The Lady Vols play their first away game of the season Friday when they take on Wichita State. Go inside with InsideTennessee for an interview with senior Bashaara Graves.
Bashaara Graves has played in 114 games in her college career at Tennessee (6-2). Against Wichita State (1-5) on Friday evening at Charles Koch Arena in Wichita, Kansas, two of her teammates will make their road debut in freshmen Te’a Cooper and Meme Jackson. Two other teammates, Diamond DeShields and Mercedes Russell are playing on the road for the first time since the 2013-14 season.
A total of eight players are available for the game as four remain out: Jasmine Jones (head); Jaime Nared (hand); Alexa Middleton (foot); and Nia Moore (ribs). Kortney Dunbar, who sustained a ankle sprain against Texas, was released Friday. Jones graduates Friday morning with her bachelor’s degree – Andraya Carter already has graduated, and Graves and Moore are on track for a May commencement so the 100 percent graduation remains intact.
Jones will fly to Wichita after graduation ceremonies – the coaches and players departed Thursday – so that she can join the team. Tipoff is set for 8:05 p.m. Eastern (online broadcast and locally in Wichita on Cox 2022HD).
“I think they understand what’s at stake and what we need to get done,” said Coach Holly Warlick, who was looking forward to getting on the road. “It’s a matter of going out and doing it. We’re going to get this done. We’ve got a great team, great kids.”
Tennessee is coming off an anemic performance against Virginia Tech, which handed the Lady Vols the second loss of the season. Former Lady Vol Tamika Catchings was in town Sunday and met with the team later. She specifically talked to the guards about leadership, especially the veterans. Catchings, who has an impeccable basketball pedigree, reminded the players of their responsibility to teammates.
The speech sounded similar to one that football coach Butch Jones arranged with a few high-profile players after the Vols lost to Oklahoma, Florida and Arkansas. A team picked to win the East Division was 2-3 with Georgia coming to town. Jones made sure key players knew they had to lead the team and set the tone. He told them that he couldn’t do it without their help, especially in live games. The Vols would lose just once more, a heartbreaker to Alabama, and finish 8-4 with an Outback Bowl berth.
That is essentially the same message Catchings delivered. She reinforced that Warlick needed veterans to set the example and lead on the court, a shortcoming that the staff was concerned about as soon as last year’s three seniors exited.
“We need an emotional leader,” Warlick said. “We need someone to step up.”
Catchings talked to the team and had one-on-one meetings with key players. Catchings, Alexis Hornbuckle, who makes regular visits, and Glory Johnson, who is from Knoxville, also practiced with the team Tuesday.
“Catchings comes in twice a year,” Warlick said. “What better example to have than those three that were three of the toughest kids who have been through this program.”
Warlick already had spent one game where she didn’t address the team during halftime or in the third and fourth quarters to deliver a shock to their system.
“You always hear Holly talking,” Graves said. “I have seen her mad at practice. I don’t think during a game I have seen her that mad. Not to hear anything kind of made us mad. It definitely got our attention. It woke us up.”
It did indeed against East Tennessee State University. And then Tennessee started strong against Virginia Tech and folded after halftime.
“We’ve got to do better than that,” Graves said. “The way we were playing is unacceptable.”
The Lady Vols recently watched film clips of bad shots vs. good shots. Graves is shooting 71.4 percent from the field. Russell is connecting at a clip of 55 percent. Every other Lady Vol, with the exception of Dunbar (50 percent) is under 40 percent. The team is shooting 23.9 percent overall from the arc.
Needless to say, those film clips didn’t show many bad shots by the posts.
“Not really,” said Graves, who couldn’t suppress a smile. “We know the shots that we can hit. It’s better if we rotate the ball. We have to get more focused on paint points – posts and the guards. That emphasis was what we got.”
Graves averages 11.1 points and 9.0 rebounds a game. Russell averages 13.1 points and 9.4 points a game. Both post players have the potential to average double-doubles – something Candace Parker and Glory Johnson came tantalizing close to – but they have to get the ball from the guards.
Graves’ effort is not in question. She is playing nearly 30 minutes a game and takes a pounding inside, as always, especially since defenses are camped in a zone. Last season, Graves could look physically defeated if she missed a shot or got fouled without a call. This season – call it senior urgency – Graves has returned to beast mode.
“I am trying to go out there and play hard,” Graves said. “This is my last shot. It went by extremely fast. I am out here just trying to do my best for the team.”
Graves’ senior classmates are Moore, Carter and Jones. But Carter and Jones are redshirt juniors because of injuries – shoulder for Carter as a freshman; concussion last season for Jones – so she will exit without them. Jones was struck in the head nearly a year ago against Stanford and showed visible signs of a concussion fog. After the last incident, Jones was quickly back with her teammates, including being on the sidelines and smiling three days later for the next game.
“To have her out there and bringing energy and talking to us was nice,” Graves said.
Jones will be able to join her teammates Friday in time for the first road game of the season.
“Away games are fun being in a different environment,” Graves said. “It’s going to test our togetherness. We have to start in the first quarter and play a complete game. We have got to play Lady Vol basketball.”
Graves isn’t discouraged at all by the uneven start in her senior season.
“We can get a lot better,” Graves said. “We have so much room for improvement. We have so much talent. We haven’t brought the talent and how hard we work together.
“When that actually comes, we are going to be a great team.”