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Emily Saunders gained valuable experience in freshman season at Tennessee

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — A lifelong dream for Emily Saunders became reality on November 7. The Wyoming East graduate took the court for the first time as a Tennessee Lady Volunteer as UT defeated Central Arkansas 63-36 in their home opener. Saunders scored two points and grabbed four rebounds in seven minutes.

“When you are playing in front of ten thousand people, you are going to be pretty nervous that first game,” Saunders said. “Honestly, as soon as I stepped on the floor, I felt pretty comfortable, because obviously we had practiced so much together.”

Saunders grew up following Tennessee basketball since she was very young. And sporting an orange jersey was always a goal of hers growing up in southern West Virginia.

“I used to watch some of the games with my papaw (Gary Shrewsbury) back when Candace Parker played.”

As part of a freshman class of four players, Saunders knew many of the newcomers from competing against them in summer hoops.

“I visited there quite a bit before I committed. Myself, Tamari Key and Jordan Horston were pretty familiar with each other because we played a lot on the AAU trail. After that, we kept in touch with each other. So we were pretty close.”

Emily Saunders during the game between Arkansas-Pine Bluff and Tennessee.

Former Tennessee standout Kellie Harper was named the head coach of the Lady Vols in April of 2019, months after Saunders signed her letter of intent.

“It was pretty exciting since she was a Lady Vol herself. I was really looking forward to what she had to offer as a coach, because obviously she was a good player. I was really excited to get to know her.”

Standing at 6-foot-5, Saunders received valuable experience in practice on a daily basis. Only one player on last year’s roster was shorter than six-foot tall.

“This year’s team was the tallest in Tennessee history. I feel like I blended in well with them. It was a good fit.

“I absolutely loved it. It was a big challenge for me at first because I wasn’t used to doing that. Once I got used to it, it was fun. Every practice was a competition.”

Saunders played in 10 games during her freshman season, averaging 3.7 points and 2.2 rebounds per contest. She shot 70.8% from the field.

“Honestly, I didn’t expect to play that much. I just expected my first year to be a learning experience. It really is a big adjustment from high school basketball. I just wanted to take in all the experience I could get. I think I learned really well for my first year.”

Saunders’ best performance came in UT’s win at Mississippi on January 9. She scored eight points and grabbed four rebounds in nine minutes.

“When you are playing against SEC schools, you have to step up. I believe that was my first SEC team I got to go in against. I wanted to go out there and make my mark a little bit.”

The Lady Vols averaged 9,421 fans per game in their eight SEC home contests, and they ranked sixth nationally in overall home attendance in 2019-2020.

“Gameday in Knoxville is like nothing I have ever experienced. The support that the Lady Vols get, the fanbase is huge. We have games at noon and people are coming in around 9:30. And it is packed. Hearing ‘Rocky Top’ never gets old.”

Tennessee finished the regular season with a 21-10 record and a 10-6 mark in SEC play. They were likely ticketed for the NCAA Tournament prior to the pandemic wiping out the postseason on March 12.

“That broke our hearts,” Saunders said. “Being a freshman and getting to play in the NCAA Tournament is really exciting. When it gets taken away from you, it is like a punch in the gut.”

Shortly after the cancellation of postseason play, Saunders returned home to Mullens. While being three months removed from an organized practice, she has focused on workouts to improve her footwork.

“I have been going up to the Mullens little league football field and running bleachers and doing workouts on the bleachers. I haven’t really had access to a gym or weights so I have been using household items to work on that.”

Wyoming East’s Emily Saunders blocks a shot attempted by Bridgeport’s Paige Humble.

Saunders scored 1,243 points, grabbed 892 rebounds and had 559 blocks during her career at Wyoming East. She led the Warriors to three appearances in the Class AA state championship game, winning the title in 2016.

“High school heavily impacted my life. Angie Boninsegna heavily impacted my life and all my teammates. And I really love them.”

With the UT campus slowly opening back up to student-athletes, Saunders is scheduled to return to Knoxville on June 16.

“I can’t wait to get back. One of my friends, she is going to be in quarantine for two weeks because she is from Australia. I won’t get to see her for two weeks but everyone else I will be able to see and that’s awesome.”

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