Amber Gray handles the heat

Amber Gray has been in Pat Summitt's crosshairs since she stepped foot on the court in team workouts last September. But Gray, a freshman forward from Ohio, just smiles when she's asked about the extra attention. It means the coach has expectations for her this season, and every game – tonight's matchup is against Western Carolina – is another chance to put practice lessons in effect.

No. 9/13 Tennessee, 3-1, will take on Western Carolina, 2-1, on Tuesday at 7 p.m. Eastern (Lady Vol Radio Network) at Thompson-Boling Arena. A free video webcast is available at: Lady Vols All Access.

Amber Gray isn't alone in those crosshairs. She and fellow freshman Alyssia Brewer likely wonder sometimes if Pat Summitt knows any other names on the team.

"I don't come in here every day thinking, ‘I'm going to yell at Amber and Lyssi,' " Summitt said in a remark that drew a few snickers from those within earshot. "They just have been on the receiving end of my attention because it has taken them longer to get their intensity on every play."

And then the look comes.

"They can go deny but can they deny, defend a back cut or a ball screen?" Summitt asked. "That's a little overwhelming."

And then a smile.

"But they're getting better," Summitt said.

Fortunately the two targets have handled it with aplomb. Brewer has said she picked Tennessee precisely for that attention, and Gray has said if she calls home to her grandmother and mentions a tough practice she is told she knew what she was getting into and to work harder.

There also have been some amusing moments.

One time Gray was held out of a session to rehab a sprained ankle, and Summitt turned to her to yell about something Brewer did. If Gray was startled it didn't show. She merely nodded, kept watching and offered Brewer some verbal encouragement.

Another time Summitt yelled at Gray to get on the boards. Gray was under the basket – but she was watching from the end line as her group waited to rotate in for the drill. That made both coach and player laugh.

"We joked around at that," Gray said. "That instance was funny because I wasn't on the floor. A rebound was missed and she said, ‘Amber, where were you at?' I was like, ‘I'm over here on the sideline, Coach.' That one was pretty funny.

"We have a pretty good relationship. After practice we're watching film. I've told her that I don't want her to let down on me intensity-wise if I'm having a good practice or if I'm not having a good practice. It's the little things that are going to get me where I need to be at. It's something that I had to adjust to at first, but that I'm working through."

Summitt did compliment Gray on how she has handled the criticism.

"I think the best way to evaluate that is through her play, and her play is improved," Summitt said.

Gray had 16 points and seven rebounds in 20 minutes of play in Sunday's 94-59 win over Louisiana Tech. She arrived at Tennessee with a well-developed offensive package – textbook post moves, especially the head fake, up-and-under and ability to pivot – that she credits to instruction from her father, Carlton Gray, a former NFL defensive back and standout high school basketball player in Ohio; her high school coach, Andy Fishman; and Steve Sanders and Dave Lumpkin from Cincinnati's Finest Lady Ballers.

Gray also credited her AAU coach, Scott Whitenack, and noted he was the father of Carson-Newman's Allison Whitenack, a high school teammate of Gray's at Lakota West in West Chester, Ohio.

At 6'1 Gray is an undersized post in college, so her toolbox of paint moves will serve her well at this level.

"Even when I was not undersized, necessarily, I always use them," Gray said. "It's getting yourself set and it's a part of the game I've grown to use. A lot of time because of your size in high school people would try to take me down because they figured that was the only way to stop me because I was a lot stronger than them. So you're gathering your strength and taking it straight up instead of being off balance."

Gray came to college having already gone through strength training in a program devised by her father. Still, she went from benching 156 pounds – the best on the team – when she arrived on campus to 172 pounds – still the best on the team – by October, so she has bought into Tennessee's strength program already.

"It was definitely my father," Gray said of her strength prior to college. "I started lifting weights when I was in the eighth grade, and I continued to do that through high school. It was something that he taught me."

Gray got behind in preseason conditioning after she sustained a strained quad muscle and then a sprained ankle, but she made up for lost time with a few early morning extra sessions with Heather Mason, the team's strength and conditioning coach, an appointment that is likely less appealing than a trip to the dentist with an abscessed tooth.

