KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – As Tennessee begins a new era in women's basketball, perhaps it's only fitting that a freshman is leading the way.
The emergence of freshman forward Bashaara Graves has helped the 16th-ranked Lady Vols win five consecutive games in Holly Warlick's debut season as coach. Graves headed into the weekend as the Southeastern Conference's third-leading scorer (15.8) and sixth-leading rebounder (7.8). No other freshman ranked among the conference's top 18 scorers or top 14 rebounders.
Graves' rapid rise hasn't surprised anyone at Tennessee.
Her coaches and teammates knew all along she'd be a major factor. Even Graves herself believed she could contribute right away. She remembered what Warlick told each of the freshmen before the season.
"She basically told us that we don't have time to be freshmen, which is understandable because we're a younger team," Graves said. "Being freshmen, we don't have that option. We had to come in and make an impact immediately."
Tennessee (5-1) needs Graves to continue making an impact as it enters the toughest portion of its schedule. The Lady Vols host No. 22 North Carolina (7-0) on Sunday in the first of four consecutive games against currently ranked teams. After taking two weeks off, Tennessee travels to No. 13 Texas on Dec. 16 and No. 3 Baylor on Dec. 18 before hosting top-ranked Stanford on Dec. 22.
The 6-foot-2 freshman seems ready for the challenge.
Graves had just finished the second game of her career - an 18-point, 12-rebound performance in a 71-54 victory at Georgia Tech - when sophomore forward Cierra Burdick referred to her as a "beast." Junior guard Meighan Simmons calls Graves a "silent assassin" because the freshman doesn't talk much but delivers big performances. Simmons also says Graves is "like another Glory," which may be the greatest compliment of all.
Glory Johnson closed her Tennessee career last season with 1,218 career rebounds, the second-highest total in school history. She averaged 14.2 points and 9.9 rebounds as the SEC defensive player of the year in her senior year. Johnson went to the Tulsa Shock with the fourth overall pick in the most recent WNBA draft. By comparing Graves to Johnson, Simmons is letting the freshman understand her extraordinary potential.
"It just reminds (her), 'You can be an All-American just like Glory Johnson was,' " Simmons said.
That's quite a responsibility to place on a newcomer, but the Lady Vols believe Graves has the personality and the game to handle it.
Graves certainly has backed up her teammates' faith in her so far. She recorded her second double-double Wednesday by collecting 15 points and 12 rebounds in an 88-81 overtime triumph over Middle Tennessee.
"Bashaara is a workhorse," Warlick said. "She's old-school. She works hard she works on every possession. She competes. She's not the tallest. She's not the fastest. She just gets it done."
That's apparent from Graves' consistency.
Graves isn't the typical newcomer who offers glimpses of potential while also making freshman mistakes. Graves instead has the steady approach of a senior. She has scored in double figures in every game and hasn't wilted under pressure.
"She's just one of those girls who doesn't speak as much, but she does put her best foot forward and gives 100 percent every day, whether it be a workout with (associate strength coach) Heather (Mason), in the classroom, on the floor or off the floor," Simmons said.
Graves adopted that work ethic long before she arrived in Knoxville.
The former Clarksville (Tenn.) High star developed into one of the nation's top five recruits in her class by constantly working to get better. She adopted a well-rounded game by focusing on rebounding and passing as much as scoring. Early in her high school career, Graves even began eating and opening doors with her left hand in an attempt to feel equally comfortable with both hands each time she stepped on the court.
"She's just one of those kids who's always looking for ways to better herself," Clarksville coach Brian Rush said. "She has such a competitive nature on the court. She always wants to win in the worst way."
She also wants to represent her home-state team in the best way possible. During the Lady Vols' 2008 national championship season, Graves watched just about every game that was televised. She remained committed to Tennessee even after former coach Pat Summitt announced last year she had been diagnosed with early-onset dementia.
"I always wanted to be a Lady Vol," Graves said. "Even if Pat wasn't here, you're still a Lady Vol. You still carry on her tradition. It makes it even better because I committed under her, so I continue the tradition with her. Holly's a great coach and I (am playing for) Holly, but I'm still carrying on the tradition.
"I'm still part of the legacy."