Aryanna Gilbert admitted she was "caught off guard" when University of Tennessee at Chattanooga head women's basketball coach Jim Foster inserted her into the starting lineup prior to the Dec. 10 game against Jacksonville State. Five games later, she's still there and seems to feel a lot more comfortable in that position.
The 5-foot-9 freshman forward and the Mocs will play their first game of the new year tonight, when they resume Southern Conference action against Georgia Southern (3-10, 1-1) at 7 in McKenzie Arena. It marks the first home game the team has had since Nov. 24 -- a span of 40 days.
UTC (10-3, 2-0) has the nation's second-longest home court win streak at 30 games -- behind only Baylor, whose streak now stands at 67 consecutive victories.
"A long time ago," Foster said when asked about the team's last home game, an 80-52 defeat of Auburn. "The schedule is what it is."
The early part of the season, Foster spent a lot of time experimenting with lineups and rotations. Gilbert didn't even play in four of the first six games, yet found herself starting the fourth game of the team's eight-game road trip and has starting to grow into her role. She's averaged six points and two rebounds per game since entering the starting lineup, and for the season leads the team in shooting percentage at 62.5 percent.
"It was a big responsibility, but I've tried to go out there and make the most of this opportunity," Gilbert said. "I've just been trying to play to the best of my ability. I'm starting to get used to playing with the older players, and they've taught me to just go out there and play hard, and try to make up for any mistakes I make."
Foster was unhappy after a 60-55 loss to Hawaii about how his team was playing at the time, one that dropped the team to 4-3 at the time. He said on a postgame radio broadcast that "we might have to give some of our freshman some opportunities." The next game, Gilbert and fellow freshman Chelsey Shumpert -- who has started six consecutive games -- were in the lineup alongside seniors Taylor Hall, Ashlen Dewart, and Alex Black.
Hall and Dewart are the only Mocs to start all 13 games. Alicia Payne, who has started seven games at point guard, is second on the team in minutes, averaging 23.8 -- only behind Hall's 36.5.
"I'm still not sure I've settled into a set rotation," Foster said. "We're playing 'X' number of players now, but we're trying to play more. It just depends on how we facilitate, and how we can develop those young players into the mix. Some of the players are starting to get better, and I like how we have versatility and can change our look very quickly. 'Red' Payne provides us a burst of energy; Ka'Vonne Towns is starting to find her way. The centers are doing a good job.
"Effectiveness is beneficial."
Start or not, Gilbert's just happy the team is getting another opportunity to play in the friendly confines of McKenzie Arena.
"I really like being able to play in this environment," she said. "I understand that conference play isn't going to be easy because teams aren't going to give us wins, so tomorrow night we're going to have to come ready to play."
Contact Gene Henley at email@example.com or 423-757-6311. Follow him at twitter.com/genehenleytfp.