleton, will make their debut as Lady Vols on Sunday when Tennessee holds its exhibition game against Carson-Newman at 2 p.m. Eastern at Thompson-Boling Arena.
Dunbar has shooting guard touch in post player size at 6-2, and the Lady Vols intend to make full use of the freshman’s gifts. About 45 minutes before practice was scheduled to start one afternoon this week, Dunbar walked onto the court and starting shooting. She began at the free throw line and made her way behind the arc. Her initial long range shots were on target and drew front rim – that appeared to be how she got loose – and then she started finding the net over and over.
What was even more noticeable was the distance behind the arc – Dunbar started close to the three-point line and then moved two to three feet behind it without any loss of accuracy. She even lofted a few shots off one foot from near mid-court that found the net.
“The college line is moved back from high school so I worked on stepping back,” Dunbar said. “I don’t want to have to think about the line. I don’t want my foot to be on the line when it matters. So when I am in practice, I step back. One, I am working on my range, and two, I don’t want it to be a crucial situation where it was a two, not a three, and we needed a three.”
Dunbar heard the same message from Holly Warlick as the other two freshmen – get ready. All three have taken it to heart.
“I wanted to go to a university where I would be playing immediately,” Dunbar said. “Hearing that, it does perk up our ears. When we are in practice, the coaches are a lot harder on us, because they need us to be ready. We want to be ready in crucial situations. We want to be ready to go when they call us up and say sub in for so and so. We want our teammates to know that we are ready.”
Of course that means getting ready on both ends of the floor and defense at the college level is a challenge for any freshman.
“I am doing better,” said Dunbar, who added she is learning concepts and the intricacies of help-side defense and how to communicate when the opponent has the ball.
“In high school, you play a lot of zone and you usually play on one end of the floor,” Dunbar said. “Shoot, rest, get back. Now, all five players on the team can score. All five players on the team are quick. They can rebound. When I come to the other end of the floor in practice, I am really trying to focus on finding my person (or) emphasizing being in help. It is now getting into game situations.”
Dunbar also is absorbing lessons on closing out long on shooters and how much of a cushion – if at all – to give shooters. And while freshmen are used to playing zone defense in high school, the college formations are much more involved, so Dunbar is learning where she should be in the zone if that scheme is deployed.
Freshmen don’t talk a lot on defense not because they don’t want to, but because they have to learn what to say.
“I have to work on talking a lot,” Dunbar said. “I think communication is key. Playing in front of all of these fans, we are going to have to use our voices well.”
Dunbar could develop into a solid defender at the top of a zone because of her size. She already is at an advantage on offense since she can shoot over shorter defenders. Dunbar didn’t get typecast as an interior player early in her high school career in Edwardsville, Ill., because her growth spurt came later, and she played with Emmonie Henderson, who is now a sophomore post at Louisville.
“She was a huge body down low and so my coach had me be the threat outside and her be the threat inside; she never wanted us to clog each other’s space,” Dunbar said.
Dunbar is similar in build to Taber Spani, who would post up smaller guards sometimes. Dunbar should be able to do the same.
“I will stay outside and post up when I can if it’s a mismatch and then use my ability to go board,” she said.
But Warlick’s recruiting pitch to Dunbar was pretty simple: Come to Tennessee and launch three-pointers.
“She has made that very clear,” Dunbar said. “Even going over my role, I am here to win national championships. I am here to get a degree. And I am here to learn more things about myself as a woman and to strengthen myself.
“Coming here I knew Tennessee needed a scorer. Meighan Simmons was a scorer. Knowing Meighan was leaving, Holly said, ‘We need another threat outside.’ I knew I could come here and use my ability behind the arc. Watching Taber Spani and a lot of people comparing me to her, I really want to utilize being a three-point shooter and coming out and scoring.”
Spani was a gym rat and the ultimate competitor. Players like that are forged in the off-season. Dunbar arrived in Knoxville in July and immediately was introduced to college-level weight workouts and conditioning sessions, including the infamous Gate 10, the steep ramp on the south side of Neyland Stadium.
