KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Tennessee guard/forward Jaime Nared says she was taken aback recently when a teammate referred to her as a "mother figure."
"I'm (just) 22 years old," Nared said.
Yet that's a role Nared has this season as one of the seniors on a Tennessee team relying heavily on a heralded four-person freshman class . The 14th-ranked Lady Volunteers open the season Sunday by hosting East Tennessee State, and Nared wants to make sure this group doesn't adopt the same bad habits that limited Tennessee last year.
Tennessee is attempting to rebound from a 20-12 season that ended with a second-round NCAA Tournament loss to Louisville , only the second time they've failed to advance beyond the round of 32.
The Lady Vols beat three of the teams in last year's Final Four - including road victories over eventual national champion South Carolina and runner-up Mississippi State - but lost six games to teams that missed the NCAA Tournament.
"We were a talented group," Nared said. "It's more than that, though. You can't just be a talented group and come up to games and expect to win. It takes so much, especially playing in the SEC, playing against the top teams in the country.
"You can't just be talented. You have to work hard. You have to be willing to take a step away from what you want to accomplish and change that to what the team wants to accomplish. That's the biggest thing that we've struggled with. I think that's the difference in this year."
Nared and senior center Mercedes Russell are expected to lead this freshman-laden team. Nared averaged 15.6 points and 6.9 rebounds last season, up from 8.3 points and 4.8 rebounds her sophomore year. She scored 30 points in a victory over Mississippi State , had 27 points in an upset of South Carolina and made the game-winning basket against Notre Dame .
The Lady Vols now need her to provide more consistent production because they lack proven performers beyond Nared and Russell. Tennessee lost point guard Jordan Reynolds to graduation, Diamond DeShields bypassed her final season of eligibility to turn pro , Te'a Cooper transferred to South Carolina and Alexa Middleton transferred to Iowa State .
"She needs to be a scorer, she needs to be a defender, she needs to be a rebounder, and to top that off, she needs to be one of our strongest leaders," Tennessee coach Holly Warlick said. "And she has stepped up to the challenge."
Tennessee's exhibition game showed how the freshmen and seniors could blend effectively. The four freshmen - Rennia Davis, Anastasia Hayes, Kasiyahna Kushkituah and Evina Westbrook - combined for 76 points in a 121-76 rout of Division II program Carson-Newman. Nared provided 22 points and nine rebounds.
Nared sees extraordinary upside in this freshman class.
"They all bring different things," Nared said. "Annie's quick as can be, a great attacker. Evina just has a high basketball IQ. Kasi will bang with anybody. I think you guys have seen that. Two of our coaches call her 'Boom Boom' because she's just so strong and she's just willing to fight down there. Rennia, she can dunk, she's 6-2, she's a wing, she's just super-athletic. They all just have so much potential."
She's ready to help them meet those high expectations.
"I want everybody to trust me," Nared said. "I want to be the hardest worker and just be someone that people can come to at all times and trust who I am as a person."
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