Lady Vol coaches react to signing class

Jannah Tucker (USA Basketball photo)

The Lady Vols filled three positions of need with their 2013 recruiting class – post, wing, point guard. Go inside with InsideTennessee to read what the coaches have to say about them.

In late October, Tennessee got word that its lone commit for the class of 2013 had withdrawn her verbal. It was a gut-wrenching day for the Lady Vols staff, but by that end of that week Mercedes Russell had committed to the Lady Vols, followed by Jordan Reynolds and in between Jannah Tucker was about to re-commit.

It was a whirlwind week in October for the staff, but the coaches were all smiles this November week when three LOIs rolled across the fax machine on Wednesday. First came the paperwork of Tucker, who signed early in the morning and faxed her letter of intent before leaving for school. That was followed by the documents of Russell. Next, Reynolds' LOI made it to Knoxville.

By Friday, all of the paperwork was certified by Tennessee's compliance department, and the trio – the first signing class for first-year head coach Holly Warlick – were officially Lady Vols.

"We had three big, big signees, and I'm excited about all of them," Warlick said. "They all bring so much to our program. We signed a post player, point guard and a 2-3 (perimeter) player.

"All three are athletic. All three can play the game, know the game and we're all thrilled about it."

Warlick was at Pat Summitt's side for 27 years and took over last April after the iconic coach stepped aside because of a diagnosis a year earlier of early onset dementia. Into that seismic shift that shook women's basketball, Warlick and her staff stepped into uncharted territory at Tennessee.

Could the Lady Vols still recruit with Summitt no longer on the sidelines? Summitt is still around the program and a regular attendee at practice. She can assist with on-campus recruiting. But her title is head coach emeritus. Warlick is now in charge of the program.

Warlick and her staff – she retained Dean Lockwood, which turned out to be critical, and she added Kyra Elzy and Jolette Law – got a resounding yes to that question.

"Thrilled, ecstatic, absolutely," Lockwood said. "It's huge. When a handoff of this nature has occurred … if I am recruiting at another school and if I've got one negative cell in my body towards negative recruiting at all, that is a natural thing that you're going to say.

"You're going to say, ‘Oh, it's not Tennessee. And Holly is not Pat. It's not going to be the same. They're not going to be able to get the same players.'

"So for us to have this type of class? And for Holly's first class to be able to land a number one kid of Mercedes' stature? And certainly to get Jannah and Jordan alongside her? Oh, it's huge." Tennessee inked No. 1 player Russell, a 6-6 post from Springfield, Oregon; top 10 player Tucker, a 6-0 wing from Randallstown, Md.; and top 40 player Reynolds, a 5-11 guard from Portland, Ore. Count Russell's high school coach, Bill Wagner, who has seen her play a lot, among those who considers Reynolds to be well under-ranked.

Lockwood seemed to confirm as much when he said all three players moved onto the Lady Vols' primary target list after they were observed for the first time.

"We had three players that were on our wish lists ever since we first saw them," Lockwood said. "I remember seeing Jannah Tucker play going into her 10th grade year and I said, ‘This kid has got a chance to be special.'

"And then every ensuing summer we would say, ‘This is a kid we have got to get here. She fills a big need. She is a big wing and athletic.

"Mercedes, Mickie (DeMoss) saw her first actually because she got a tip from Niya Butts. I remember seeing her and saying, ‘That's a no-brainer.'

"And Jordan was on the same team (as Russell in the summer), and I just came back and said, ‘Jordan Reynolds is a difference maker.' "

Lockwood ended up becoming the lead assistant recruiter for all three players – he locked into Tucker early and championed her to the staff – and the trio all ended up in orange. He shook off any credit and said it was a team effort to get the LOIs ultimately signed this week. Elzy and Law have reputations as excellent recruiters and all three signees mentioned their relationship with the new assistants as key to their decision to come to Tennessee.

An assist also goes to Butts, a former Lady Vol who is the head coach at Arizona. She saw Russell before the post player had really burst onto the national scene, and Butts called her alma mater.

