Alicia Payne had the ball in her hands late in the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga's 64-53 basketball win against the College of Charleston on Monday. Unless the Lady Mocs were up by 20, that wouldn't have seemed likely a month ago.
Payne, a freshman point guard from Memphis, isn't the player she was a month ago -- or even two weeks ago.
"I noticed the first practice after we got back from [the Elon game on Jan. 7], she's a whole other person," Lady Mocs center Ashlen Dewart said. "She's definitely stepped her game up, and if she keeps playing like this and continues to improve, she's going to be a huge asset for this team."
Payne has played in every game this season, backing up starter Alex Black. From the beginning, sometimes things went well, like her 17-minute, 4-assist performance against East Tennessee State on Nov. 17. Other times, well, she had five turnovers in 15 minutes against Furman on Dec. 1.
"I just kind of realized that I wasn't playing like I was comfortable or having a lot of fun out there," Payne said. "I just realized, 'Go out and have fun and the rest of it will come to you.'"
Against Georgia Southern on Jan. 12, she had four assists, three steals and a turnover. On one possession she blanketed the Eagles' point guard to the point that GSU had to call a timeout. That play shows up nowhere in the statistics, but it drew a roar from the UTC crowd and no doubt caught coach Wes Moore's attention.
"I think she's definitely earned his confidence," Dewart said.
Against the College of Charleston, UTC saw a 21-point second-half lead dwindle to two with 3:35 to play. Moore had Payne on the court instead of Black. Payne got two steals within 25 seconds to help seal the win.
"She's a little more aggressive -- she's hustling, flying around. We just felt like we had to make a change there," Moore said. "In the last five minutes or so we gave her a chance. We needed to find out if she can handle it. I thought she did an excellent job of taking care of the ball and running the team and making some plays on 'D.'"
Payne admits her offense still has a lot of room for improvement. Through 15 games she has scored a total of four points, going 1-for-11 from the field and 2-for-4 from the free-throw line.
The Lady Mocs (12-3, 5-1 Southern Conference) will need more of her defense tonight when they visit league-leading Davidson (8-7, 5-0) at Belk Arena.