Tennessee's 'Big Three' carrying 24th-ranked Lady Vols

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) Tennessee is back in the Top 25 thanks largely to three players who have formed one of the more prolific trios in the Lady Volunteers' storied history.

Juniors Diamond DeShields, Mercedes Russell and Jaime Nared have over three-quarters of Tennessee's points in Southeastern Conference competition and rank among the SEC's top 11 scorers. DeShields ranks second (18.3), Russell is tied for sixth (16.9) and Nared (15.7) is 11th.

''We know we're supposed to put the ball in the basket,'' Nared said. ''We know we're supposed to lead by example, lead vocally, and when people aren't doing what they're supposed to do or if we're not doing what we're supposed to do, call each other out and make sure it gets handled.''

DeShields, Russell and Nared have enabled the Lady Vols to stay competitive with a roster that includes only nine available players due to injuries. After being out of the Top 25 for eight weeks, Tennessee (15-8, 6-4 SEC) is ranked 24th heading into Thursday's home game with Missouri (16-8, 6-4).

Northern Illinois and Western Illinois are the only other Division I teams with three players scoring at least 15 points per game. Only once in school history has Tennessee finished a season with three players averaging at least 15 points.

Chamique Holdsclaw (23.5), Tamika Catchings (18.2) and Semeka Randall (15.9) accomplished that feat in 1997-98. Nicknamed the ''Three Meeks,'' the trio led Tennessee to a 39-0 record and third straight national title.

''The year we had the `Three Meeks,' I think it happened naturally,'' said Tennessee coach Holly Warlick, an assistant on the 1997-98 team. ''I think due to our numbers (this season), these kids have to step up. And the other kids have to step up, too. It's just kind of how it worked out.''

When Tennessee's top three players are performing well and getting a little help from their teammates, the Lady Vols can beat just about anyone. Tennessee has won at No. 6 South Carolina and owns home victories over No. 7 Notre Dame and No. 8 Stanford . But when just one of those three is off her game, Tennessee struggles.

DeShields scored 34 points and Russell had 24 points Sunday at Georgia, but Nared had just five points before fouling out. The rest of the team combined to score 15 points and shoot 4 for 20 as Tennessee lost 81-78 in double overtime to end a four-game winning streak.

''We need more people on our team to step up, especially when people are struggling because there are going to be some games where maybe Diamond is struggling or maybe I'm struggling,'' Nared said. ''We need other people to step up, make plays, put the ball in the basket and maybe get stops on defense.''

Nared added that the three of them could help matters by setting up scoring opportunities for teammates.

''We know what their strengths are, and I think we can do a better job of creating for them,'' Nared said.

DeShields, a 6-foot-1 guard, is on pace for the highest single-season scoring average of any Lady Vol since Candace Parker had 21.3 points per game for Tennessee's 2007-08 national championship team. Russell, a 6-6 center, ranks fourth in the SEC in rebounds (9.5) and blocks (1.7) and is second in double-doubles (13). Nared, a 6-2 forward, has an SEC-leading .879 free-throw percentage.

Nared also has come up big in critical situations. She scored 27 points and made the game-winning free throws against South Carolina and hit a tiebreaking jumper with 10.3 seconds left against Notre Dame.

Now they need to help this team gain consistency. They had a team meeting this week to discuss what went wrong at Georgia.

''Our focus wasn't where it needs to be when we came to play Georgia,'' Nared said. ''It's something that can be fixed - and I think we will fix it.''

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Follow Steve Megargee at www.twitter.com/stevemegargee

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