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Tennessee Athletics photo by Maury Neipris / Tennessee freshman Emily Saunders goes to the basket for a layup during practice this month at Thompson-Boling Arena in Knoxville.

KNOXVILLE — Growing up, Emily Saunders didn't necessarily believe she would ever have a chance to play basketball for Tennessee.

But her maternal grandfather, Gary Shrewsbury, did.

"I remember watching (former Lady Volunteers star) Candace Parker play one time, and he said, 'This is going to be you one day,'" Saunders recalled recently. "I didn't really believe him at first, but then as I progressed, he watched me and said, 'I told you.'"

Shrewsbury passed away a couple of years before the 6-foot-5 Saunders received an offer to play for Tennessee. It didn't take her very long to decide to join the program.

"It was so special," she said. "I got my offer with my Mamaw in the room, and she started crying because it was a very special moment. I would never take this for granted because it's so special. I think about him all the time when I step foot on the court."

Saunders is among the freshmen preparing for the Lady Vols' exhibition against Carson-Newman on Tuesday night and their season opener Nov. 5 at East Tennessee State, and she has had to go through a learning curve since arriving in Knoxville.

During her high school career for Wyoming East in New Richmond, West Virginia, Saunders' height meant she was counted on to do plenty. Scoring wasn't at the top of that list, though, and so she never averaged more than 13.1 points per game and didn't develop her offensive production as much as other skills.

However, she never averaged fewer than 4.5 blocks per game, totaling 559 during her three-year varsity career, and averaged 6.6, 7.8 and 10.9 rebounds per game in those three seasons. Now the offensive end of the court is the place where she wants to grow her game the most.

New Lady Vols coach Kellie Harper said Saunders' transition "hasn't always been easy for her" but that she's been coachable along the way. Harper's staff includes her husband Jon, and he has been working with Saunders, too.

"She's persistent," Harper said. "She continues to keep trying every day, and we've seen a lot of improvement in her."

Said Saunders: "When I came here, I needed to focus on working on everything. Growing in every aspect is so important — defensively, offensively, the little techniques, I just want to work on everything and be better at everything.

"I think I'm coming along pretty well. I've grown so much in the weightroom, and my game defensively and offensively have grown so much by what Kellie and Jon have shown me, I'm just excited to see how much that progresses."

Contact Gene Henley at ghenley@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @genehenley3 or at Facebook.com/VolsUpdate.

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