"I had a couple of bumps and bruises at the beginning and I am starting to get there with Heather in the weight room and just starting to push myself no matter what through the first part of practice because then you get that second wind and you know you're fine," Gray said. "Once you get past that you know you're going the entire time."

Gray's best friend on the team is Glory Johnson, also a freshman forward, and they got to know each other in AAU matchups on opposite teams.

"It all started over AAU," Gray said. "We were huge competitors, our teams always played against each other and once we realized that we were both looking at Tennessee on the court we were banging. We would go at it but as soon as we were off the court or before games we were just talking and hanging out.

"We had a lot in common – we like to have fun, we like to just chill, watch movies and things like that. Us being teammates it worked out for the best."

Gray also has leaned on senior Alex Fuller, as have the other five freshmen, and sometimes what Fuller delivers is a dose of tough love.

"Alex keeps us going through practice," Gray said. "I've had some rough practices where Pat's been on me but Alex is always right there to pick us right back up, whether it's making us laugh, or telling us, ‘You know what? You might not be having a great practice, but you've got to continue to practice because it's not all about you.' "

Fuller also has a knack for impersonations and her imitations of Summitt and Associate Coach Holly Warlick apparently are side-splittingly funny.

"We've seen them all," Gray said.

Fuller continues to act as team den mother, though Gray said the other returning players are helping, too.

"We call her mom all the time," Gray said. "She's making sure we're in our classes or in by curfew. She's going to keep it real with you. If you haven't had a great practice she's going to say, ‘You didn't have a great practice but you've got to leave it behind because you can't change it now. You've just got to move forward and move on.' She's helping us out a lot.

"The upperclassmen help us out a lot with encouraging us and telling us, ‘Always believe in yourselves. Pat is going to be on you, but she knows what she's talking about and she's not doing it just to be yelling at you. She's doing it for a reason because she knows where you can be.'

"Obviously she recruited you and she knew where she wants you to be at conditioning-wise, IQ-wise on the basketball court, whatever it may be. We do talk about it a lot but it's not necessarily just the freshmen. It's all of us together."

Gray could have played close to home for a Big 10 school or elsewhere, as she drew considerable attention during the recruiting process. Coming to Tennessee in such a large class meant competing every day in practice for playing time.

"It's something new," Gray said. "I'm used to being the star of the team and coming here I knew that that wasn't necessarily going to happen right away. You're coming in and playing with a great group of girls already here and coming in with you.

"At the end of the day it kind of proves in my head I'm not all about individual success. I'm about team and what I can do to help a team win and what I can do to help a team accomplish its goals. As soon as I got that letter from Tennessee … I always knew this is where I wanted to be. I looked at the other schools, but when I came down here on my visit and realized who else was coming here I fell in love."

Gray called Summitt after the Lady Vols won national title number seven in Cleveland to verbally commit. With the Final Four in her home state Gray was in attendance.

"Huge impression – the fact that I want to be there," Gray said of what watching Tennessee in person did to seal her decision. "Tennessee has a legacy of getting there and that helped out a lot."

Summitt's firebrand coaching style was actually enticing to Gray.

"It definitely motivated me," Gray said. "She's intense. She's an intense lady, but I take it, listen to her and move on and do what she tells you to do."

When need be, some of Summitt's intense attention can be mitigated with the hands-on instruction of Assistant Coaches Daedra Charles-Furlow and Dean Lockwood, who work closely with the post players at practice.

Lockwood has continued his tradition of racing the post players to the other basket when Summitt wants the posts and guards to switch ends so that they work on both baskets. It was a lighthearted moment of practice, and Nicky Anosike used to delight in beating Lockwood.

Lockwood did it twice in a row this season – he bolted as soon as Summitt yelled, "Switch ends!" – without competition.

"It was two practices in a row, he said, ‘Up 2-0.' We were like, ‘What are you talking about?' " Gray said. "He said, ‘I beat you guys on the sprints.' So now we're kind of watching out for it."

