Alicia Manning finds floor niche

Watch Alicia Manning on the court and one word comes to mind: Throwback. It's not her size – she's 6'1 – or position – she's a small forward; it's her shot. She actually has a mid-range jumper. In an age where players seem to always either get to the rim or shoot from behind the arc, Manning can hit jump shots tucked inside the three-point line or skirting the perimeter of the paint.

It's a skill she worked on in high school – Alicia Manning starred at Etowah High School in Woodstock, Ga., and for the Georgia Metros AAU team – where she initially played in the paint. She got to where she excelled with her back to the basket, but it became tedious.

"I was bored by it honestly," Manning said. "I wanted to get out there and make some plays, make stuff happen. That's where I got my rebounding, so I'm able to rebound pretty well. I started spreading my game out, working on the mid-range, and I just went from there."

"From there" ended up taking her to Tennessee, where Manning is one of six true freshmen on the 2008-09 team. Redshirt freshman center Kelley Cain, who sat out last year to recover from knee surgery, played with Manning on the national title AAU Metros team, so Manning had a friend on campus already.

"We also played against each other in high school," Manning said. "I was really happy that she chose here."

Her versatility made Manning a McDonald's All-American as a forward/shooting guard. Her ability to hit mid-range shots also got Pat Summitt's attention when she scouted Manning.

"I think watching her in the recruiting process and watching her early," Summitt said of noticing Manning's ability to hit shots from spots on the floor that are often eschewed by others.

It convinced her that Manning could play on the perimeter because the inside is pretty well covered with the 6'6 Cain, 6'3 Alex Fuller, 6'3 Alyssia Brewer, 6'3 Glory Johnson, 6'1 Amber Gray (who makes up for smaller post height with a solid body for the paint) and 6'4 Vicki Baugh, who is still recovering from knee surgery.

But Summitt also touted Manning's overall talent.

"She's very versatile," Summitt said. "Good ball-handler, handles left, right. Can shoot the three ball, strong off the dribble. From watching her in high school she played a lot of different positions."

Manning has been participating in the team's individual workouts for three weeks and is often on the floor with Cain, Gray and Brewer as the new players learn terminology, defensive principles and drill work, which has become increasingly up-tempo. Manning has shown in those sessions that she can still maneuver in the paint, if need be.

Those four are usually in the last session of the day, and they have been eager to take the floor, as evidenced by how early they usually arrive. They have to bide their time in the locker or training room as they wait for the other four players to clear the floor.

"Coming in as freshmen you don't really know what to expect other than what you hear from the upperclassmen," Manning said. "You get to know the coaches well and their philosophy and what they all say – play high tempo all the time, game speed – and you learn some of their phrases – cuts, they have certain names for them. All around it's been great to get out here and get everything started before the season starts."

Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick and Assistant Coaches Dean Lockwood and Daedra Charles handle the on-court instruction while Summitt oversees the workouts.

Lockwood has acquired some boxing mitts that he uses to push the players in the paint. All three coaches also wield foam pads on wooden sticks that they use to swat the players about the torso and head as they drive to the rim in what ends up looking like an oversized Wack-A-Mole arcade game on hardwood.

To the freshmen's credit, they have all smiled when asked about the enthusiasm of the assistants and said they enjoy the energy. The assistants are usually as sweat-soaked as the players by the end of the sessions.

Lockwood had some new props Tuesday that he learned about when last year's team practiced at a facility in Chicago before the DePaul game. Two oversized standup foam "players" and a handheld life-sized foam post pad were on the sidelines before the workouts started.

"I looked at him today and said, ‘Where did these things come from?' " Summitt said with a big laugh. "He said, ‘We ordered them.' "

The props, called Silent Player, look like this: Silent Player

The players – the real ones – went through drills in which they drove under an outstretched "arm" after receiving a pass – it can replicate a dribble drive or slipping or using a screen – and then shot over the gargantuan "player" in the lane or on the wing.

For Manning, that particular drill meant hitting mid-range jumpers instead of draining a shot behind the arc or getting to the rim. That was a drill tailor-made for Manning, who realized a few years ago that she could capitalize on an underused part of the court.

"Whenever I was watching games it was like, ‘Man, everyone either wants to hit that layup or hit a big three,' " she said. "I love mid-range shots."

The workouts also mean Summitt is getting her first shot to see the players in a collegiate setting. Manning has earned passing marks so far.

"Mentally, I like where she is," Summitt said. "She's got some mental toughness about her. She's a blue-collar player. She'll do whatever you ask her to do."

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