Passing the baton: Lady Vols carrying on tradition
One big announcement by Mercedes Russell was followed by two distinct emotions.
"I'm relieved and excited," said the 6-foot-5 center from Springfield (Ore.) High School. "I'm relieved to have the process done and I'm excited to be a Lady Vol."
Russell, the top-ranked prospect in the Class of 2013 according to ESPN HoopGurlz, chose Tennessee over Louisville, keeping her decision largely a secret until announcing her intentions at a school assembly Tuesday afternoon. She will sign a letter of intent with UT in the early signing period, which begins Nov. 14.
Russell did inform the Tennessee coaches of her choice on Monday night, calling them in their office at Thompson-Boling Arena.
"They started jumping and screaming," she said. "They were very excited."
Russell's choice amounts to a major endorsement of Lady Vols' first-year coach Holly Warlick and her staff. They stayed the recruiting course with Russell through a major coaching transition last spring, when UT legend Pat Summitt stepped down after 38 seasons.
Russell was the Class 5A player of the year in the state of Oregon last season after leading Springfield to a second consecutive state championship. She averaged 26 points, 15 rebounds, six blocks and five assists per game.
In August, she played for the U.S. team that won a gold medal at the FIBA U17 World Championships. She averaged 8.9 points and 6.9 rebounds per game and shot a tournament-best 64 percent from the floor.
Russell's commitment also was significant for addressing Tennessee's biggest recruiting need, which was adding post players to its ranks.
Russell said that the switch from Summitt to Warlick wasn't much of a factor in her choice. Assistant Dean Lockwood, a holdover from last season, had recruited her the longest. Furthermore, Russell developed a rapport with new assistants Kyra Elzy and Jolette Law.
Springfield coach Bill Wagner counts Warlick's 27 years as a UT assistant prior to her promotion as credibility.
"Holly has been so much a part of Tennessee, the history and tradition is still there,'' he said. "They're not taking those eight (national championship) banners down. I think (Mercedes) would love to play a part in getting them some company."
Wagner thinks that Tennessee separated itself in the recruiting process with its in-home visit in September.
"They knocked it out of the park,'' he said. "They had a complete breakdown of how they would use her and how she would fit into their program.
"You can't compare with the success they've had with players who play a similar position."
Russell joins Jannah Tucker as a UT commitment. Tucker, a 6-0 guard who's ranked No. 8 in the class, re-committed to
Tennessee last Saturday.