"That would have been Mercedes' sophomore year," Lockwood said. "She called and said something to the effect of this is a kid we can't get but you guys should know about her."

Butts also was seeking to send Russell eastward to get her out of the Pac-12, so Arizona would not have to play against her on a regular basis. Still, it was a selfless phone call and shows the impact of the long orange line of Summitt's coaching tree.

Lockwood was aware of the accolades for Tennessee's signing class – All State Girls Report puts it as No. 2 in the country with North Carolina on top – but he takes a wait-and-see approach and wants to see what the players do at the next level.

"I hope it holds true," said Lockwood, who said he couldn't remember the rankings in any year. "Once that's over and done with it's what they do obviously once they get here.

"But we are very thrilled with the people. They are three winners in every way. They are terrific players. They are people of character. They have got a passion for the game. There is a work ethic there. They all have the experience of winning."

All three also can be capable defenders in college, which is similar to the class Tennessee signed in 2012.

"That is what we're hoping," Lockwood said. "Their physical capabilities are there and we think that group can make the connection between playing great defense and winning championships."

The elation of this week was preceded by utter uncertainty the week of Oct. 22 when Tucker's father contacted Tennessee with news of her de-commit. He later said he was told "false and misleading" information from outsiders and acted too quickly. Within days, Tucker was back in the fold.

Russell and Reynolds had just made their official visit the previous weekend and were set to decide the same week. A de-commit felt somewhat like a torpedo to the hull of the Lady Vol ship, but the staff kept the vessel afloat.

"I don't play poker but it's a little bit like a poker player that's looking at a two, a three and six and somebody else other there he's pretty sure he's got a flush of some kind and you've got everything you own in the middle of that table," Lockwood said. "And you're going, ‘Oh, my God.' But you can't show it.

"We felt like, ‘OK, take a look at what we're doing and how we're doing it.' If you believe in your process strongly enough, which we did, there are certain things that are out of our control. And some of those things that were happening were very much out of our control. We felt good about our processes and how we were doing it.

"Were we concerned? No question."

Tucker had committed last June – she called Tennessee her "dream school" – and getting a re-commit so fast was "very key," Lockwood said.

"They were great about it," Lockwood said. "They were absolutely great, and we can't be appreciative enough."

By the end of that week, the Lady Vols had three verbals. It was an incredible swing of momentum for the staff.

"It was quite a range of emotions," Lockwood said. "It got a little sporty."

With two seniors on the current team, the Lady Vols will have a roster of 12 in the 2013-14 season. The staff's attention now turns completely to the class of 2014, where Tennessee looks to sign two to four players.

By signing three in 2013 and a comparable number in 2014, Tennessee becomes more balanced, as opposed to taking large classes in one year and then having nearly wholesale roster turnover when that class departs.

"We are very thrilled because it evens things out," Lockwood said. "And these players coming in they know there's opportunity. They know there are expectations on them."

Tennessee's has specific targets for the class of 2014. Lockwood can't discuss names with the media, but he can talk positions.

"We definitely need another post," Lockwood said. "A guard is huge. And a shooter. Somebody that can make some shots."

The top priority, according to Lockwood, is a shooter.

"If you were going to say order, I would say probably shooter first and hopefully be a playmaking guard," he said. "Someone who has some versatility on the perimeter and can make shots. That would be number one."

INJURY UPDATES: Freshman guard Andraya Carter tweaked her ankle in Thursday's game against Rice and was limited to two minutes in the second half, and sophomore guard Jasmine Phillips made her debut after a preseason quad injury.

Both were cleared to participate in practice at Pratt Pavilion. Carter was nearly full go Friday, while Phillips will be eased back as she missed several weeks of practices and workouts.

Both players were expected to be available for Sunday's game at Miami.

INSIDE TENNESSEE VIDEO COVERAGE

The Lady Vols had media access to film practice Wednesday. Here are some clips shot by InsideTennessee.

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