The next time it happened Gray sprinted to the end line, well ahead of Lockwood. Of course that showed him how fast she can run when motivated.

"She's not fooling anybody," Lockwood said with a smile.

The freshmen guards have been running interference – Briana Bass has set screens to block Lockwood under the guise of getting out of the way – to ensure that their classmates win. On Monday Bass grabbed Lockwood to slow him down, as Lockwood protested, tongue in cheek, that the moves were now deliberate to impede him.

"It's something kind of fun just to have two seconds of fun between (drills)," Gray said.

Lockwood has seen considerable improvement in Gray's practice sessions from last month to this month.

"She is so much better and the number one thing would be conditioning," Lockwood said. "Her ability to fly up and down the floor, to make plays, to do two or three things in a possession – ball screen, roll, pop back up, come down and post up, step out and then go set a wing-ball screen. She's got to have that level of energy and intensity to do that.

"Her improvement has been as much as any player in the program. I think she's made very good strides. She's got to now continue. Like all freshmen every so often there's a tendency to ease back and the cruise control button gets pushed. She's got to really, really consciously make it a habit to not do that.

"Even if it's a hard four and a half minutes, I'd rather take that than an average seven. If she can train herself to do that, her skill set is coming. Especially as it pertains to the defensive end of the floor, denying the high post, cutting off cutters, every so often there will still be a lapse in one of those areas but she's made great improvement, so I'm pleased with that."

The pace of practice has been an adjustment for the freshmen, as has life on and off the court as they balance weight training, conditioning, practice, travel, games, team and individual meetings, media interviews and film sessions with compulsory class attendance and mandatory study hall.

"We have our mentors that help us out and Kerry (Howland, who handles academic support)," Gray said. "At the end of the day we still have a couple of hours here or there where we can just relax and chill before we have to go to bed. Everything is going well."

Gray assesses her current situation as one without surprises.

"It's been exactly what I expected it to be," Gray said. "We knew coming in here it's going to be hard, it's going to be intense and it's going to be long. But at the end of the day when you leave here within four years hopefully you're going to accomplish so many dreams that you always wanted to accomplish. One of them is just being here and being able to play for Pat Summitt, being able to play with these girls.

"I came in here with an open mind expecting for everything to be new, just going at it and seeing how we were going to play together. That first practice, the first open gyms where we played together, I was kind of surprised how well we did play together so fast. We've gotten that on the offensive end, and we're finally starting to get it on the defensive end."

PROBABLE STARTERS: Asking Pat Summitt who her starters will be the day before a game has rarely resulted in a definitive answer this season – in stark contrast to the past two years when the lineup was nearly etched in stone – but based on Monday's preparation session this would be the likely lineup: Cait McMahan, 5'4 sophomore guard, No. 2 (6.5 points per game, 1.3 rebounds per game); Shekinna Stricklen, 6'2 freshman guard/forward, No. 40 (10.5 ppg, 6.0 rpg); Alex Fuller, 6'3 senior forward, No. 44 (4.3 ppg, 6.8 rpg); Vicki Baugh, 6'4 sophomore forward, No. 21 (8.5 ppg, 8.0 rpg); and Glory Johnson, 6'3 freshman forward, No. 25 (15.3 ppg, 9.5 rpg).

Tennessee is still missing players and had one more added to the out-of-action list. Freshman guard/forward Alicia Manning will miss tonight's game because of a concussion sustained in the final minutes of Sunday's win over LaTech. She went to the bench after the mishap and did not return to the game.

"For it not being a contact sport it seems really contact lately," said Jenny Moshak, the chief of sports medicine for the Lady Vols. "How we treat them is very different than what we did even five years ago. The whole philosophy with concussions has changed."

Freshman center Kelley Cain remains out because of a concussion sustained in practice Nov. 10. For a player to be cleared she must pass cognitive and physical tests and match the performance prior to the concussion.

"Still out but much better, but failed some testing so still out," Moshak said of Cain.

