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Editorial


Front Page - Friday, January 26, 2018

Lady Vols: Warlick finally finds the right team chemistry




If the Tennessee Lady Vols make a run in the NCAA basketball tournament this year, Webb School girls basketball coach Shelley (Sexton) Collier will be cheering them on the whole way.

It’s not just because Collier played point guard for four years (1983-87) under Lady Vols coach Pat Summitt, or that she served under the legendary coach as a graduate assistant for two years.

One of her idols growing up in Lake City was Lady Vols coach Holly Warlick, a Knoxville native who played point guard at Bearden High and then at Tennessee (1976-80) during Summitt’s early years as the Lady Vols’ coach.

Collier also was coached during her junior and senior seasons at UT by Warlick, who worked with the guards. The two remain friends.

“I remember when she got hired on (by Summitt),” Collier says. “That’s always exciting to have a former player be able to come on staff, and somebody with (Warlick’s) legacy. She was the first jersey retired for the Lady Vols. Everybody knew who she was coming in.”

Collier was glad to see the Lady Vols (16-3, 4-2 SEC) rise to last week’s No. 6 national ranking, which came before their loss road loss to then-No. 5 Notre Dame on Jan. 18 and their home loss to then-No. 3 Mississippi State on Sunday.

Those losses brought Warlick’s critics to social media and message boards, just like last year when she was under heavy criticism for her team’s up-and-down play. The Lady Vols finished 20-12 and lost in the second round of the NCAA tournament. Many blamed team chemistry. Starting forward and leading scorer Diamond DeShields left the team after the season.

“There’s no doubt (about the chemistry),” Collier adds. “What they have right now with these freshmen that have come into the program and the addition of Bridgette (Gordon) to the staff, the whole atmosphere when you walk into a practice, I’ve watched them a couple of times earlier in the year, you could already tell it’s very different than it had been.

“We would run into Holly periodically last year, and she was just miserable. When you don’t have the chemistry and you have to work with these kids every day and put forth and invest in them, it’s just hard. It’s like you’re beating your head against the wall sometime.”

Warlick’s 2017 four-player signing class, rated No. 1 in the nation, has played up to its billing, and senior guard Jaime Nared of Westview High/Portland, Oregon and senior center Mercedes Russell of Springfield (Oregon) High are providing leadership, scoring, and rebounding.

Nared leads the team in scoring (17.1) and minutes per game (33.5) and is the second-leading rebounder (8.2). The 6-foot-6 Russell is second in scoring (16.9) and tops in rebounding (8.4) and blocks (1.7).

“Jaime Nared is just a great person,” Collier points out. “She’s a solid individual. Her leadership and her standing out by example and vocally, she’s more confident, and I think Mercedes is, too, and these freshmen want to win. They’re not selfish. They’re not worried about who gets the credit. They just want to win.”

Rennia Davis, a 6-2 freshman forward from Ribault High/Jacksonville, Florida, is the team’s third-leading scorer (10.9) and rebounder (7.7).

Freshman point guard Evina Westbrook of South Salem (Oregon) High is fourth in scoring (10.1) and leads the team in assists (4.9).

Junior guard/forward MeMe Jackson of Murfreesboro Blackman is the fifth starter, averaging 7.8 points, 4.5 rebounds, and 2.4 assists.

Warlick has started the same starting five all 19 games: Nared, Russell, Davis, Westbrook and Jackson.

Freshman point guard Anastasia Hayes of Murfreesboro Riverdale High is averaging 9.7 points, 2.8 rebounds, and 3.8 assists per game while playing starter’s minutes (24.3).

Kasiyahna Kushkituah, a 6-4 freshman center from St. Francis High/Atlanta, has played in six games and appears headed to a redshirt season.

“It’s really about how you continue to grind and grow, and there’s teams all over the country that are playing with freshmen and winning,” Collier said. “They’ve got good chemistry with their staff and their team.”

