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Next Level
Holt learns WNBA game in hoops-crazy Conn.

After growing up in sprawling Atlanta, a relocation to Uncasville, Conn., was a major lifestyle change for Amber Holt.

The area isn't without entertainment - the Sun plays its games at the Mohegan Sun Casino - but she isn't inclined to gamble. That's fine since Holt and other players for the WNBA's Connecticut Sun are considered casino employees, therefore can't partake in casino games.

She enjoys to shop and sleep, but most of the rookie's time is spent on basketball - the reason the Meadowcreek grad found her way to the Northeast. It's the perfect place to break into the WNBA, playing for one of the league's most successful franchises in a basketball-crazy market.

The Connecticut Huskies' dominance in women's basketball has sparked a frenzy for the sport, which has translated over to its WNBA team, which averaged nearly 8,000 fans last season in its 9,700-seat arena.

"They love the women's game up here," Holt said. "We have a lot of people at our games. There are plenty of fans. They just love it up here."

So does Holt, the Sun's promising rookie. The 6-foot wing entered the WNBA with plenty of expectations after leading the nation in scoring (27.4) as a senior at Middle Tennessee State and being selected in the first round, ninth overall, by Connecticut in the draft.

While her rookie season has seen its ups and downs, she has shown steady improvement that excites the Sun's coaches. Connecticut is 16-10, first place in the Eastern Conference, entering the league's Olympic break.

"She has a great upside," said former University of Georgia standout Bernadette Mattox, a Sun assistant who coaches Holt and the team's other forwards. "I attribute a lot to her work ethic, too. She's not one of those players you have to ask to stay after practice. She's already standing there, waiting to practice more."

Most of Holt's adjustments this season involve working on her perimeter game. During her prolific scoring season at Middle Tennessee, she spent plenty of time in the post, mostly out of necessity for a team that needed an inside presence.

Now she's on the perimeter, shooting from the outside and handling the basketball more than ever.

"All rookies have that adjustment period, especially her because she played with her back to the basket a lot the last two years," Mattox said. "To face (the basket) now, it's a lot different. But she's such a trooper, such a hard worker. She takes everything you say and wants to do it the best she can."

Holt, who led Meadowcreek to a state runner-up finish as a junior, said the biggest change to WNBA play was the faster pace of the game. With each passing game, she grows more comfortable with that speed and with her role on the Sun.

"I do put a lot of pressure on myself," said Holt, who will play professionally in Hungary during the WNBA's offseason.

"Coach talks to me every day, to take a deep breath and play the way I normally play."

Unlike college - when she was the Blue Raiders' go-to player - Holt is surrounded by WNBA veterans and all-stars. She has offered a scoring burst at times, averaging 6.2 points and 3.0 rebounds in a starting role, but isn't the primary scoring option.

That role has given her a smoother transition into the league, while she hones her skills that need improvement, like defense and ballhandling.

"(Holt) quickly learned that we've got all-stars here on our basketball team, so for her it's I can work on other things so I can be an all-star, too" Mattox said. "I can work on the other things I've got to be better at to play on this level. I already know how to score. What other things can I do better?"

Not that her rookie season has been perfect. Few first seasons are.

There have been games of struggles, but also games of prosperity like scoring seven points in the final three minutes July 20 to spark a Connecticut win. She also scored a career-high 19 last month against Detroit.

Then there are still moments of awe, like stepping on the basketball court with a big-name player like Diana Taurasi. Another major event of her rookie year is coming Aug. 29, when Connecticut plays its first game at the Atlanta Dream in Philips Arena.

"It took me a long time to realize I was playing in the WNBA," Holt said. "It was so exciting. It's still exciting."