Sophomore guard Angie Bjorklund also remains out as she is being treated for a lower back condition. She was able to do some shooting and dribbling drills with Moshak on Monday.

"Much better but still out," Moshak said.

"The coach is in," Summitt said as she listened to the player updates from Moshak. "I'll be here."

Summitt will get to greet one of her favorite players in Western Carolina Coach Kellie Jolly Harper, who was known as Kellie Jolly during her tenure at Tennessee when she helped lead the Lady Vols to three consecutive national titles in 1996, 1997 and 1998.

She returned in less than three months from a torn ACL to lead the team in 1997.

"She was just so invested in the program and wanted to do whatever she could to make the team better – very unselfish, confident but tough," Summitt said. "You don't come off an ACL surgery in two and half months unless you're Kellie Jolly."

Western Carolina's probable starters are: Jessica Jackson, 5'6 junior guard, No. 10 (4.3 ppg, 3.0 rpg), first season of eligibility at Western Carolina after transferring from South Florida, father Andre Jackson played basketball at Samford University in Alabama; Emily Clarke, 5'10 sophomore guard/forward, No. 13 (11.3 ppg, 4.3 rpg), scored 20 points in win over Liberty, selected to Southern Conference All-Freshman Team last season; Lauren Powell, 6'0 senior guard, No. 23 (8.0 ppg, 2.3 rpg), preseason pick for All Southern Conference Team, played in all 34 games last season and started 33, ranks second in school history with 169 career threes; Kendra Eaton, 6'0 senior forward, No. 44 (9.0 ppg, 6.0 rpg), scored 16 points in win over Lafayette, had career-high 18 points and 13 rebounds last season in 4OT win over Elon; and Brooke Johnson, 6'4 senior center, No. 32 (9.3 ppg, 6.3 rpg), former standout at nearby Seymour High School in Tennessee, transferred from Carson-Newman, had 13 points in loss to North Carolina, preseason pick for All Southern Conference Team, had 20 rebounds last season against Middle Tennessee, suffered season-ending knee injury on Dec. 20, 2007.

This is the second home game this season in which a former Lady Vol player will be on the sideline as the opponent's coach. San Francisco Coach Tanya Haave brought her team to town for the season opener on Nov. 15.

"I'm really proud of Kellie and what she's done at Western Carolina," Summitt said. "I think it's always good to have your former players that are now in the coaching profession be able to bring their teams to Thompson-Boling.

"I know Tanya thought it was a great experience. I went and talked to their team and then with Tanya after the game she said it was great for them to see the intensity at which we played with and the crowd. She said even just watching us practice that day the players saw a different intensity. She thought it would help them, and I think it already has."

Summitt also thought that Harper would use Tuesday's game to challenge her team.

"I think for Kellie anytime you do play against an opponent that's got an advantage size-wise and I think our depth is probably going to be a factor, but it's always good in terms of what they can gain from playing in this type of environment, as well as playing against our pressure, now that we have a little," Summit said with a sardonic smile about her own team.

Summitt sees Harper's personality in the Catamount players.

"They've got a toughness," Summitt said. "They're aggressive. They play hard. It's not like she's having to coach effort. They understand the intensity that they have to bring."

SCOUTING REPORT: Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick handled the scouting report for the Tennessee-Western Carolina game. Here is her assessment.

When Western Carolina has the ball: "I think they're going to run," Warlick said. "I think they're going to try to score in transition. I think they're going to try to score quickly. I don't think Kellie wants to set up in the half-court game because of (Tennessee's length). She has four players that can really handle the ball so it's a difficult thing to guard when everyone can handle the ball. I think she wants to score quick on us and rightfully so."

Warlick expects the Catamounts to bring some pressure and drop back into a zone for most of the game.

"I think they're going to press us a little bit," Warlick said. "They've got to do something to slow us down. My first reaction is they're probably going to play a zone, but she ran a little man against North Carolina so I think she's going to mix it up. I think her primary thing is going to be make us beat her from the outside."

