By Steve Williams
Fans came to Thompson-Boling Arena last Tuesday night to get their first look at the Tennessee Lady Vols’ four new freshmen basketball players. They had heard so much about the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class of 2017.
Those in the crowd of 7,612 wearing orange and white, and in many cases Lady Vol blue, didn’t go away disappointed. In fact, they may have gotten a glimpse of the future as well as the present.
After the 121-76 win over Carson-Newman in the exhibition game, UT fans are anxious to see more of this team against a big-time opponent – no offense C-N, which hung tough for a half and trailed by only 10 points (52-42) at halftime.
The Lady Vols outscored the Lady Eagles 37-14 in the third period to blow the game wide open. They finished with a 32-20 advantage in the last 10 minutes for the final margin.
The four freshmen combined for 76 of the 121 points.
Coach Holly Warlick didn’t pump the brakes. She didn’t even tap them. She said she expected that out of the “highly touted” bunch.
“They’re great competitors. Once they settled in, I thought they did some good things. (Seniors) Mercedes (Russell) and Jaime (Nared) have brought them along really well. I thought once they got the jitters out of them, they were outstanding.”
Warlick seriously added, “I thought the third quarter was a great example of what we can do all the time.”
Two of the rookies started – 6-2 guard/forward Rennia Davis from Jacksonville and guard Evina Westbrook from Salem, Ore.– but long before the game was over, I could envision Coach Warlick going with a starting five this season that also includes freshman Anastasia Hayes, a super talented 5-7 guard from Murfreesboro.
This trio, along with veterans Russell and Nared, could end up being the regular starting five.
Although Hayes came off the bench, she quickly showed off her all-around game – shooting, defense and passing the ball – and scored six points before the first period was over.
Kasiyahna Kushkituah, the 6-4 freshman from Atlanta, also came off the bench and made her presence felt right away. My first notes on her – big body, strong and active. In the first half, she made a power move, contacting a C-N player, and was whistled for an offensive foul.
Once in the second half, after Hayes missed two free throws, “Kasi” aggressively rebounded the ball and scored, with a C-N defender who had gotten a little too close hitting the floor about the same time the ball dropped through the net.
Westbrook missed her first free throw as a Lady Vol early in the game, but from that point on, she looked poised, calm and mature – great qualities for a point guard and floor leader.
Davis, who led the team with 27 points and 13 rebounds in her 29 minutes of action, quickly showed she could be a swingman. She’s very quick and can play inside or out.
On one play in the first half, Davis took a defensive rebound and went coast to coast to score despite being bumped pretty good as she laid the ball up and in.
Hayes really displayed her quickness in the third period, stealing the ball, getting inside for layups and once beating the opposition with a left-handed baby hook.
For a few minutes, Hayes and Westbrook were on the court together and Anastasia stole the ball and fed Evina for a layup.
The only lowlight of the game was the Lady Vols’ shooting woes from 3-point range (1 for 13). Nared scored 22 points but was 0 for 6 behind the arc.
Senior 3-point specialist Kortney Dunbar finally ended the long-distance drought with 6:02 remaining. It gave UT fans two reasons to cheer, as her trey also put the Lady Vols over the century mark (101-64).
The play of the freshmen though gave fans plenty to cheer about throughout the game, and plenty to look forward to in games to come.