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VOL. 42 | NO. 44 | Friday, November 2, 2018

Lady Vols lean on togetherness to rebuild

By Rhiannon Potkey

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Murfreesboro's Meme Jackson on defense against Oregon State’s Kat Tudor during the Lady Vol’s loss against the Beavers in the NCAA Regionals.

-- Jerry Denham | The Ledger

If they’re heading to the gym for some extra work, they always have a few teammates tagging along. If they need a ride to the store, they just text a teammate instead of using an Uber. If they hit the floor during practice, they can depend on a teammate to extend a helping hand.

The Tennessee women’s basketball team developed a tight chemistry during the offseason that head coach Holly Warlick immediately sensed once practices began.

“It’s a feel. They interact with each other, they help each other, they stay and work on their game together,” Warlick says. “It’s just a camaraderie that I feel that we haven’t had in a while.”

The Lady Vols are hoping the strong bond can guide them through a season of change that includes departed stars, a younger core and new leaders emerging.

Led by sophomores Rennia Davis and Evina Westbrook, UT plays its lone exhibition game on Nov. 5 against Carson-Newman at 6 p.m. CST. The Lady Vols open the regular season on Nov. 11 against Presbyterian at 1 CST p.m. Both games are at Thompson-Boling Arena.

Tennessee, picked to finish third in the SEC preseason poll behind Mississippi State and South Carolina, returns three starters and six total letter winners from a team that went 25-8 overall last season and finished tied for fourth in the SEC (11-5).

The Lady Vols lost to Oregon State in the second round of the NCAA tournament last season, marking the first NCAA tournament home loss in program history.

Seniors Mercedes Russell and Jaime Nared graduated and entered the WNBA, paving the way for new leaders to emerge.

The Lady Vols welcome the nation’s fourth-ranked freshman class, consisting of forward Mimi Collins, wing Rae Burrell and guards Zaay Green and Jazmine Massengill.

Graduate transfer Lou Brown was expected to play a big role for the Lady Vols, but the 6-foot-3 Aussie tore her ACL in practice two weeks ago. UT plans to petition for an extra year of eligibility for Brown while she still contributes this season as a leader and calming presence from the bench.

Anastasia Hayes, a sophomore guard from Murfreesboro, was dismissed from the team last month following a violation of team rules. Hayes announced last weekend she’ll be playing for Middle Tennessee State University.

“We have worked really hard to help the freshmen since they have come in and take them under our wings,” says Davis, a preseason All-SEC selection. “We have showed them around campus and around the city. We have just tried to be very good mentors to them. That makes it easy for us to get close to everyone.”

In the absence of Russell and Nared, Davis will be at the center of most scouting reports.

As a freshman starter, the 6-foot-2 wing averaged 12 points and 7.6 rebounds. Davis tallied nine double-doubles and was an All-SEC Freshman Team selection.

“It’s just about me staying mentally tough. If there is a double coming my way, I just have to know my teammate is open and be able to make that pass over the top of the defense,” Davis explains. “I can’t be forcing shots. I just need to be a good leader for this team.”

Russell’s void in the post will largely be filled “by committee” this season, according to Warlick, with a rotation of post players shouldering the load.

Taking advantage of their speed and depth at multiple spots, the Lady Vols want to play at a higher pace on both ends of the court.

“We want to turn you over, and we want to get easy shots. The best way to do that is pressing and pressuring the ball. That is the style we want to play,” says Warlick, who recently signed a contract extension that extends to 2022. “We want to go up and down on offense obviously, but then we want to turn around and do that as well on the defensive end.”

The Lady Vols are placing an emphasis on taking better care of the ball. During the offseason, Warlick watched and charted all 542 turnovers the team committed last season.

Aggressive turnovers can be expected, but unforced turnovers stemming from bad decisions or lack of concentration won’t be tolerated.

“My role plays a big part in that, being a point guard and having the ball in my hands pretty much most of the time,” Westbrook acknowledges. “So, I have to do a better job myself, protecting the ball but also holding my teammates accountable for taking care of the ball and really valuing the ball each and every possession.”

Westbrook went through some freshman struggles last season while adjusting to the college game. But the Oregon native has been the team’s most improved player entering this season.

“That is just because she has committed to the practice end of the game,” Warlick says. “Last year, she went in and out. This year, she has been an unbelievable leader on that – as you say lead by example – but also pulling kids aside, making sure they understand, putting her arm around her. She’s been tremendous.”

The Lady Vols are taking a more hands-on approach overall this season. Past research involving NBA teams indicates that teams giving the most high-fives, fist-bumps, hugs and pats on the back tend to be more successful.

“We have been really working on that in practice. The coaches really make sure and really nail into our head that great teams really touch each other,” Westbrook says.

“Whether it’s good things or bad things, we encourage each other, discipline each other or hold each other accountable. We are always touching each other.”

Although they know when to be serious, the Lady Vols try to have as much fun as possible.

“We are a goofy team. Any time all of us get together we are laughing, dancing and playing around. A lot of that translates to the court. It really does,” Davis adds. “I feel like our energy is just always there. You can tell this team plays with heart and that is going to be real big for us this year.”

Having learned from others her first three years, Meme Jackson is embracing her role as a senior leader this season. The Murfreesboro native is one of only two Lady Vols with a car and considers it her duty to be a chauffeur.

“That was a big thing my freshman year. I didn’t have transportation and I had to depend on the upperclassmen. Little things like that are a big deal for me and my teammates,” Jackson points out. “I really want to be there for whenever they need me, even if it’s just driving them somewhere.”

The Lady Vols were considering going to a Haunted House before Halloween arrived. They just needed to figure out how Brown could make it through with her injured knee.

There was no chance they were leaving her behind.

“This team really has each other’s backs no matter what,” sophomore center Kasiyahna Kushkituah says. “Everyone is really comfortable with each other and it really feels like a sisterhood.”