July 21, 2020
UT Martin’s Chelsey Perry hasn’t stopped improving
COVID-19 just changed her process, with an eye on the next level
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By Logan Butts
Special to The Next
Chelsey Perry has been in the gym perfecting her craft. That’s a pretty normal summer activity for a college basketball star, but this has been an atypical summer thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic.
With campuses across the country in various levels of a shutdown, UT Martin’s Skyhawk Arena hasn’t been as readily accessible as usual. Luckily Perry’s mother Linda, a middle school guidance counselor, has access to an isolated gym where her daughter can add a few more moves to her scoring arsenal.
Not that she needs any. Last season, Perry was the third-leading scorer in the country at 23.1 points per game, trailing only Rider’s Stella Johnson, currently on the Chicago Sky, and the SEC Player of the Year, Kentucky’s Rhyne Howard.
“I’ve basically just been perfecting my craft, increasing my foot speed, working on basic fundamentals, and my ball-handling,” Perry said. “I just can’t be the same player.”
Of UT-Martin’s 32 games last season, Perry scored in double-figures in 30. She scored 20-plus 20 times, 30 or more nine times, and a staggering 42 points on 17-27 shooting (with 10 boards for good measure) against Lipscomb.
“I don’t really know what happened,” Perry said. “I was just in the flow and making shots. My coach trusted me, my teammates trusted me to put the ball in the hole, and that’s what I did.”
Her performance last season put Perry on the map. She was a finalist for the inaugural Becky Hammon Mid-Major Player of the Year award. It was the perfect year to begin the award, with no shortage of mid-major stars across the country – Princeton’s Bella Alarie (the fifth pick in the 2020 WNBA draft), South Dakota’s Ciara Duffy, Drake’s dynamic duo of Sara Rhine and Becca Hittner, Rice’s Erica Ogwumike, and the aforementioned Johnson. But all of those players have moved on. The stage is set for Perry to become the de facto mid-major star in Division I.
“For me, my goal is to be more consistent,” Perry said. “I always harp on being very consistent because you want to keep that reputation. If I had a good year last year, I want to keep it going and improve and just hope to lead our team to a championship.”
It’s championship-or-bust for the Skyhawks in 2020-21. The veteran squad returns eight of its top nine players from a team that won the Ohio Valley Conference (OVC) regular-season crown. Also returning is point guard Zaire Hicks, who was injured two games into the 2019-20 season.
UT-Martin were upset by Southeast Missouri State (SEMO) in the OVC title game. They were set to participate in the WNIT before the season was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“There’s high hopes because we have pretty much the same team, so we’re going to be old heads this year,” Perry said. “Our top competition is SEMO, but everybody is competition for us because of who we are.”
Perry and fellow senior and All-OVC First Teamer Maddie Waldrop make up an interchangeable inside-out duo. Both players can score in the paint and from beyond the arc.
“We try to read each other and see where we are at, and we basically connect as one,” Perry said. “She can shoot the three, I can shoot the three, and we can also get in the post and score too.”
Perry is from Middleton, Tennessee, a very small town about two hours from Martin. It’s the perfect distance away from home — far enough that it feels like a new place, but close enough that her support system can make the drive up for games, which is important when you’re perhaps the biggest basketball star to come from Middleton since NBA Hall of Famer Bailey Howell.
“It’s been so exciting for all my family, community, and friends to be able to see me play,” Perry said. “And they’ve always been a big support in me playing basketball. That’s just really humbling that you have your support system, even being two hours away.
“It’s an awesome, humbling feeling that I can represent the whole of Hardeman County. When I come to town now it’s people’s always saying ‘I’m cheering you on. I’m watching on TV.’ It’s so exciting to know that everybody supports me, and I’m just putting on for my city.”
All of Middleton will be watching when the 2020-21 season tips off if it tips off. Everything is still up in the air currently, which makes a senior leader’s job even more difficult during the summer.
“I’m interested to see how it turns out,” Perry said. “We don’t know for sure if we’ll even have a season, so we’re just still working hard preparing for the season at home individually. We’re checking on each other and making sure we’re all good and staying healthy and staying in the gym.
“You get in your own little bubble and you’re quarantined and you have other stuff going on in your life — family, school, workouts — and you don’t take the time to think about your teammates. So, I’ve just been trying to reach out to my teammates to check on them just to see how life is going without basketball.”
No matter what this season has in store, Perry is for sure of one thing — she wants to be playing professionally this time next year.
“That would be my dream, to play at the next level,” Perry said. “I’ve been talking to coach and preparing for that this summer. I’m going to be working towards that or wherever the future leads me, whether it’s playing overseas or in the states in the WNBA.”