“Our first Gate 10 was in the morning. It was a Friday morning. It was 6 a.m. Right when we finished, the sun was just rising,” Dunbar said. “You just have to mentally push. He (the strength and conditioning coach) might say, ‘Last one,’ and then when you get back down to the bottom, he might be like, ‘One more.’
“It was just one of those things where you had to be mentally strong, and that is one thing I am working on. Coming here, some of the days are going to be the hardest of your life. Some of the practices we go through, you have to prepare yourself for the night before, get good sleep. And trying to juggle classes. Your teammates are always there to push you. If they see you struggling, they are going to be behind you pushing you every step of the way.”
The payoff comes on game day and Dunbar’s first chance to don a Lady Vol uniform will be this Sunday.
“When I walk in here Sunday, it’s going to be one of those things where it’s finally here,” she said. “Going through preseason and going through practices and the lifts, waking up at 5 in the morning to go sprint, that is when it pays off.
“That is what the coaches always tell me. You are not running that sprint because you lost a drill in practice. You are running that sprint because you want to be able to sprint the floor and get that open shot in front of these fans. I was sitting behind the bench as a recruit not too long ago and now that’s me (on the court.) I am going to be excited.”
Big Orange Madness on Oct. 24 served as a nice prelude for the freshmen as they got to scrimmage before a crowd of about 5,000 people.
“That really kind of helped,” Dunbar said. “I was nervous in the beginning but once I got playing and hit a couple of shots, that calmed me down.”
Dunbar’s parents, Mark and Christine Dunbar, will be in town Sunday, as will her older sister, Kirstin, who attends Illinois.
“I am excited about seeing them this weekend,” she said.
Her parents will maintain their home in Edwardsville, but they looking for a house in Knoxville as a second residence for their trips to home games.
“They are trying to buy one. That is true love,” Dunbar said.
It is difficult for players to get home, especially those who live across the country, so the house will be a gathering place for some home-cooked meals when the Dunbars are in town.
“That will be somewhere for everybody to go that is pretty far from home,” Dunbar said.
Dunbar is a member of the second class that came to Tennessee knowing Pat Summitt would not be the head coach. As the roster becomes more populated with players who knew they would play for Warlick, the crushing emotion of Summitt stepping down starts to ease for the team.
“When I started being recruited by Tennessee in my junior year, Pat had already stepped down,” Dunbar said. “It was Holly’s first year. I knew she was not necessarily rebuilding the program but building a name for herself. She was a fantastic player here, retired her number.”
Dunbar does have some interaction with Summitt, who will attend practice.
“She came to practice and came in the gym and talked to us. ‘You guys are looking great,’ ” Dunbar said. “It is really cool just to have her in the gym. Even though I wasn’t recruited by her, I am still a part of her tradition. I am playing under her name. That is something I am thankful for. All of this is because of her. It is cool to have that responsibility to continue what she has done. Pat is one of the best coaches in history, women or men.
“I committed to play for Holly and knowing that Pat coached her, that Holly’s been with her, I feel like no matter what, there is always going to be a piece of Pat in Holly.”
Jannah Tucker, the first high school recruit to commit to Warlick, was joined in the Class of 2013 by Jordan Reynolds and Mercedes Russell. The Class of 2014 included Dunbar, Nared and Middleton, bringing to six the number of high school freshmen who said yes to Warlick.
“I said yes because, one, the tradition here. She played here. That’s amazing to have a coach who has played here and been through it, been with Pat. Everybody knows Tennessee,” Dunbar said. “And Holly straight up told me, ‘We need you to be a scorer. We need you out there hitting big-time shots.’ I wanted to bring my game to Tennessee. We haven’t won a national championship since ’08, haven’t been to a Final Four since ’08, and that is not the Lady Vols. That is not us. We will get back there.
“I believe the team we have now, the team we will have next year, I believe in my four years we will go to the Final Four (multiple) times. I don’t see why we shouldn’t. We will get national championships out of my four-year career here. This team has it. I really believe this team has it.”