The Lady Vols open SEC play on the road at Missouri. Go inside with the InsideTennessee for an interview with veteran Andraya Carter and the latest on the Lady Vols.
Andraya Carter understands the volatile nature of SEC women’s basketball. It is the deepest, toughest conference in the country and Tennessee (9-3) will open league play at Missouri (13-0). Tipoff is set for 7 p.m. Eastern (TV: SEC Network) at Mizzou Arena on Monday.
Tennessee has struggled against Missouri on its home court since the Tigers came into the league with a wipeout loss in 2013 and a six-point win in 2014.
“They shoot so well in their gym, and they are so comfortable there,” Carter said. “They are a good basketball team. They thrive on their shooting, and you have to go in there and just try to completely knock them off their game, and it’s hard.”
Carter was a redshirt freshman when Tennessee lost 80-63 on Feb. 3, 2013, a defeat that followed an 84-39 shellacking by the Lady Vols in Knoxville on Jan. 10, 2013. After that game, Carter learned two valuable lesson about league play – the next game is what matters, not what happened in the past, even if it was just three weeks ago, and road games will be a battle.
Three Lady Vols will make their SEC debut in freshmen Te’a Cooper and Meme Jackson and redshirt sophomore Diamond DeShields, who has the experience of ACC battles under her belt.
“For the freshmen who haven’t been there, you keep talking to them, on the bus you’re talking to them, ‘Hey, make sure you’re ready,’ ” Carter said.
The lack of blemish on Missouri’s record should hold any Lady Vol player’s attention, newcomer or not.
“They are 13-0 this season,” Carter said. “That speaks for itself. You don’t have to convince anybody that this is a good team. And they play exceptionally well in their gym. We are watching a lot of film.”
Carter, who has become a leader on the court and has shown the most command of the offenses and defenses from the point guard spot, has logged a lot of minutes. She has had two knee surgeries in her career and played through a painful quad injury this season. Carter has welcomed the return of three of the injured players – Kortney Dunbar, Jaime Nared and Alexa Middleton – because it means she gets some rest during games.
“It’s awesome,” Carter said. “It gives up an edge. I think we’re the most talented team one through 12. We have one through 12 who can come in and contribute, and we’ve got some of those back. It takes pressure off of you. You can go in, give in all you’ve got, and then you get a sub, and you don’t have to worry about momentum dropping.”
Nia Moore (ribs) and Jasmine Jones (concussion protocol) remain out of practice, but both participated in a lengthy shooting workout Sunday afternoon. They will make the trip to Columbia, Missouri, an especially positive sign for Jones since that means she is cleared to fly.
The pile-up of injuries affected practice availability and team chemistry on the court. The break between semesters was well-timed for Tennessee because it allowed the players access to the gym without academic commitments or NCAA restrictions on practice time since school is out of session.
The Lady Vols also have one less distraction now – social media. The topic had come up earlier in the season and coach Holly Warlick made it official on New Year’s Eve. The players will be off of social media until the end of the season.
“Holly called a meeting and said she had a made a decision,” Carter said. “We were like, ‘OK.’ I think we reacted a lot better than they expected.”
Social media can be a great marketing tool and method for players to interact with fans. It also can be overwhelming – and with the team struggling at times, it can get intrusive at best and vicious at worst. (Pat Summitt never dealt with social media as a head coach and given her relative disdain for Internet chatter and message boards, it is likely she would have steered her players off of it during the season.)
“I know I’ve gotten a ton of stuff from supposed fans that is really negative,” Carter said. “In my opinion, I think it’s best that we’re not on social media. People on the outside, especially when we were struggling, they had so many negative things to say. They don’t know what we have going on. They don’t know what we’re struggling with.
“I think they forget that we’re student-athletes, and we’re 18- to 22-year-old girls. I think it’s better that we don’t have that anymore. It really got negative. We’re away from that. We can focus on ourselves. We’re really all we need right here.”
Carter has an engaging personality, is a fan favorite because of her effort, excels in the classroom and volunteers in the community. She also is 22 years old and one of the most mature players on the team. If the noise of the Internet got to be too much for her, it’s easy to see how the younger players would be adversely affected by it. Adults having unfettered access to college students is not a beneficial situation, especially with the vitriol that fans – and people posing as fans – can spew.
“So many people try to take advantage, and they feel like they can say anything behind a computer screen,” Carter said. “They feel like they have unlimited access to you, and it’s really strange.”
Carter said initially it was unusual not to share a photo on social media or tweet something, but she already has shrugged off the change in policy. Her focus is on starting SEC play – and taking care of herself physically.
“We do a lot of maintenance stuff for my knee,” Carter said. “I have played a lot. I talked to former Lady Vols and even they said, ‘My senior year was a struggle and sometimes you have sit when you’re not needed. You have to be smart.’ I do extra work that’s not hard on my body. I can’t just go like I used to. It sounds weird because I am just 22, but I am just really trying to be smart with my body.”
Tennessee enters the start of SEC play with a 9-3 overall record and, of course, an 0-0 slate in league games. Coaches break the season into three parts – non-conference, conference and postseason. The Lady Vols are embarking on part two with three SEC games this week against Missouri, Florida and Auburn (which took out Kentucky on Sunday, an indication of the anything goes nature of the league).
“We have a huge opportunity to log some huge wins because the SEC sends so many teams into the tournament,” Carter said. “We have a ton of good teams in the SEC – teams that will surprise you, teams that can upset you.”
Assistant coach Dean Lockwood, who handled the scout for the Missouri game, knows the Lady Vols drew a tough opener.
“We picked a heck of a team to tangle with on our first game – undefeated and playing as good as they’ve played since they been in this conference,” Lockwood said. “They run their offense exceptionally well.”
The Lady Vols remain a work in progress, a process the coaches had expected.
“Behavior defines you,” Lockwood said. “We’re aware now of who we are a little bit more so, but our behavior, our habits need to reflect that a little bit more. That’s another piece of what we’ve been working on here during the break is really defining ourselves through our on-court actions, how we play, our identity.”