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VOL. 42 | NO. 10 | Friday, March 09, 2018

Russell happy she came back, even if Lady Vols fall short

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Senior Merceded Russell could have entered the WNBA draft last year but decided to return as a fifth-year senior.

-- Jerry Denham | The Ledger

Mercedes Russell had a tough decision to make last March when the Tennessee Lady Vols ended a disappointing season in the second round of the NCAA women’s tournament.

Should the 6-foot-6 center enter the 2017 WNBA Draft or return as a fifth-year senior at Tennessee?

Projected as a top-10 pick in the draft, Russell announced later in March she would be back for another run with the Lady Vols.

It was a decision she doesn’t regret.

“I think it was more for the team than anything,” says Russell. “Obviously, last year was something that we want to forget, so I didn’t want to leave on a note like that, and obviously, it was for the better because this year’s team is way different and I’m thankful for that.

“It’s been an awesome, really fun senior year. I mean, college is something you won’t get back, so spending another year is awesome.”

The Oregon native’s final season in Knoxville will be even more awesome if the Lady Vols make a deep run in the NCAAs after coming up short again in the SEC tournament.

No. 12-ranked Tennessee (24-7) lost to No. 8 South Carolina 73-62 in the quarterfinals last Friday and will find out its spot in the NCAAs when pairings are announced Monday (March 12). First- and second-round games are March 16-19.

The Lady Vols have fallen short of goals set by the three seniors – Russell, starting guard/forward Jaime Nared and reserve forward Kortney Dunbar – when they signed with Tennessee.

They lost 12 games last season and two years ago lost 14 games.

“Obviously, the expectation is to win championships, and so I think kind of what (Russell) is saying, just maybe not going out on the note that she wanted,” Dunbar said Feb. 24 when the three seniors met with media.

“Even with my role, like I know with maybe limited minutes, it’s still the same expectation for everybody. We’re 10 deep this year, and I know that with us writing on the board, ‘We want an SEC tourney title. … We want a national championship,’ obviously, the expectations haven’t been reached, and I think that’s why (Russell) said she wanted to stay and go out on a high note.

“Coach (Holly Warlick) believes in us. We believe in each other, and like Jaime talked so highly of the freshmen, we know that they can get us there. They’re experienced enough now to know, they’ve had a good taste of big games.”

Dunbar, averaging 1.8 points and 5.9 minutes per game, knew her role would decrease with the arrival of the four-player 2017 freshman class, rated No. 1 in the nation. The freshmen haven’t disappointed.

Two of the newcomers, 6-0 point guard Evina Westbrook and 6-2 guard/forward Rennia Davis, are on the SEC All-Freshman team chosen by the league’s coaches, and 5-7 freshman point guard Anastasia Hayes is the coaches’ Sixth Woman of the Year.

Davis, who played at Ribault High School in Jacksonville, Florida, was Tennessee’s third-leading scorer (12.1) and rebounder (7.6) going into the SEC tournament and was third in steals (33) and fifth in assists (51) while shooting 48.9 percent from the field. Her eight double-doubles (points and rebounds) and rebound average ranked sixth all time for a Lady Vol freshman.

Westbrook, of Salem (Oregon) High School, averaged 8.6 points, 4.4 assists, and 2.7 rebounds in the regular season. Her 4.4 assist average was second-most ever for a Lady Vols freshman, and she was second on the team in 3-pointers (27) and led all rotation players in 3-point shooting percentage (.355).

Hayes, who played at Murfreesboro Riverdale, is fourth on the team in scoring (9.1) while averaging 24.5 minutes, 3.4 assists, 2.7 rebounds, and 1.2 steals. Primarily the backup point guard to Westbrook, Hayes scored in double figures 16 times and led UT in assists nine times in the regular season.

Tennessee’s fourth freshman from the 2017 class, 6-4 center Kasiyahna Kushkituah of St. Francis High in Atlanta, has had minimal impact with averages of 1.5 points and 1.7 rebounds in 13 regular-season games.

UT’s top-rated freshman class has taken much of senior Kortney Dunbar’s court time.

-- Jerry Denham | The Ledger

“The freshmen have been great this year,” Nared points out. “They’ve obviously been expected to play a lot of minutes from the start of the season, so it’s something that we weren’t expected to do as much as freshmen as they have. I think they’ve just handled it well. They’ve played well.

