Warlick showed that the Lady Vols could continue attracting elite talent in the post-Pat Summitt era Wednesday by receiving a letter of intent from Springfield (Ore.) post player Mercedes Russell, rated by ESPN’s HoopGurlz recruiting service as the nation’s No. 1 player in her class.
The Lady Vols also signed Owings Mills (Md.) New Town guard Jannah Tucker, the No. 8 player in the HoopGurlz rankings. Portland (Ore.) Central Catholic guard Jordan Reynolds, ranked 42nd by HoopGurlz, has verbally committed to Tennessee and is expected to sign with the Lady Vols on Friday.
“It says a lot about the program Pat established and the foundation we’ve built here at Tennessee,” Warlick said. “Pat is not with us as far as coaching, (but) she has built this tradition. It’s up to us to carry that tradition and continue that. I think we have people in place who understand that and understand how to sell it.”
Warlick heads into the 24th-ranked Lady Vols’ home opener Thursday against Rice with a 1-1 record in her first season as head coach after spending 27 years as an assistant on Summitt’s staff. After the Lady Vols were stunned 80-71 by Chattanooga on Friday, they won 71-54 at Georgia Tech on Sunday.
Summitt, who announced last year that she has early-onset dementia, stepped down in April after leading the Lady Vols to eight national titles and 18 Final Fours in 38 seasons.
“What (would have) concerned her was if Holly didn’t get the job,” said Bill Wagner, who coaches Russell at Springfield High. “When Holly got the job and they kept the continuity with the people who’d been recruiting her, she felt really comfortable and really good with that.”
Russell, who is 6-foot-6, averaged 26 points, 15 rebounds, 6 blocks and 5 assists last season while leading Springfield to a second consecutive Class 5A state title. She spent last summer playing on the USA Basketball team that won the gold medal at the FIBA Women’s U17 World Championships.
Russell is “a 6-6 player who can bring the ball up the floor, very athletic, very mobile,” Warlick said. “(She) just can dominate on the defensive end, and she can get up and down the floor. She presses. If you want to see a big kid whose all-around game is a positive, that’s Mercedes Russell.”
Tennessee officials said Russell is the highest-rated recruit to sign with the Lady Vols since Candace Parker in 2004. Russell’s favorite player is Parker, the Los Angeles Sparks forward who starred on Tennessee’s 2007 and 2008 national championship teams.
“She grew up a Tennessee fan and a huge Candace Parker fan, but at the end of the day, that wasn’t the deciding factor,” Wagner said. “Tennessee had more of a family feel to it. She felt good about how they’d produced players who were similar to her, how they’d developed those players.”
Tucker, a 6-foot guard, averaged 30 points per game as a junior in high school. She played alongside current Tennessee freshman forward Bashaara Graves and won a gold medal this year at the FIBA Americas U18 Championships.
“(Tucker) is athletic, can score, is a creator, very knowledgeable of the game,” Warlick said. “Those two (signees) right there are game changers for us. both of them. Obviously we’re thrilled.”