Bashaara Graves inks LOI for Lady Vols

Bashaara Graves officially became a Lady Vol on Wednesday when she inked her letter of intent during a school assembly at Clarksville High School, becoming the first player in Tennessee's signing class of 2012 to make it official.

Bashaara Graves and her mother, Keinya Graves, sent the paperwork to the University of Tennessee after the ceremony. Graves was one of five players on the Tennessee high school team to submit Division I scholarship papers on Wednesday and the first of the Lady Vols' three 2012 commits to sign her name to an LOI.

"I was overwhelmed," Graves said of the moment she put pen to paper. "It was exciting. It was surreal actually."

Jasmine Jones, a 6'1 forward whose mother played for Alabama, will sign her LOI today at a ceremony at Bob Jones High School in Madison, Ala.

Andraya Carter, a 5'8 guard, will sign Saturday at Buford High School in Buford, Ga., after a team scrimmage. Saturday also is Carter's 18th birthday.

After all of the paperwork has been received and certified by Tennessee, Coach Pat Summitt can comment about the class, so those remarks likely will come next week.

The starters for the Clarksville High School girl's team were seated at a table for the signing ceremony. Art students had painted the logo of each school on basketballs with the player's name and number on the other side.

Graves, of course, will play for Tennessee, while Chandler Cooper is headed to Florida, Jessy Ward to Mississippi State, Tia Nicholson to Tennessee Tech and Tiasha Gray to Austin Peay.

The players' accomplishments and destinations were announced during the school assembly that was attended by family, friends, teachers, administrators, students, the band and cheerleaders. Each player also spoke at the event.

"They went one by one, and I went last. I was stressing," Graves said with a laugh in a phone interview with Inside Tennessee.

With that talent on one team, Clarksville is hunting a title in the seniors' last season.

"We're trying to get a state championship," Graves said. "Everybody wants to work hard. They know they are getting ready for college."

Graves, a 6'2 power forward, earned rave reviews for her performances in summer basketball this past AAU season.

"I knew it was my last summer, and I wanted to throw my heart into it," Graves said. "I always throw my heart into it, but it was my last summer playing AAU ball."

She also could provide immediate help next season for the Lady Vols with the exit of five seniors next spring, including true posts Glory Johnson and Vicki Baugh and forwards Shekinna Stricklen and Alicia Manning.

"I am ready to get there and work hard to get playing time and do whatever they tell me to," said Graves, who hopes to enroll in summer school next June and also play in the Women's Pilot Rocky Top League.

Lady Vol freshman Isabelle Harrison, who is from Nashville, is already earning playing time at Tennessee and the opportunity to make an immediate impact has been noticed by Graves. Harrison arrived last summer and entered Heather Mason's strength and conditioning program.

"From the time I saw Izzy in AAU, she has already bulked up, she's stronger," Graves said. "She's transformed. You can tell she has been working hard."

Graves is already familiar with some of her future teammates, including junior guard Kamiko Williams, who played at Northeast High School in Clarksville.

"I think I will be comfortable," Graves said. "I think it will be easy for me to be outgoing."

Both Graves and her mother were nervous before the ceremony because of the anticipation of the event.

"Up until I got to the gym I was nervous," Keinya Graves said. "I think I was probably more nervous than she was. Once we got there and everything started going on and the band was playing and the dancers were dancing and the atmosphere of everybody cheering for the girls, after that I calmed down.

"I was just ecstatic for her and the other girls as well because I've known them since they were 10."

Keinya Graves also was dealing with the emotional fact that her daughter was taking an adult step in life.

"It just hit me – the reality of my baby is going to college," she said. "It hit me, ‘This is reality. She is getting ready to go to college now.' "

That reality is twinned with the fact her daughter is going to play for one of the most storied programs in women's college basketball.

"First, it is an honor," Keinya Graves said. "When I first saw Dean (Lockwood) at her game when she was in the eighth grade, I thought, ‘Why is he coming to see an eighth grader?'

"But then after seeing them over the years it became more of an honor and then when she made her decision it was more of, ‘OK, that is awesome. I am glad you chose Tennessee."

Keinya Graves didn't expect her daughter to develop into one of the country's best high school basketball players.

"It took me by surprise because when she first started she was really uncoordinated," Graves said, with her daughter laughing in the background. "It started with giving her something to do so she wouldn't be in the house all the time."

Her daughter's unusual first name stems from a family member's connection.

"She was actually named by my cousin," Keinya Graves said. "Bashaara was the name of my cousin's best friend when she was in New York. She would call me all the time and tell me the adventures of her and Bashaara. I loved it from the first time I heard it."

That was 17 years ago – Bashaara will be 18 this coming March – and on Wednesday, Keinya Graves watched her daughter sign her name to become a Lady Vol basketball player.