“They’ve grown as people and they’re just doing a really good job. They all have so much potential, and you’ve seen it this year. They have so much potential to do really great things here, and the class next year is a really good class, too, so I’m excited to watch over the coming years just how they grow as players. I know they’re going to do really good things here.”

Tennessee’s three seniors were thinking the same when they arrived in Knoxville. They traveled from afar to Rocky Top – especially Russell and Nared, who were teammates for Team Concept AAU in Oregon and for the 2012 USA U-17 World Championship Team Trials team.

Russell had a breakout year in 2016-17, averaging 16.1 points and 9.7 rebounds and earning All-SEC second team and honorable mention All-American honors.

Nared joined Russell on the coaches’ All-SEC second team last season when she averaged 15.6 points and 6.9 rebounds and shot 87.6 percent from the free-throw line.

Both were on the 2017-18 media’s preseason All-SEC team, and last week were chosen to the coaches’ All-SEC eight-player first team.

They said uprooting from Oregon and moving to Knoxville required some adjustments.

“It was a difficult transition at times, but for the most part, I think we handled it pretty well,” Nared explains. “We’re both pretty good at being by ourselves, but I think just being far away sometimes you miss family, of course, being in their presence and having people around when times get difficult, but I think just having the family atmosphere here with teammates and coaches helped us.”

Russell said the vibes she got as a recruit brought her to Tennessee.

Jaime Nared is seen as the Lady Vols’ vocal leader, although she says it might have been better if a recent incident had been handled more quietly.

-- Jerry Denham | The Ledger

“I think just the family atmosphere at Tennessee really helped the transition,” Russell adds. “They were very welcoming. It obviously helped us being so far away from home, which was tough in the beginning, just being away from family, but I think it was easier just having people there to experience it with you and kind of go through the same things that you’re going through, so just having teammates and coaches understand what you’re going through really helped.”

Nared is the team’s vocal leader, while Russell and Dunbar serve as senior leaders in more subtle ways.

During the Feb. 22 win at Florida, Nared picked up her second foul early in the game and headed to the bench. Dunbar was on the bench and overheard what Nared told Warlick before she took a seat.

“Holly said on postgame you said if they don’t play hard, get them out,” Dunbar says, referring to Nared. “I think just being Jaime’s teammate and being alongside her for four years, that’s just how Jaime is. That’s what kind of leader Jaime is, and Jaime is going to say how she feels.

“I’d say if the freshmen were coming in, it might have been a little tough at first maybe in practice. That’s why we’ve had plenty of team meetings to know how each senior approaches someone.

“(Russell) might be a little passive. I’m kind of just really open. Jaime’s right to the point. Obviously, you can see that. I think just going off her two fouls, when you have a top leader like that coming out of the game, Holly was stressing the whole time in timeouts, ‘We need pressure, we need energy.’

So, obviously, we don’t want someone coming in that’s just going to keep the game monotone, so definitely that’s something very common coming from Jaime.”

Nared isn’t shy about her leadership traits.

“Who cares?” she asks. “At this point, if we win and you’re taking things personal, then I don’t think you really want to win because at the end of the day. We all want to win as a team.

“Coaches, I know they want to win, so if you’re not playing hard, and you’re not doing your part and people tell you that, if you take it personally, then you’re not wanting to win.”

While Dunbar’s role in the NCAAs will be leadership primarily from the bench, Russell and Nared will be key players on the court after their third season without an SEC title.

The Lady Vols haven’t won a league championship since the 2014-15 season, when Russell was taking a sophomore redshirt year recovering from surgeries on both feet and Nared and Dunbar were true freshmen. They won the SEC regular-season title with a 15-1 record and finished 30-6 after a 58-48 loss to Maryland in the Elite Eight.

Last year’s season ended when the No. 5 seed Lady Vols – after losing in the SEC second round – lost to No. 4 Louisville in the NCAA second round.

Two years ago, Tennessee reached the SEC semifinals before making a run to the NCAA Elite Eight as a No. 7 seed.

Russell acknowledges the Lady Vols need a sense of urgency in this year’s tournament.

“Obviously, it takes your best game,” she says. “In that moment, it’s either win or go home, and everyone comes to play their best, no matter what seed they are, no matter where you are, everyone comes to play their best game because no one wants to go home and end their season.”

Dave Link is a freelance journalist living in Knoxville.