NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Vanderbilt head coach Stephanie White harkens back to the preseason when asked to assess the evolution of Commodore guard LeaLea Carter.
“She came in this summer,” White said, “and she was just different.”
Different, in this case, means a more productive, aggressive and confident Carter for Vanderbilt women’s basketball. A junior, Carter has developed into a go-to presence for Vanderbilt, which beat Ole Miss, 80-68, on Thursday for its first SEC win. Carter led the Dores with 20 points against the Rebels, her third straight SEC game scoring at least 14 points.
Carter’s ascension into a reliable scorer followed two seasons worth of soul-searching. Now, the junior has never felt more comfortable on the court.
“I feel a little more confident than I did in the past two years, as far as shooting,” Carter said. “I never really shot from the outside. I was mainly driving the ball. Now that I’ve worked on that, I have a lot more confidence than I did.”
Carter arrived at Vanderbilt in 2016 as one of the more heralded recruits in Commodore history. A five-star prospect from nearby Dickson, Carter was a 1,000-point scorer at Dickson Country High and a McDonald’s All-American during her prep career. Carter fit the mold of a difference-maker for White, who had just been hired to take over the Vanderbilt program.
As a freshman, Carter played in 29 games and averaged 5.7 points and 2.3 rebounds as a role player off the bench. But her production regressed as a sophomore last season (1.4 points per game and 0.5 rebounds per game in 16 games). Carter often struggled to find her role on the Commodores’ roster, on and off the court.
“She’s a kid who has natural athleticism, she has natural quickness,” White said. “She’s got gifts. But it does take some time when it’s a huge adjustment, academically, athletically, being on your own but still close to home. There are a lot of things that go on for a kid like LeaLea. It took her a while to start to feel comfortable and, quite honestly, it took her some time to learn how to compete everyday.”
That adjustment took center stage ahead of Carter’s junior season. White, a former NCAA Player of the Year and national champion as a guard at Purdue, put Carter through the ringer in the gym during the preseason. The junior had yet to develop a confident jump shot at Vanderbilt. In response, White had Carter routinely shoot 10 shots each from five different spots on the floor. The goal was to make the athletic Carter a more dangerous player off the catch.
White’s message was simple: If you’re open, shoot it. If you’re not, drive to the basket.
“Coach said, ‘You have to do one or the other. They’re eventually going to have to guard you,'” Carter said.
As shots starting falling, Carter’s confidence blossomed. Meanwhile, her role increased this season as the Commodores weathered a host of injuries. All-SEC guard Chelsie Hall and freshmen Brinae Alexander and Jordyn Cambridge all missed key games during the first half of the season. By necessity, a healthy Carter found herself with a ball in hand more often.
Now the junior has started 10 straight games dating back to a matchup with Central Michigan on Dec. 15. Carter has scored in double-figures seven times during that stretch, including four against SEC opponents. Her 20 points against Ole Miss followed a 20-point outing against Arkansas on Jan. 13 and a 14-point performance against Auburn on Jan. 17.
White said her staff expects even more from Carter moving forward.
“It’s nice to finally see her play up to her potential,” White said. “We’re going to keep challenging her to take it to another level.”
Vanderbilt might need another level from Carter as it dives deeper into SEC play. The Commodores face No. 19 South Carolina in Columbia on Monday before a trip to College Station to take on No. 24 Texas A&M. Then, it’s a home date with rival Tennessee at home.
Two years ago, Carter might not have played a key role in helping Vanderbilt through a similar SEC stretch. But the junior is now excited for what lies ahead in her Commodore career.
“I think my role now is a lot better than what it used to be,” Carter said. “I should’ve stepped up two years ago. I was capable of doing a lot more. Coach White stressed that the team needed me. There were times I didn’t have much confidence in myself. She knew what I was capable of, other coaches knew what I was capable of. She’s pushed me to my potential.”
Zac Ellis is the Wrtier and Digital Media Editor for Vanderbilt Athletics.