Bashaara Graves grasps the thinking behind her nickname and appreciates the sentiment involved.
Such knowledge still didn't preclude an awkward moment of silence in an interview turned acceptance speech last Wednesday. The pause and the expression on the Tennessee freshman's face were unmistakable giveaways that being called "a beast" continues to be an acquired taste for her.
"I feel like when you say 'beast' I don't know," she said. "When you say 'beast' it's like an ugly word. But I understand what they mean."
And she seems to have embraced the work involved with such a distinction. Heading into today's game at No. 23 Miami (2-0) in Coral Gables, Fla. (Tipoff: 2 p.m.), one of the youngest players on Tennessee's roster has been one of the most consistent so far. The 6-foot-2 forward has scored in double figures in all three games for No. 24 Tennessee (2-1). In her first career start, she had 18 points and grabbed 12 rebounds in last Sunday's 71-54 victory at Georgia Tech.
The more she bangs away on the low block, the more beastly she becomes to her admirers. Fans on Twitter have taken the idea a step further, referring to her as "Beastsharra."
"I just like battling," Graves said. "I like being physical, and if you're in the post you have to be physical. I know I'm not as tall as the other posts. So for me to be as physical as them, that's what I need."
Graves will literally face her biggest challenge today in Miami's Shawnice Wilson, a 6-foot-6 senior center. She's flanked by 6-1 senior forward Morgan Stroman. Together, they comprise the most size and experience Graves has faced.
Under the circumstances, assistant coach Dean Lockwood will monitor Graves' effort. So far, it's been a safeguard against any performance swings. A case in point was a second-half possession against Georgia Tech. Her headband was askew and her energy was waning. Yet she managed two offensive rebounds on one possession, earning a basket and a trip to the foul line for her effort.
"We love the fact that you can't tell whether she's gone 4-for-4 or 0-for-4," Lockwood said.
First-year head coach Holly Warlick has been impressed enough to expand Graves' role and fast-forward her thought process. Warlick met with Graves following an 80-71 season-opening upset
loss at Chattanooga on Nov. 9 and stressed her importance to the team.
"I told her when I met with her 'You cannot play like a freshman. Unfortunately you don't get to be a freshman because this team needs you, ' " Warlick said.
Graves could relate the conversation to her freshman season at Clarksville High School. She missed a layup from the left side against McGavock High, shooting the shot with her right hand because she didn't trust shooting left-handed.
"It bothered me a lot,'' she said. "It could've won the game for us. Even though I was a freshman and it was maybe a freshman mistake, just like how I am here ... I didn't have time to be a freshman. It was close to my heart to get that fixed."
She was reminded of some advice about improving her left hand. It came from former Lady Vols assistant coach Nikki Caldwell during a UT summer camp Graves attended as a sixth-grader. So she started opening doors and doing other things with her left hand.
"Eating with my left hand was probably the biggest one,'' she said, "because I eat a lot."
Even then, she had an appetite for effort.