Gordon, who played for the Lady Vols (1985-89), has proven a key addition to the staff. She was hired to replace Jolette Law, who left for a job on the South Carolina staff. Gordon previously was an assistant at Wichita State under head coach Jody Adams, who wasn’t retained after the 2016-17 season. Adams also played at Tennessee (1990-94).

“I always text Holly and Bridgette, just knowing how happy they are, how much different it is this year than last year when I’d run into Holly and we would talk,” Collier said. “It’s just fun to be able to see them have success, and Holly and Bridgette and all that staff, I think they’ve got good chemistry. It’s fun to see.”

Warlick’s longstanding role with Lady Vols basketball dates back to 1976, the year she graduated from Bearden. She signed a track scholarship with Tennessee and was a walk-on with the women’s basketball team.

Summitt was in her third year as Tennessee’s coach, and she found a rising star in her walk-on.

As a freshman in 1976-77, Warlick helped the Lady Vols to a 20-3 record and their first bid to the NCAA Women’s Final Four.

She became a three-time All-American during her career as a Lady Vol and was chosen to the 1980 U.S. Olympic team, which didn’t compete in the Moscow Olympics.

Warlick was the first player in Tennessee athletics, man or woman, to have a jersey retired. Collier, Shelly Sexton at the time, was at the old Stokely Athletic Center the night Warlick’s jersey was retired at the end of the 1979-80 season.

“I just remember going to the game at Stokely, turning out the lights and her coming to halfcourt and Pat coming out,” Collier recalled. “I don’t remember very many details, but I remember watching Holly play and how hard she hustled, especially on the defensive side of the floor. She just always seemed like she was a fun-loving person, and she still is that way.”

After her playing career, Warlick spent two years as an assistant at Virginia Tech and two years as an assistant Nebraska before being hired by Summitt in 1985.

Mickie DeMoss joined Summitt’s staff the same year as Warlick.

Collier noted Warlick’s coaching style differed from the demanding Summitt’s.

“I think she was more of a buffer (between Summitt and players),” Collier said. “She understood what it was like to play for Pat and how hard at times it can be. She mainly was in charge of the guards, and Mickie was in charge of the post game. I remember Holly was just like I said, fun-loving and serious, yet she had more of a laid-back side. Pat was definitely large and in charge. I think they had good chemistry.”

Warlick spent 27 seasons as Summitt’s assistant, the last seven as associate head coach.

When the announcement was made in summer of 2011 that Summitt had early onset dementia, “Alzheimer’s Type,” Warlick began handling much of the media obligations for Summitt. Warlick’s role increased during the 2011-12 season while she oversaw daily operations of the basketball program.

The Lady Vols went 27-9, won the SEC Tournament, and reached the NCAA Regional Final. On April 18, 2012, Summitt assumed the role of head coach emeritus, and Warlick took over as head coach. Summitt died June 28, 2016.

“I don’t know anybody else that could have done it or would have wanted to have done that,” Collier said of taking over for Summitt. “You talk about all the greats, you’re following a legend. It didn’t matter what Holly was going to do.

“She was going to get criticized because she can’t be Pat Summitt. Nobody can. … Holly was certainly in line. She was the only one who was in the position to take the job, and she’s handled it.

“I know it’s been frustrating and hard at times, and having to also handle Pat’s death at the same time, my hat’s off to her.”

This week was “We Back Pat” week for SEC teams, and it was kicked off by the Lady Vols game against Mississippi State last Sunday. Proceeds from “We Back Pat” week benefit the Pat Summitt Foundation in its cause to battle Alzheimer’s.

Warlick emphasized the importance of “We Back Pat” Week, and was asked what Summitt would think of this year’s team.

“She’d love this team,” Warlick said. “She’d love how hard they play, just the effort they give. They would drive her crazy with the turnovers, but other than that, she would really love this team.”

Summitt surely is pulling for the Lady Vols, along with Collier.

Dave Link is a freelance journalist living in Knoxville.