That has been the strategy so far this season as the Lady Vols have struggled behind the arc, but Tennessee's game plan will always be to establish the inside attack. The Lady Vols also want to push tempo.

When Tennessee has the ball: "We're going to run," Warlick said. "We're going to play our game. We're going to press. We're going to run every chance we get. We're going to go inside first (with the size differential) and we're going to take advantage of that. That was what we were trying to relate to them at UTC, which was to go inside."

Tennessee's inside attack got a considerable boost with the return of Vicki Baugh, who debuted somewhat tentatively on one day of game prep against UTC and then had a double-double against LaTech with 13 points and 12 rebounds.

"It almost wasn't fair to Vicki," Warlick said. "She got thrown to the wolves early on an away trip, but she makes us better because of her energy and we feed off her energy."

The Lady Vols' staple defense is man, but the staff wants the team to get more reps in the matchup zone so they will mix it in, too.

"We're going to work on our zone, and we're going to press a little bit, probably not press as much as we usually do," Warlick said.

Tennessee also would like to continue its newfound success at in-bounds plays. On Sunday three different players, Cait McMahan, Alex Fuller and Shekinna Stricklen, scored directly off an in-bounds play.

"We made it a priority," Pat Summitt said. "It's what we call our special teams, and we made that a priority and we said we want to score on our end-out-of-bounds and our side-out-of-bounds, so very pleased with that."

Warlick said it's bittersweet to line up against a former Lady Vol, especially one such as Harper whom she coached at Tennessee at the point guard position. Harper was an honorable mention All-American in her senior year and was considered the steady hand behind the Three-Peat because of her poise at the point.

She was selected to the All-Final Four Team in 1998, the year Tennessee went 39-0. She also set two records that year with 11 assists in the championship game and 20 for the Final Four – records that still stand, although she shares the Final Four tally of 20 with Texas' Kamie Ethridge, who set the mark in 1986.

"It is hard to play an opponent that's a former player," Warlick said. "We want to win. She wants to win. It's difficult, but it is what it is."

ON TAP: Three other SEC schools are in action Tuesday in the following matchups: Alabama State at Alabama; Auburn at UAB; and Mississippi Valley State at Mississippi State. Two SEC teams are in action Wednesday: N.C. Central at Georgia; and Xavier at LSU.

ODDS AND ENDS: Tennessee leads the series with Western Carolina, 9-7. The Catamounts played the Lady Vols from 1969 to 1977 and then not again until 2005 when Tennessee and Western Carolina played in an NCAA second round game in Knoxville in which Pat Summitt tied Dean Smith as the winningest coach in NCAA basketball history with 879 victories. Kellie Jolly Harper cried at the post-game press conference because she was so emotional and happy for Summitt, who broke the record in the next game against Purdue. Summitt now has 986 career wins and is closing in on 1,000. … Tennessee is 7-1 in games played on November 25. The last win came in 2005 against Gonzaga, 79-65, in a game in the Virgin Islands. The sole loss on this date was to Texas, 74-59, in 2004. … Tennessee's Vicki Baugh has been named Lady Vol Athlete of the Week, as voted on by the media relations' staff, after pacing the Lady Vols in the past two games. In Friday night's contest at Chattanooga, Baugh saw her first action of the season after tearing her ACL on April 8, 2008. She finished with four points and four rebounds, plus two blocks, which came in the last 1:38 of the game, and she added a free throw with 56.7 seconds left to give the Lady Vols a 64-63 lead. On Sunday, she scored seven of the Lady Vols' first nine points and finished with her first career double-double with 13 points and 12 boards. She added four blocks, an assist and a steal in the 94-59 win over Louisiana Tech. … Tennessee has another victory countdown to watch as the Lady Vols have a 296-19 (.942) record since moving into Thompson-Boling Arena to start the 1987-88 season 21 years ago. A lot of fans have watched the team in the venue. From 2000 to 2008, the Lady Vols attracted a nation-leading 1,719,694 spectators for a per-game average of 14,451 over 119 games.


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