INDIANAPOLIS - There was never any question that Nicky Anosike could handle the physical nature of playing college basketball at Tennessee, but like with every freshman Lady Vol, there were questions about the mental challenges of playing for legendary head coach Pat Summitt.
"Physically, it was demanding, but like the other freshman, I got used to it," said Anosike, a former New York Daily News all-city player out of St. Peter's on Staten Island. "The real transition has been getting used to how demanding Pat is. It was definitely different."
It has been different, demanding and so far rewarding. The 6-4 center will start Sunday night for the Lady Vols as they play Michigan State in one national semifinal at the RCA Dome. That game follows the first semifinal, Baylor against LSU.
The challenges of playing for Summitt have been well-documented by former players, newspaper articles, books and even a documentary. Her forcefulness and blunt way of speaking to players is a shock to the system.
But it really was not so foreign to Anosike.
Anosike's mother, Ngozi, is a Nigerian immigrant who raised eight children alone while also earning a nursing degree and working full-time. It was her mother who convinced Anosike that Summitt's discipline and strength would best help her to develop as a player and person.
"I remember Ngozi saying, `When Nicky gets to Tennessee,' and Nicky looked at her like, `Mom?'," said Summitt, recalling her recruiting visit to Anosike's home. "Ngozi just said to Nicky, `This is the place you need to be.' "
Her mother seems to have been right. Anosike came out of St. Peter's with the reputation as a fantastic athlete with a long way to go in terms of basketball skills.
"The afternoon I went to see her play, I had to look at the potential of a Nicky Anosike," Summitt said. "I really admired her drive and intensity and competitiveness. I saw something in her and in her mom that I knew was very, very special."
Anosike had to use every bit of her work ethic this season. She has struggled to improve her shooting, but has impressed almost everyone with her intensity on the court. Summitt put her in the starting lineup 22 games ago hoping to accelerate her learning curve.
"When I put her into the starting lineup, I went to each of my staff members and I said, `Do not let me take her out of the lineup, because I am going to want to,' " said Summitt. "I am going to see her turn it over and I am going to see her miss easy shots and I am going to want to take her out, but I can't."
Summitt's faith has been rewarded. Anosike leads the team in blocked shots (30) and is second in rebounding (5.9 rpg). Anosike, named to the All-SEC freshman team, still shoots just 37 percent from the floor, but she has raised her game in the NCAA Tournament. She scored 14 points, shooting 10-of-12 from the free throw line, as the Lady Vols beat Rutgers in the Philadelphia Regional final.