Tonya Edwards returns home

Tonya Edwards, with Joan Cronan

When Alcorn State coach Tonya Edwards walks onto the court Sunday, she hopes Lady Vol fans will greet her warmly. They should. She's part of the reason two banners hang in the arena. Go inside with InsideTennessee to get ready for the game.

"I hope they remember me," Tonya Edwards said with a laugh during a phone interview with InsideTennessee.

Edwards, who is from Flint, Mich., played for Tennessee from 1986 to 1990 and was a key piece of two national title teams – the first in program history in 1987 and another championship in 1989.

No. 20/16 Tennessee (3-1) takes on Alcorn State (0-3) at 2 p.m. Sunday at Thompson-Boling Arena. A free webcast is available by CLICKING HERE.

The last time Edwards was in the arena was in 2006, the year she was inducted into the Lady Vols Hall of Fame. She made more recent trips to Knoxville to visit with teammate Melissa McCray Dukes before she passed away from cancer and also came to Dukes' funeral in 2010.

On Sunday, Edwards brings her Lady Braves team to the arena to face her alma mater. It wasn't Edwards' idea but she warmed to it eventually.

Tennessee reached her assistant coach, Cleo Foster, because it needed another home game this season, and a team coached by a former Lady Vol seemed like a good fit.

"I was like, ‘No, no, no,' " Edwards said.

Edwards, who is in her fifth year at the helm of Alcorn State, which is located in Lorman, Miss., and was SWAC Coach of the Year in 2011, said she had scheduled top 25 teams in the past "but never of Tennessee's magnitude."

But she pondered the proposal and decided it was a "great chance for the young ladies to see what it feels like, see how they operate," Edwards said. "Anytime you can pack an arena that's excellent."

Edwards recalled that the oversized photos of the national champion teams are in the area near the locker rooms, and she expects her players to poke some fun at her image, especially the hairstyles of the day.

"I am going to be trying to cover it up," said Edwards, anticipating that players will take photos with their phones for posting on social media. "They'll try to blackmail me."

Edwards is a different coach with her players than the stern disciplinarian she played under when Pat Summitt prowled the sidelines at Tennessee. Edwards played in the era of vintage Summitt, and she knows players today would crumble in that crucible.

"They would not make it," Edwards said. "This generation of kids would not be able to handle her."

Summitt also made adjustments over the years and hung six more banners, milestones that Edwards wanted her team to notice when they walked onto ‘The Summitt' court to practice Saturday evening.

"That's excellence," Edwards said. "She had to adjust. That's part of why she's so successful."

When Edwards was a freshman, Holly Warlick was an assistant coach in her first year at Tennessee. Warlick, a former Tennessee point guard, had graduated in 1980, held positions at Virginia Tech and Nebraska, and then returned to her hometown.

Warlick served as the buffer between Summitt and the players, and Edwards laughed when she was told that Warlick has now taken the role of enforcer and disciplinarian from seizing all phones and electronic devices after the loss to Chattanooga – and keeping them for two days to force communication – to benching players for shoddy defensive effort.

Warlick adopted Summitt's approach and shifted from her liaison role as an assistant to ruler as head coach.

"That's why they were such a good duo," Edwards said of Summitt and Warlick, who stayed at Summitt's side for 27 years.

Edwards applauded the hiring of Warlick to succeed Summitt, who stepped down last April and remains connected to the program as head coach emeritus.

"I think it was the only choice," Edwards said. "I think Holly has paid her dues. It's nice to see her take the reins."

Edwards also saluted Warlick's choices as her assistants – she retained Dean Lockwood, who was instrumental in the signing class of 2013, and hired former Lady Vol Kyra Elzy away from Kentucky. Warlick stepped away from the orange coaching tree with the hire of Jolette Law, who was an assistant at Rutgers and head coach at Illinois.

Edwards knows Law well because they played together for USA basketball.

"You bring in Jolette, you get added flavor, a different philosophy," Edwards said. "I think that's good."

Like so many former Lady Vols, Edwards was devastated when she heard the news about Summitt's diagnosis of early onset dementia.

"It was extremely tough," Edwards said. "You see the lady as almost invincible. I wanted to know how she would respond. It's so tough for her what she has to go through. I was deeply disappointed. Deeply."

Summitt's new role allows her to be around the team on a regular basis, including attending practices and games, home and away. She is expected to be in her seat at center court across from the bench for Sunday's game, and Edwards will look for her former head coach before the game.

"I can't wait to see her and give her a big ol' hug," Edwards said.

Edwards, despite being from Michigan, has trace of a Southern accent, likely picked up during her years at Tennessee and now in Mississippi. She was about to take an assistant position at Buffalo when the head coach slot came open at Alcorn State.

