When Te’a Cooper made her debut, she nearly fell flat on her face – literally. The freshman recovered in time and also has been steady on the court for Tennessee. Go inside for the latest on the Lady Vols.
Te’a Cooper had been to Thompson-Boling Arena while in high school, but she was mesmerized by the fireworks, smoke and light display and never noticed the tunnel where the Lady Vol players emerged for the starting lineup.
“The fire blew me away, so I didn’t even see them run out,” said the freshman point guard from Powder Springs, Georgia.
The last time Cooper attended a game was in March for the NCAA tourney, and the starters were announced in traditional fashion – one per team times five – at center court.
So, after the national anthem and handshakes with Central Arkansas to open this season, Cooper turned towards Tennessee’s bench. Then, she noticed her teammates headed to the far corner.
“So I started running over there, too,” Cooper said. “They were like, ‘Places, places.’ I am standing in the middle, like, ‘Is nobody going to tell me what we’re supposed to be doing?’ We watched the video. That was my first time watching the video, so I watched it with them. They called out the starters, and they said my name, so I was like, ‘I’ve got to run out there like everybody else is.’
“I forgot that the court is off the ground. I am running and I hear, ‘Watch your step! Watch your step!’ I picked up my foot, so I didn’t trip. That was the most nervous part. I didn’t know what I was doing.”
That would definitely be the only time the freshman looked confused on the court. She has emerged as a floor leader – and one who doesn’t get rattled, a very unusual trait for a freshman point guard.
Tennessee (4-0) tips off against Albany (4-0) on noon Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, in the first-ever matchup between the two programs. The Great Danes nearly upset Duke in the NCAA tourney last season in Durham, North Carolina, falling 54-52.
“They will not back down, and they will come to this gym ready to play,” associate head coach Kyra Elzy said. “We have to be ready to match their intensity.”
Albany has two players averaging more than 20 points per game in Shereesha Richards, a 6-1 senior forward from Jamaica who is getting a lot of interest from WNBA scouts, and Imani Tate, a 5-8 junior guard.
Coach Katie Abrahamson-Henderson is 122-42 overall, and her team has won the last four America East Conference championships and is the favorite for a fifth.
Tennessee is coming off a close win against Chattanooga in a game where the Lady Vols looked dominant for the first 10 minutes and then barely held on against the Mocs.
“Holly demands greatness from us; she expects it for the full 40 minutes, and we should expect it from ourselves,” redshirt sophomore guard Diamond DeShields said. “We did get lazy. Holly was disappointed with our effort. We are going to come into the next game with a different mentality and be ready go for the full 40 minutes.”
Holly Warlick knows her players are capable of doing so – even if she goes 11 deep on the roster. Cooper said the combinations on the floor don’t matter to her. Everyone who enters the game should be ready to play. From her point of view, it’s basketball, they’re all players and it’s not hard to give effort.
“I think when we’re in there, we are supposed to do what we are supposed to do,” Cooper said. “We should all be able to go. We’re too old to be out there worrying about who can come it and who can’t.”
Cooper’s college career is just four games old, but she has used the court time as efficiently as possible.
“I’ve learned how everyone plays, what they like and where they like to get the ball, where they don’t like to get the ball and what they’re capable of,” Cooper said.
Another step was accountability – meeting it and holding teammates to it. This is a relatively young team with several new pieces in Cooper, DeShields and Meme Jackson and the return of Mercedes Russell and Jasmine Jones. Bashaara Graves also rehabbed a shoulder over the summer, and Andraya Carter had to recover from off-season knee surgery.
Graves, the co-SEC Player of the Week, has returned to the beast mode of her freshman season, and the senior’s timing has been perfect.
“I think it’s mostly just been my mindset,” Graves said. “This is my last go-around, this is all I’ve got. This is my last year at the University of Tennessee. I want to give my all, I want to go out there and play for my teammates and be a part of this program.”
Still, the team overall is very much in the early stages of cohesion.
