Carter back on court for Lady Vols

Andraya Carter was the 17th freshman to start her first career game as a Lady Vol. Randy Sartin/USA TODAY Sports

Her freshman season at Tennessee was there ... and then it was gone. Andraya Carter -- "Draya" to most everyone, except her mom, who uses her daughter's full name -- got off to a good start last year despite a nagging shoulder problem. She provided depth and energy for Tennessee, and actually was in the starting lineup to begin her career.

But her shoulder was aggravated a couple of times, and she made the tough choice to get it surgically fixed, then fully heal, and re-boot her first season. Thus, when the Lady Vols lost to Texas A&M in the 2013 SEC tournament semifinals and then to Louisville in the NCAA Elite Eight, Carter had to agonize through those games on the bench.

Could she have made a difference? Perhaps. But it was only a haunting hypothetical question. She would have to wait.

"I just loved being out there with these girls so much, and felt really good about my role on my team last year," said Carter, a 5-foot-9 guard from Flowery Branch, Ga. "I thought I had a good thing going, and for it to get taken away, it was really frustrating."

The good news, though, was that Carter at least got a very good idea of what college basketball was like before she was sidelined. And then throughout the season, she stayed engaged and active on the bench, listening to the Tennessee coaches and trying to view the game through their eyes.

"I thought if anybody took advantage of a redshirt year, it was Andraya Carter," Tennessee coach Holly Warlick said. "She got to sit and watch. Sometimes players listen, but they don't think the coach really knows what they are talking about. She got to sit there and see what we saw. I think it's helped her game."

Last season, there were times where you could tell Tennessee really missed what Carter had brought to the Lady Vols in her brief time on the court: a kind of joyful hustle, verbal leadership, a natural upbeat mentality. But she acknowledged that being on the bench most of the season gave her an insight she wasn't expecting.

"When I was out there playing, they'd want me to take a step over on help side [defense]. And I would think, 'I was there,' but, in fact, I wasn't," Carter said. "Sitting on the sidelines, you realize what the coaches say is legitimate. I just got to see a lot, and to learn a lot of different leadership tips.

"I also had to encourage my team verbally. I had to watch and point to things we needed to do. I tried to be a different voice besides the coaches, but saying the same things."

This season, Carter is back on court, and she has helped Tennessee to its 4-0 record. She's coming off the bench behind senior Meighan Simmons and junior Ariel Massengale.

But that's OK with Carter. Just being able to contribute on the court is what she cares about. And she knows that she'll be called on a lot to do that this season, along with true freshman guard Jordan Reynolds.

"It's such a good feeling to know we can push each other and compete in practice, but then in games we're behind each other 100 percent," Carter said of Tennessee's four guards. "If someone is having a bad game or is a little off, someone can go in for her."

Right now, Tennessee's five starters are all averaging in double figures, led by Massengale's 14.3 points per game. Off the bench, Carter is averaging 8.3 points and has committed just two turnovers through four games.

With Massengale and Carter, Tennessee has two players very comfortable in the point guard role who can still be effective scorers. But Carter sees herself as a defensive igniter, first and foremost.

"That's what I try to focus on," she said. "When I focus too much on hitting shots, my game doesn't flow as well. When I focus on playing hard, the energy spreads. I can always have energy, give effort, and have a good attitude."

Added Warlick: "That kid is one of the most competitive kids we have, so you can see how much we missed her last year. She plays the game hard, athletic, very intelligently. She has great knowledge of the game. It's just great to have her back."