The Lady Vols lost a lot to graduation last spring with no greater void than the personnel who patrolled the paint. Gone are All-American Glory Johnson – she is putting together a stellar rookie campaign in the WNBA – Vicki Baugh, one of the most athletic forwards to ever suit up for Tennessee, and Alicia Manning, a gritty inside-out player who never shied away from contact and battled on the boards.
Sophomore Isabelle Harrison is the one true post on the roster with experience – and she played limited minutes last season on a team stacked with seniors – and sophomore Cierra Burdick and senior Taber Spani, while both undersized in the paint, have the versatility to set up inside and out, but with their shooting ability are well suited for the perimeter.
Into that void steps Bashaara Graves, a 6-2 freshman forward, who will have to log minutes this season to help Harrison against an opponent’s bigs. A good sign for the coaches is that Graves has been willing to work and listen to instruction.
“Her habits are pretty good overall,” Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood said after Thursday’s court workouts at Pratt Pavilion. “She is tightening up some stuff, but she has been well taught, well coached, both by Brian Rush through high school and Al Cooper in AAU for a lot of years. Both of them did a very good job with her.
“She is very, very receptive. She is a player who needs to see it and feel things as she does it. I have learned with her if she watches it and let her go through it and feel it, once she does that, she picks up quickly. I have been very, very pleased with what I’ve seen so far.”
Graves also realizes she doesn’t have a year to watch and learn – despite having never played in a game for Tennessee, Graves has to be ready when the games start.
“She’s got to help us, absolutely,” Lockwood said. “We’re counting on her. I think she knows that. We told her that all through her senior year. Take a look at our roster and take a look at what we lose. We told her, ‘We are not thinking you are coming in and playing behind somebody for two years. You are going to have to come in and contribute.’
“So, she’s been hearing that music for about a year now.”
Graves is every inch of her listed height, and she looks a tad taller in person, in part because of her college-ready frame and perfect posture. When she was young and sprouting past the kids her age, Graves wasn’t comfortable with her height, but that changed in high school.
“It took a long time, because when I was little I was the tallest person,” Graves said. “It was awkward for me. I would slump over and try and make myself the same height as them.
“And then around ninth grade, I started getting comfortable with my body. I was getting a little stronger, and I wasn’t self-conscious about anything. It’s me.”
Lockwood also has noticed that Graves is at ease with her size, and her upper body strength is ahead of most freshman post players.
“She carries herself very well, broad shoulders, and she’s got some explosion to her,” Lockwood said. “She is able to finish through contact a little bit better right now. She’s got some power, and she can do some things, especially as it pertains to low-post play and mid-post play.
“She is good with either hand right now. She does a pretty good job left and right hand. So much of finishing is about strength, especially playing the post position. You rarely are going to have free rein to the basket. You are going to have to go through bodies and body pressure, body contact.
“And that is one of the things her strength translates (to the court) really well right now. She can take some pressure physically and go through and still finish.”
Lockwood works with the post players and his abundance of energy hasn’t gone unnoticed by Graves.
“He has so much energy that I think we feed off of him,” Graves said. “It makes us better and it helps us talk to each other. When we are down, he just has the energy to pick us back up. It’s great having him in there.”
Graves has an unusual first name in Bashaara – pronounced Buh-shar-uh – and it is routinely butchered when spoken.
“A lot,” Graves said with a big smile. “Oh, my gosh, I just answer to anything actually. Most people just come up with nicknames. Right now most people are calling me either ‘B’ or ‘Shar.’ ”
Her middle name is Keyana, which is similar to her mother’s first name of Keinya. Her mother selected Bashaara – and added a second ‘a’ after the ‘h’ – because it was the name of a family member.
“My cousin and her are really good friends, best friends actually,” Graves said. “Her name was Bashara and that’s where she got it from. She basically named me.”
Graves is one of the Pat Summitt Trio – the other two are freshman guard Andraya Carter and freshman forward Jasmine Jones – who made a pact to stay together after the then head coach of the Lady Vols announced she had been diagnosed with early onset dementia. Summitt went public in August of 2011, and the three then high school seniors reaffirmed their commitment to Tennessee and signed their letters of intent in November of 2011.
“We all were truly Tennessee fans before we were even recruited by Tennessee, so I think that was probably the biggest thing, and we talked,” Graves said. “The day that happened, Draya and Jasmine got in contact with me and that was the biggest thing to me.
“They wanted to make sure that I was still on, and I wanted to make sure they were still on, and we were still coming together. I think that shows the team being a family and that we were a family before we even got here.”
Longtime Summitt assistant Holly Warlick took the reins of the program, and Graves, like her teammates, feels that sense of responsibility to continue the tradition that Summitt built literally from scratch over nearly four decades.
“We have to keep the tradition alive,” said Graves, a native of the Volunteer State from Clarksville, a high school All-American and the Gatorade state player of the year for girls’ basketball in 2012.
“We have to win SEC championships; we’ve got to get NCAA championships. We have to keep it going, and we’re going to keep doing that.”
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