KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) Tennessee believes it has the pieces in place to end its Final Four drought.
Now it’s a matter of putting those pieces together.
Tennessee opened practice this week seeking to reach the Final Four for the first time since its 2008 national championship season. The Lady Vols went 30-6 last season and lost to Maryland in the NCAA Spokane Regional final, the fourth time in the last five years they’ve fallen one step shy of the Final Four.
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The Lady Vols return three starters from that team. They add North Carolina transfer and former Atlantic Coast Conference rookie of the year Diamond DeShields. Mercedes Russell, a 6-foot-6 center, also returns after redshirting last season to recover from surgery to each of her feet.
”One thing we took away from this past season is to pay attention to detail and… meshing as a team,” junior guard Jordan Reynolds said Thursday. ”If we can do those two things, I think we’ll be fine this year. Those are two things we’ve been struggling with for the past couple of years. If we get those two things done, we can move to places we haven’t been in a while.”
Tennessee underwent plenty of roster turnover in the offseason, leaving the Lady Vols needing to figure out which combinations work best together.
Isabelle Harrison, Ariel Massengale and Cierra Burdick graduated with a combined 227 career starts. The Lady Vols added freshman guard Te’a Cooper and guard/forward Meme Jackson. Tennessee also welcomes back forward Jasmine Jones, who played just seven games last season due to concussion-like symptoms. They join a roster that features returning starters Andraya Carter, Bashaara Graves and Reynolds.
”I think we’ve got the talent,” Tennessee coach Holly Warlick said. ”I think we’re an extremely talented team. Now what we do with that talent is yet to be determined.”
Warlick went through a list of questions the Lady Vols must answer.
”Are they willing to work?” Warlick asked. ”Are they willing to listen? How hard are they going to play? Are they going to play all out? Are they just going to play just to get by? Are they going to get along? I think all those factors play into talent. Obviously I’d much rather coach talent than not (have) talent, but can that talent jell together and be one as a team? That’s up to our coaches, to get them to understand and try to work toward.”
DeShields, who averaged 18 points per game her lone season at North Carolina, has been limited at practice after dealing with nagging injuries during her year off. DeShields also didn’t play during Tennessee’s August tour of Italy due, with Warlick citing shin splints as the reason.
Warlick said Thursday that DeShields is ”still a little sore” but that the Lady Vols expect her to be ready for the Nov. 15 season opener with Central Arkansas.
While DeShields is still getting healthy, Russell says she’s practicing without pain. Rated as the nation’s top prospect in her high school class by multiple services, Russell averaged 6.3 points and 5 rebounds in 2013-14 while struggling with foot problems.
Russell said she’s running the floor much better now that her feet have healed, something she demonstrated while helping the United States win a gold medal at the World University Games and playing alongside her Tennessee teammates in Italy.
”Honestly I can say I feel great physically and mentally,” Russell said. ”I’m just ready for the season to start.”