"No tears, but almost," the mother said. "It was on the edge. Everything that went on kept me from boo-hooing, because I felt it coming on on my way there."

Bashaara Graves' father, maternal grandfather and one of her sisters also were able to attend Wednesday's ceremony.

All three players signing this week committed to Tennessee before Summitt's announcement last August that she had been diagnosed with early onset dementia. All three reaffirmed their commitment immediately after the announcement.

"Draya is diehard Tennessee," Bashaara Graves said. "I'm a diehard. Jasmine is, too. That is what it came down to. We're diehard Tennessee. It was not a hard decision at all."

A young player who always wanted to wear a Lady Vol jersey would be expected to stick with her choice. But a parent could flinch. In Keinya Graves' case, that wasn't the case.

"I am very comfortable," Keinya Graves said. "As long as Bashaara is comfortable with it I am right there with her. And then the conversations that we've had since the announcement have just reassured me that my baby is going to be in good hands."

Bashaara Graves wants to enjoy her last year of high school, but she also is anticipating becoming a college student.

"Everybody has been telling me I already have one step out the door basically," Graves said. "I am ready to get there."

WEDNESDAY PRACTICE REPORT

At the same time Bashaara Graves was signing her paperwork to become a Lady Vol for the 2012-13 season, the current team was in Thompson-Boling Arena for what an assistant coach called a "cleanup" practice session.

Tennessee completed the exhibition portion of preseason with a 93-45 win over Union on Tuesday. After a film session and nearly two-hour practice, the team and staff assembled for their weekly "book club" meeting, during which they have refreshments and two players present a chapter from the book, "Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap … and Others Don't."

Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood offered a quick critique of the game while the players got their standard post-practice ice bags from the medical staff before everyone headed to the locker room.

"I thought we guarded their actions pretty well," Lockwood said. "Defensively, we were happy with the first half. I thought we did a pretty good job. Second half, we kind of let ourselves lapse."

The turnovers – 17 in all – stood out on the stat sheet for the staff, a number the coaches want to see reduced.

"We weren't happy with the turnovers," Lockwood said. "We had three until about six-and-a-half minutes to go (in the first half) and then we had another five after that (and nine in the second half).

"So, we weren't happy with that. We got a little sloppy with the basketball."

The staff was particularly pleased with the team's full-court trapping defense.

"I thought our 12 press (UT's name for the 1-2-2 zone press) was very good," Lockwood said.

Tennessee also got the players some repetitions in the matchup half-court zone after playing mostly man in the first half.

"Our zone we had a few good possessions, but we saw some real gaps in that where we want to get better," Lockwood said.

Wednesday's practice focused on defense, along with extra reps at the free throw line.

"Today was cleanup day," Lockwood said.

The Lady Vols' defense has not been up to program standards for the past three seasons, which happens to coincide with the number of years the Lady Vols have missed going to the Final Four. This year's squad, however, has athleticism and mobility, and the coaches want the defense, which has been a significant weakness at times, to become a season-long strength.

The trapping press now falls in the category of "be careful what you show me," as Pat Summitt has always said, because the expectations of just how good the pressure could be has the coaches wanting more of it.

"Defensively, we want to really get a mindset," Lockwood said. "We just feel like at times we'll let up. We'll play four or five minutes, and we'll notice a real tapering off from a sheer effort area.

"But just our effort level and the intensity level that we play with on the defensive end, you watch us and it's not that it's glaring, but you know that there is more there and it's not enough. You watch and you say, ‘This team could be good, but they're not yet a great team.' There is more there."

It is also a mindset that the coaches want to plant in to the freshmen, Ariel Massengale, Cierra Burdick and Isabelle Harrison, from the start of their college careers. The process has been aided by the fact that all three have been willing learners – and doers – on defense.

"They have been very receptive," Lockwood said. "They are very coachable, and they've got a degree of toughness, too. We love all of those (attributes)."

In the second half of Tuesday's game, Harrison went for a steal out of a trap well out on the wing, hit the deck hard, scrambled to her feet, sprinted to the paint and blocked the shot. That is the sheer effort Lockwood wants.

"Yes, all the time," Lockwood said of the play. "Ariel Massengale did a great job last night of instead of playing three, four feet off of people, she was into the ball. She was getting in people's grills. That's every possession. That's what we want."

Practice ended with some offensive work and a short scrimmage against the practice team, which included former Lady Vol Angie Bjorklund, who is testing her healed foot before heading overseas to play pro ball.

"Offensively, our execution of our ball-screening action when a four (the power forward) brings it up the floor, we spent a lot of time cleaning that up," Lockwood said.

The players have Thursday off and then will return to practice Friday and Saturday. The regular season opener is Sunday at 4 p.m. Eastern against Pepperdine at Thompson-Boling Arena. SportSouth will broadcast the game.

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