Return of DeShields, Russell has Lady Vols poised to rebound
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) Tennessee hasn't reached the Final Four since its 2008 national title, so it wasn't surprising the Lady Vols were not one of the teams in Sunday's all-Southeastern Conference NCAA championship game
But with Diamond DeShields and Mercedes Russell returning to school rather than entering the WNBA draft, Tennessee is expected to have three players who averaged at least 15 points this year. The Lady Vols also are welcoming a freshman class rated as the nation's best by multiple recruiting services.
That gives Tennessee arguably its most talent-laden roster since Holly Warlick took over the program in 2012.
''Everything we do, we want to win,'' Warlick said Thursday. ''Whether it's SEC, NCAA, that's why you come here. So our goal is to win championships and to compete at the highest level.''
After going 86-20 in the first three seasons of Warlick's tenure, the Lady Vols are 42-26 the last two years.
Tennessee finished fifth in the SEC this season despite beating eventual NCAA champion South Carolina and runner-up Mississippi State . Tennessee went 20-12 and lost to Louisville in the second round of the NCAA Tournament , just the second time the Lady Vols haven't advanced at least as far as the reginal semifinals since the NCAA started running the event in 1982.
That makes the upcoming season an important one for Warlick, who is now working for a new athletic director who didn't hire her. John Currie officially took over as Tennessee's athletic director Saturday.
''I'm not going into this year thinking, `You know what, you'd better win because you're going to lose your job,' '' said Warlick, who has reached three regional finals in her five seasons. ''I'm going into this season (thinking), `How can I get this group better? How can I get this team more focused? How can we all get on the same page? We've got an AD here that has just been awesome. ... He's a high-energy guy.
''He's coming in here and wanting our programs to be successful. I don't think he's coming in here with the thought of, `You know what? I'm going to run everybody out and get who I want in here.' ''
As fourth-year juniors, both DeShields and Russell were eligible for the draft .
DeShields, a 6-foot-1 guard, averaged 17.4 points, 6.4 rebounds and 3.8 assists this season. Russell, a 6-6 center, had 16.1 points and 9.7 rebounds per game. DeShields, Russell and Jaime Nared became the first Tennessee trio to each average at least 15 points in the same season since Chamique Holdsclaw, Tamika Catchings and Semeka Randall did it for the Lady Vols' 1998 national championship team.
''I thought Mercedes was leaning a little bit toward staying and maybe possibly Diamond was weighing her options more than Mercedes,'' Warlick said. ''But really honestly I thought both of them would return. I think they want to get better and I think they want to work with our four new freshmen coming in.''
Tennessee's freshman class features four McDonald's All-Americans in guards Anastasia Hayes and Evina Westbrook, post player Kasi Kushkituah and wing Rennia Davis. The Lady Vols also have guard Te'a Cooper and forward Cheridene Green returning from knee injuries that prevented them from playing this season.
Those additions fortify a roster that had only nine available players this season. Tennessee's lack of depth prevented the Lady Vols from playing at a faster tempo as often as they would have liked this season, but that shouldn't be an issue anymore.
''We're going to make the pace like we usually have it, uptempo,'' Warlick said. ''We're going to press more, just some things this team is very capable of. And when you have more bodies, you can do what you're really good at.''