KNOXVILLE — The Tennessee defense is still a work in progress, but the Lady Vols have something stirring offensively with their No. 1 freshman class.
The four combined for 31 of the Lady Vols’ 52 first-half points and didn’t slack off in the second half as No. 14 Tennessee ran away with a 121-76 exhibition victory over Carson-Newman Tuesday night inside Thompson-Boling Arena.
“They are very talented young women and I think they came in here as highly-touted freshmen,” UT head coach Holly Warlick said. “Some think they have a lot of pressure, but they don’t see it as pressure.
“They are great competitors. Once they settled in, I thought they did some good things. Mercedes (Russell) and Jaime (Nared) have brought them along really well. Once they got the jitters out, I thought they were outstanding.”
Tennessee hosts ETSU for the regular-season opener at 2 p.m. Sunday.
The nerves were apparent early, as anticipated, in the freshmen’s first collegiate minutes, but it faded away as the points fell through. Not only did the four score 31 points in the first half, they bucketed 45 more in the last 20 minutes — combining for 76 of the 121 points scored and matching Carson-Newman’s team total.
Two of the four started — Rennia Davis and Evina Westbrook — along with junior Meme Jackson, and seniors Jaime Nared and Mercedes Russell.
Davis scored a game-high 27 points in 29 minutes, while collecting 13 rebounds to get her Lady Vol career off to a hot start. The 6-foot-2 forward brushed off the performance, saying her jump shot wasn’t falling early, so she had to follow her misses, but her head coach was impressed.
“If I scored 27 points, I’d think I was awesome,” said Warlick, grinning. “Rennia is tough on herself and that’s OK. She’s constantly asking questions and wanting to learn. Really proud of her. I thought she attacked the basket well, took smart shots and rebounded well for her first game at the collegiate level. I just thought she was outstanding — 13 rebounds, three steals.”
Warlick was as impressed with her other three freshmen. After committing two fouls within the first five minutes, Westbrook settled in, scoring 17 points while tossing six assists and grabbing six rebounds.
Anastasia Hayes, who subbed in for Meme Jackson three minutes in, showed flashes of her quickness, especially in the third quarter, where the Riverdale High School standout scored 13 of her 19 points. The 5-foot-7 guard also had three steals.
Kasiyahna Kushkituah checked in towards the end of the first quarter and showed her physical presence. The 6-foot-4 center posted a double-double, scoring 13 points and grabbing 10 boards.
“Just how they played, they competed,” said Nared, who scored 22 points, said of the freshmen. “Obviously, it’s different from high school to college, but just having this exhibition game was good to show what they can do. … They just played hard. It’ll come, obviously it’s an exhibition game and games get tougher, but just how they played.
“When games get tougher, they know how college basketball is now, a little glimpse of it. They know what they can do now and just to build off of it.”
STANDOUT: While all four freshmen stood out, there was one that really caught the eye of C-N head coach Mike Mincey: Hayes. Multiple times the shifty guard penetrated to the basket, laying in shots that contributed to her 19-point performance.
“All of the freshmen looked really good to me, but picking one out in particular, I thought Hayes played phenomenal,” he said. “She took it to the rim. She really surprised me — I knew she was a great player, but she’s going to be phenomenal player as fast as she is, quick as she is and takes it to the rim.”
DEFENSE: The Lady Vols’ defense was average at best in the first half, allowing 42 points, forcing just nine turnovers. It look much better in the second half, especially in the third quarter, where C-N had 11 turnovers, 10 of which the Lady Vols forced via a steal. UT allowed just 14 points compared to the 37 they bucketed.
“We are very capable of turning people over and we did that in the third and fourth quarter,” Warlick said. “We can really be a really good defensive team. We are going to get better. I think the third quarter is a great example of what we can do all the time.”
SIDELINE UPDATE: Warlick announced Monday that redshirt junior Cheridene Green (upper body) and sophomore Kamera Harris (lower body) were day-to-day. Their status hasn’t changed.
“I hope they are back,” she said. “I would anticipate they are back, but we’ll take it again a little bit day-by-day and see how it goes.”