"It was one of those things," Edwards said. "The opportunity came about."

Edwards expects a flood of memories when taking the court for practice with her team Saturday and then again when the seats are occupied with orange-clad fans on Sunday.

"Definitely," Edwards said. "The camaraderie with the young ladies. Pat coming like a bolt out of a cannon around the corner to the court."

Even though Tennessee is a young team – two freshmen and two sophomores have been in the starting lineup of late – Edwards knows her team, which plays in Southwestern Athletic Conference, is overmatched talent-wise on the court.

She does, however, expect her team to represent itself well.

"They're like we have to go out there and compete and not embarrass our coach back home," Edwards said of her players' mindset. "If that happens I will be pleased as pudding."

Edwards also expects her approach to be professional and to put away thoughts that she is coaching against her old program.

"It will still be business as usual," Edwards said. "I will be on the other side."

However, old habits die hard and Edwards might let loose when she hears the band strike up "Rocky Top."

"I'm going to start dancing," she said.

PROBABLE STARTERS

Tennessee coach Holly Warlick is expected to start: Andraya Carter, 5-9 freshman guard, No. 14, hails from Flowery Branch, Ga. (7.0 points per game, 2.3 rebounds per game, 2.0 assists per game); Meighan Simmons, 5-9 junior guard, No. 10, hails from Cibolo, Texas (15.3 ppg, 3.8 rpg); Cierra Burdick, 6-2 sophomore forward, No. 11, hails from Charlotte, N.C. (8.8 ppg, 7.3 rpg); Bashaara Graves, 6-2 freshman forward, No. 12, hails from Clarksville, Tenn. (17.5 ppg, 8.0 rpg); and Isabelle Harrison, 6-3 sophomore forward, No. 20, hails from Nashville, Tenn. (9.8 ppg, 8.5 rpg).

Alcorn State coach Tonya Edwards is expected to start (with stats available through two games): Carolinsia Crumbly, 5-5 senior, No. 3 (10.0 ppg, 6.0 rpg) hails from Laurel, Miss.; Tierro Frost, 5-9 junior, No. 24 (7.5 ppg, 1.0 rpg), hails from Waynesboro, Miss.; Au-Juvan Andrews, senior, No. 20 (7.5 ppg, 3.5 rpg), hails from Columbus, Ohio; Isis Smith, 5-10 senior, No. 10 (4.0 ppg, 6.5 rpg), hails from Tulsa, Okla.; and Renelle Richmond, 5-9 senior, No. 11 (5.5 ppg, 5.0 rpg), hails from Toronto, Canada.

"BEAST MODE": That is a header in Tennessee's game notes, which is on the bandwagon with Bashaara Graves' nickname.

The freshman post from Clarksville, Tenn., is the only player to reach double figures in all four games this season. Graves leads the team in scoring at 17.5 points and minutes played at 28.3, both unusual stats for a freshman to hold. She is second in both rebounding at 8.0 boards and steals at 2.0 per game.

RAINING THREES: Meighan Simmons is close to cracking the all-time top 10 list for career three-pointers. She has 121 treys with 10th place held by Abby Conklin (1994-97) with 124.

Simmons, a junior guard, could jump a few spots in a hurry. Nikki Caldwell (1991-94), is in ninth place with 128, while Tiffany Woosley (1992-95) holds eighth place with 132 and Sidney Spencer (2004-07) is in seventh place with 133.

Andraya Carter needed just one game to boost her trey ball numbers. The freshman guard started the season 1-7 (14.3 percent) from long range and then went 4-5 (80 percent) against Miami to raise her season percentage to 41.7 percent.

BALL SECURITY: After opening the season with a loss at Chattanooga and posting an abysmal assist to turnover stat – six helpers to 26 miscues – the Lady Vols have nearly evened out matters with 64 assists to 68 turnovers.

Leading the pack is sophomore Ariel Massengale with 14 assists and just seven turnovers. She led the SEC in assist-to-turnover ratio as a freshman at 2.1 and has posted a 2.0 in that stat so far this season.

ODDS AND ENDS Tennessee and Alcorn State will be facing each other for the first time in program history. Tennessee has faced other teams in the SWAC and has a 3-0 record, with all games played in Knoxville … Sunday's game is part of the Mission of Hope Toy Drive. Fans can donate a new toy or new sporting goods item and get free admission. … Tennessee basketball is in the spirit of holiday sales. A Cyber Monday ticket sale is set for Nov. 26 at UTTIX.COM. Tickets will be available for $7, a discount of 50 percent with no order fees. Tennessee also is offering "Holiday Packs." All four home games in December can be bought for the price of three. After the North Carolina game, it's three for the price of two. The four home games are North Carolina, Stanford, Davidson and Rutgers.

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