Commentary

Clark raising bar for Blue Raiders

Originally Published: February 11, 2009
By Graham Hays | ESPN.com

A message to all of those coaches who thought that when Amber Holt followed Chrissy Givens into the sweet goodnight of graduation it meant they would be spared seeing their game plans pulverized and sleep patterns pummeled by a marauding Blue Raider from Middle Tennessee.

Rick Insell feels your pain. Really, he does.

Insell has been there before, at least when it comes to Alysha Clark, who scored 50 points Wednesday to take over the top spot as the nation's leading scorer and is the latest in a line of statistical freaks suiting up for the Blue Raiders.

Five years ago, Insell was still the girls' basketball coach at Shelbyville High School in Tennessee and the owner of a prep résumé that stacked up against anyone who ever watched over a practice. A National High School Hall of Fame inductee, his teams won 10 Class AAA state championships and produced six Miss Basketball award winners.

Led by current University of Tennessee forward Alex Fuller, Shelbyville's 2003-04 team added to both of those totals. But that didn't prevent Clark from single-handedly dealing what was then the nation's top-ranked high school team a defeat when it traveled to play rival Mt. Juliet -- accompanied by a camera crew from NBC's "Dateline," no less, as it prepared a profile on the famous coach.

"We went over and played Mt. Juliet and she alone whipped us," Insell lamented.

And coaches from the Sun Belt and beyond know exactly what kind of suggestions Insell was likely making when Clark and her teammates caught part of his postgame message.

"We were in the locker room changing, and it's connected to the visitor's locker room and we could just hear him in there just going at them," Clark recalled. "We were just kind of laughing about it; we were like, 'They're not going to be out of there for a while.' They weren't even out of there, I think, until halftime of the guys' game."

Both coach and player moved on to the college ranks after the following season, Clark to Belmont University in Nashville and Insell to Middle Tennessee in Murfreesboro. Neither had much difficulty adjusting to a new environment.

Clark was named Atlantic Sun player of the year in each of her first two seasons and, in 2006-07, led Belmont to the NCAA tournament for the first time in program history. Insell inherited a more established situation in Murfreesboro, with a program coming off back-to-back 24-win seasons. But he made a first impression, reaching the NCAA tournament his first two seasons and winning a program-record 30 games his second time out.

Using variations on the same 2-2-1 press and up-tempo attacking style that won championships in high school -- and which friends cautioned him wouldn't work in college -- Insell gave his players the opportunity to shine. When Givens scored 667 points in the coach's first season, it stood as the second-best single-season performance in program history. It now ranks merely fourth, passed by both Givens' 768-point effort the subsequent season and Amber Holt's program-record 930 points this past season.

When Holt moved on after this past season, becoming the ninth pick in the WNBA draft, it seemed like the Blue Raiders might finally lose a little steam -- no other returning player had averaged more than 9.4 points per game. But as it turned out, the answer was waiting in the wings, eager to see the floor after having spent a season squaring off against Holt in practice and watching games from the bench in street clothes.

Looking for a change of scenery after her sophomore season at Belmont, Clark had decided to transfer to Middle Tennessee, in large part because of the coach who had rattled the walls of the neighboring locker room years before. At Belmont, she had averaged a double-double in each of her first two seasons, but at 5 feet, 10 inches tall, she was ready to try her hand at life outside the lane, if not outside of the state she called home.

[+] EnlargeAlysha Clark
AP Photo/Wade PayneAlysha Clark is on the midseason list of 20 candidates for the Wooden Award and also was on the early-season watch list for the Naismith national player of the year award.

"I'm coming to practice the same days everybody else is, and they're working just as hard as I am," Clark said of her decision-making process. "So that's really what I wanted, was somebody who was going to very quickly challenge me and help me get out of my comfort zone. Because I've played in the post ever since I started playing, and if I want to make it to the next level, I know I'm going to have to be able to play the guard position."

And as much as her performance against his top-ranked Shelbyville team still lingers crystal clear in both the coach's and player's memories, albeit in different ways, Clark was on Insell's radar long before that. When his friend, Mt. Juliet coach Chris Fryer, told him during a summer camp early in Clark's high school career that he had a new player with a chance to be special, Insell made it a point to take a look. And what impressed him was less the sight of a prodigy than evidence of a willing work in progress.

"I went out and watched her and I thought, 'Well, she is pretty athletic, but she's not a basketball player,'" Insell said. "But as I saw the kid through the week, I mean every time you looked up, she was out there working on her skills. When everybody else was going to lunch or going to dinner or whatever, she was out on the track working on her footwork, she was on the other basketball courts, working on her skills, working on her free throw shooting.

"And I knew right then, she had a great work ethic. And the next year, she was a little bit better player. And then the following year, she ended up being Miss Basketball."

Even now, averaging 25.6 points and 9.6 rebounds per game -- including 31 and 16 at Oklahoma, 28 and eight at Tennessee and 37 and 12 in a win at LSU -- Clark is more comfortable with the mentality of undersized grinder than superstar diva. She didn't know she had reached 40 points against Louisiana Monroe in a Jan. 31 game until teammate Jackie Pickel teased her about the performance on the bench. In fact, until sports information director Travis Woods let it slip to her recently that she was second in the nation in scoring (Clark's 50 points Wednesday moved her just ahead of Dawn Evans, who is averaging 25.0 points per game for James Madison, which was idle Wednesday), Clark didn't know she was in that kind of company, either.

"I've never been around a kid that -- she could care less about her points, about her rebounds," Insell said. "She never looks at the stat sheet. The only thing she's really concerned about and happy about is the fact that we won the ball game and she can get with her friends afterward, which are her teammates, and she can socialize.

"In my 34 or 35 years of coaching, I never have experienced or been around anybody like that."

As a result, a team with one of the biggest gaps between its leading scorer and her next closest teammate might also be one of the country's more balanced teams.

Clark, who averages nearly five offensive rebounds and better than eight free throw attempts per game, gets her points within the flow of Insell's system. And with five other players averaging between 7.4 and 11.1 points and 2.3 and 3.0 assists per game (not to mention a collective 8.3 3-pointers per game), the Blue Raiders won't be an easy team to prepare for in the NCAA tournament this season or next season, when the entire roster returns.

And anyway, as Insell learned the hard way long ago, Clark doesn't pay much attention to numbers, whether they're her points or your ranking.

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.