Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, March 31, 2017

Can gratitude, No. 1 recruiting class save Warlick?

Tennessee women’s basketball coach Holly Warlick will be in Dallas this weekend for the NCAA Women’s Final Four.

Her team won’t be there with her.

Tennessee hasn’t been to the Final Four since 2008, the year of its eighth national championship under legendary coach Pat Summitt, who announced in August of 2011 she had onset dementia, “Alzheimer’s Type.” Summitt retired after the 2011-12 season and died June 28, 2016.

Warlick, a Knoxville native who played point guard at Bearden High School, played for Summitt from 1977-80 and went to the Final Four three times as a player (1977, ’79, ’80). The three-time All-American was an assistant coach/associate head coach under Summitt for all eight national championship runs, and in her 27 years under Summitt, went to the Final Four 16 times.

The glory days of Lady Vols basketball have passed. The program hit another low this spring.

No. 5 seed Tennessee (20-12) lost to No. 4 Louisville 75-64 last in the second round of the NCAA tournament. Since the NCAA tournament started in 1982, Tennessee has failed to get past the second round and into the Sweet 16 only twice – this year and in 2009, when it lost to Ball State in the first round.

This year, Tennessee was one of the nation’s most puzzling teams. They beat four teams in the NCAA Elite Eight – Notre Dame, Stanford, Mississippi State and South Carolina – but lost six games to teams that didn’t make the NCAA tournament, including two losses to Alabama, 11th in the 14-team SEC. The Lady Vols were fifth in SEC at 10-6.

Warlick enters a pivotal sixth season with new Athletic Director John Currie starting on the job April 1. She’s had back-to-back average seasons after going 86-20 in her first three seasons.

In 2015-16, the Lady Vols went 22-14 and racked up the most losses in program history. They were 8-8 in the SEC (tied for seventh) but made a run to the NCAA Elite Eight before losing to Syracuse.

It didn’t happen this year with Warlick relying on the “Big Three” of 6-1 redshirt junior guard Diamond DeShields, 6-6 redshirt junior center Mercedes Russell and 6-2 junior guard Jaime Nared.

DeShields, daughter of 13-year Major League Baseball player Delino DeShields, led the Lady Vols in scoring (17.4) and has been projected as the No. 1 or 2 pick in WNBA mock drafts, according to CBS Sports and DraftSite.com, respectively.

Russell, who was second on the team in scoring (16.1) and led the team in rebounding (9.7), was the No. 7 pick in DraftSite.com’s mock draft.

Russell posted on Instagram last week she would return for her final season at Tennessee instead of entering the WNBA Draft. DeShields had not announced her decision to stay at UT or turn pro as of press time.

Nared, who averaged 15.6 points and 6.9 rebounds, will be back in 2017-18.

Warlick hopes a returning core of players along with the No. 1 recruiting class in the nation will get the Lady Vols back to the Final Four next season.

Tennessee’s only seniors on this year’s roster were 6-3 forward Schaquilla Nunn and 5-11 point guard Jordan Reynolds.

Nunn, who averaged 4.8 points, 4.5 rebounds and 11.6 minutes off the bench, played one season at Tennessee as a graduate transfer from Winthrop. Reynolds started all 31 games and averaged the team-high 35 minutes, 7.0 points, 5.2 rebounds, 4.5 assists, and 1.7 turnovers. Reynolds had 85 career starts.

Along with the four-player recruiting class, UT returns 5-8 sophomore guard Te’a Cooper and 6-3 junior forward Cheridene Green next season. Both missed the 2016-17 season with knee injuries.

Green, a native of London, England, was a two-time National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) All-American at ASA College in Brooklyn, where she averaged 20.5 points, 16.5 rebounds, 3.9 blocks and 2.5 steals as a sophomore.

Cooper was one of the nation’s top point guard recruits in 2015 out of McEachern High School and Powder Springs, Georgia, where she averaged 27.3 points, 3.9 rebounds, 7.3 assists and 3.5 steals as a senior.

As a UT freshman, Cooper was the team’s fourth-leading scorer (8.6 points) and averaged 2.1 assists and 1.2 steals. She played in all 36 games with 15 starts.

All four players in UT’s 2017 class are ranked among the top 11 in the nation by Prospectsnation.com, which along with HoopGurlz has the class ranked No. 1 in the nation.

Tennessee last signed the No. 1 class in 2008 when Summitt landed Glory Johnson (No. 3 in the nation), Amber Gray (No. 4), Shekinna Stricklen (No. 8), Alicia Manning (No. 15), Alyssia Brewer (No. 20), and Briana Bass (No. 33).

One of the 2017 signees, 6-0 guard Evina Westbrook of Salem, Oregon, was announced as the Morgan Wootten Girls Player of the Year recognizing the nation’s top McDonald’s All-American for her accomplishments on and off the court. Westbrook averaged 27.9 points, 7.4 steals, and 7.9 assists as a senior at South Salem High this past season and is the nation’s No. 1 recruit by All-Star Girls Report and No. 2 by HoopGurlz.

While Westbrook plays for the West team in the March 29 McDonald’s All-Star Game in Chicago, UT’s other three 2017 signees will be playing for the East team: 5-7 point guard Anastasia Hayes of Murfreesboro Riverdale High; 6-2 wing Rennia Davis of Jacksonville Ribault High; and 6-4 post player Kasi Kushkituah of Austell, Georgia/St. Francis High.

Hayes is the nation’s No. 6 recruit by Prospectnation.com and No. 9 by HoopGurlz; Davis is No. 9 by Prospectsnation.com and No. 12 by HoopGurlz; and Kushkituah is No. 9 by All-Star Girls Report, No. 11 by Prospectnation.com, and No. 55 by HoopGurlz.

It’s Warlick’s highest-ranked recruiting class as UT’s coach, and could not come at a better time. Her 2013 class was ranked as high as No. 3 and the 2014 class topped at No. 6.

After the season ending loss to Louisville, Warlick was asked what the message would be to her team in the offseason with the nation’s top-ranked recruiting class on board in 2017-18.

“Well, we want these young ladies coming in to grasp ahold of our culture,” Warlick said. “When we had the opportunity to get four new kids in here, it’s going to help us as far as our bench play. You know, these kids know what they’re getting into. I mean, it is Tennessee, and you’ve got to be on your ‘A’ game every day.

“I think for us is we go back, we teach these freshmen what it needs to (know): to play hard, being disciplined, and we’ve got to have some people step up and be just solid on the leadership end of it and be consistent, and give these freshmen an opportunity to grow. Because they’re going to play, and they’re going to play a lot.

“So I welcome it. I love what our practices are going to be. They’re going to be extremely competitive, and we’re going to bring this, we’re going to make sure this Lady Vols program is intact, and we’re going to be as competitive as we can, because we’ve got the kids now to be competitive.”

Dave Link is a freelance journalist living in Knoxville.