'NBA' explained in Lady Vols parlance

The Lady Vols will take on Kentucky in Lexington – a place they haven’t won since 2011 – on Thursday evening at Memorial Coliseum. InsideTennessee checks in with Bashaara Graves and Andraya Carter before the road trip.

Bashaara Graves and Andraya Carter were juniors in high school the last time No. 6 Tennessee (17-3, 7-0) defeated No. 10 Kentucky (16-4, 5-2) on their home court in Lexington. Tipoff Thursday is at 7 p.m. Eastern (TV: SEC Network), and the Lady Vols are eager to snap that losing streak and stay perfect in the SEC.

Memorial Coliseum holds 8,000 and while Lady Vol fans will be present, as always, the majority in attendance will be wearing Wildcat blue. Both of Kentucky’s league losses this season came on the road – South Carolina and LSU. The Wildcats are undefeated in SEC play at home.

“It’s a small gym, their fans are loud, their fans are passionate, and they have a ton of confidence when they are at home,” Carter said. “That’s their court. They play fast and they get excited, and the fans get going. It is a tough place to play.”

The return of Graves to beast mode would be a boost for Tennessee. Graves lit up Notre Dame with 22 points earlier this month but was quiet in the next two games, notching six points combined against LSU and Georgia.

“I think it is mental and not worrying about the bad things that happen during a game and just trying to play through it,” Graves said. “At Notre Dame I played through everything and any frustration I had. That helped me out a lot.

“I have to move on to the next play. That is what Dean always says is NBA. Next best action. There is still a game going on so I have to focus on what I can do to help the team.”

Carter and Graves are classmates – though Graves is a junior and Carter a redshirt sophomore because of shoulder surgery her freshman year – and thus the two already were close prior to arrival in Knoxville.

Carter, Graves and junior Jasmine Jones were the trio who kept their verbal commitments to Tennessee after Pat Summitt’s announcement in August 2011 that she had early onset dementia. The three made a pact to stay together and became Summitt’s last signing class.

Carter said “NBA” is a reminder from Dean Lockwood to the players to transition within seconds to the next situation on the court.

“Next best action is, ‘What is the next best thing that you can do?’ ” Carter explained. “So if you are on offense and you turn the ball over, what’s the next best thing you can do? For me, it would be moving my feet on defense, playing solid defense, keeping my man in front of me.

“Or, for Bashaara, maybe she gets scored on. The next best action she can do might be setting a great screen or sprinting down the floor on offense. It’s not next best shot. It’s not next best defensive play. It’s next best action. If I turn the ball over, I am going to sprint back, because that is the next best thing I can do right now for my team.

“It’s a mindset that you have.”

Graves’ frustration seems to stem mostly from missed shots. There are times when a lot of contact occurs, and there is no foul call, but she played through it at Notre Dame. Other times, Graves is visibly frustrated on the court.

“I tell her to calm down and give her that confidence, ‘Shar, we trust you. We know you are an awesome basketball player,’ ” Carter said. “Do your thing and come out here and have that confidence. Just be more reassuring.

“Shar is so hard on herself; you don’t have to be hard on her. She is already hard on herself. I just encourage her, tell her to relax, slow down and calm down.”

Graves understands the process. She has provided the same counsel to senior Isabelle Harrison.

“Yes, definitely,” Graves said. “Izzy does the same thing for me, just telling me to keep going, keep hustling, next play. I do the same thing for her.”

Harrison is of slender build and has been sidelined three times in her career with knee injuries. She understandably is guarded at times about excessive contact – and interior play in the SEC often resembles a rugby scrum – because of her knees. She also often has smaller players digging into her and undercutting her.

When the Lady Vol posts have room to operate inside, both Harrison and Graves are much more effective. When teams sag inside and bottleneck the paint, the posts need perimeter shots to fall.

“We have confidence in our perimeter players,” Graves said. “We know they can shoot. We’ve got to move the ball, too, to get open shots. Once they double team, it is easy to kick out to Ariel or Draya. I am really big on assists.”

Ariel Massengale and Andraya Carter have been the team’s most-consistent three-point shooters of late – and Graves has 36 assists on the season, a guard-like statistic.

On a few occasions, Graves has forgotten she is a post and will lead the break.

“I want to run the break sometimes, be PG and kick it out for a three,” Graves said with a smile. “We do work on our dribble busts a lot, but I know I’ve got to hit that outlet, find that guard real quick.”

Carter smiled when asked about Graves as point guard.

“The post players sometimes even in practice will try to do some guard drills or some point guard-type stuff, making different moves,” Carter said. “Izzy does it all the time. It’s funny to see, but sometimes Bashaara will get the ball and dribble it all the way down the court. She can do it.

“But when there is a lot of pressure, it’s like, ‘OK, Bashaara, get on the block. That’s what you do.’ ”

Tanya Llano, a Lady Vol fan from Columbus, Ga., made the trip to South Bend, Ind., and held up a sign that said, “Awaken the Beast.”

“I saw it the second time we came out for warmups for pre-game,” Graves said. “I knew what it was for – I assumed I knew exactly what it was for. It kind of helped me out a little bit seeing that and knowing fans still have hope in me. It was nice seeing that.

“Best fans in America. They are dedicated and they are supportive, and we love it.”

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