“We are still learning a lot, but I think we have learned a lot, too,” Cooper said. “There are a lot of us that haven’t played together. I don’t think any of us are at our full potential right now.”
Cooper also had to adjust to Division I basketball expectations off the court, especially strength and conditioning. She was the proverbial gym rat in high school and then she encountered college workouts.
“You can be a little prepared if you’re mentally tough, but being vocal and being in shape, you can’t really prepare for it at this level because it’s so consistent,” Cooper said. “You do weights, you do running and then you do weights and running again and then you do it again and again and again.
“The first workout, you are like, ‘That was easy.’ But then you’ve got weeks of hard weights and conditioning. It’s tougher than people think.”
When Cooper was asked what she could do better, she smiled.
“I think I should stay out of foul trouble,” Cooper said. “That is so frustrating. The hands foul? It’s not aggressive anymore. I thought college basketball was really aggressive.”
It is inside. Post players can bludgeon each other in the paint without a whistle, but the perimeter is called tight.
Cooper did show savvy beyond her years when she got called for perimeter fouls in her first game. She tucked her hands behind her back and moved her feet to defend, thus forcing herself not to reach. A freshman’s tendency is to reach – and it’s penalized in college.
“I did it because I was so aggravated with the fouls,” Cooper said. “They aren’t going to stop calling it, so I had to change.”
As far as what she does well now, Cooper didn’t list anything.
“I need to continue to push the ball,” she said. “I think I can be more vocal. I think I can improve it all areas. I don’t think I will ever be satisfied with myself. I could go on for days.”
While Cooper may be critical, she also is rather unflappable. If she makes a bad pass, misses a shot or loses the ball, her body language betrays no anguish and her facial expression doesn’t change.
“I’ve gotten that a lot,” Cooper said. “I feel like when you mess up, it’s not the end of the world. You’ve got to get back. Make up for it.”
Elzy noted in Wednesday’s press conference – Warlick was on the road, presumably recruiting, and was slightly delayed so Elzy pinch hit for the head coach – that the Lady Vols are very much a “work in progress.”
“We talk often about winning, setting the tone, making a statement, playing like Lady Vol basketball teams are capable of playing,” Elzy said. “Every game, every practice we want that type of intensity. Obviously, we did not sustain it (against Chattanooga). We are a work in progress, but it is still early in the season, and we will continue to get better.”
Cooper is one of three players on the roster from Georgia, joining DeShields and Carter. The three are very familiar with each other and gathered for summer workouts in the off-season while at home. Cooper has seen DeShields at her absolute best.
By Cooper’s estimation, DeShields is showing about 10 to 15 percent of what she can do – with a lot more to come. DeShields is making her way back from shin splints and has practiced for a little over a week with the team.
“Diamond is nowhere near her full potential,” Cooper said. “I would say she is just warming up. If y’all thought this was her, then y’all wrong.”
The coaches know what a gem they have in DeShields. They also know they have to be patient, as DeShields adjusts to more than a year off the court.
“Diamond has a chance to really be great; her talent is really exceptional,” Elzy said. “She has a very high basketball IQ. The sky is the limit for her, and we look forward to seeing what she can become in the future.”
The Lady Vols have quite a trio in Russell, DeShields and Cooper. Elzy noted the freshman point guard is competitive, pushes the ball in transition and looks to score. She wants the newcomer to control tempo, be aware of time and possession and cut back on foul calls.
“Te’a is playing exceptionally well for a freshman,” Elzy said.
Warlick, a former Lady Vol point guard, is letting Cooper play through mistakes. It can be maddening for a head coach, but the benefits will come later.
“I feel like Holly is big on effort,” Cooper said. “If you turn the ball over unforced compared to you going hard to the basket, and you try to dish to a teammate, that’s two different turnovers.
“She stresses that she’ll take effort and hard work over anything. She won’t let you play if you turn over the ball for no reason. She stresses hard work, and I go hard.”