Holly Warlick’s 2017 recruiting class was the best in the country. Warlick, who many believe is on the hot seat this season, has a lot to prove entering her sixth season as the head coach of the Tennessee Women’s basketball program. Her four highly coveted freshman, the Fab Four, do not plan on disappointing her this season.
Rennia Davis, Guard/ Forward
The 6-foot-2 guard out of Jacksonville, Florida arrives with big expectations, as she was the No. 12 overall player in the country according to ESPN, and the No. 3 overall guard. Before signing with Tennessee, Davis also considered Georgia Tech, Maryland, Oklahoma and Kansas. Davis was a McDonald’s All-American in 2017.
Davis, although a freshman by age, is academically a junior. She completed an early college program in High School, and is way ahead of the curve. With her veteran-like presence, Davis is ready to shake the preseason jitters and get the ball rolling.
“I think the freshman in general should use this game to get everything out, the nervousness,” Davis said about what she’s most excited about the exhibition game against Carson-Newman. “When you play a South Carolina, we are still going to be nervous, but as far as initially, just get everything out and get used to it.”
The electricity and love for women’s basketball played a big role in Davis committing to Tennessee. Davis has already had a small taste of the excitement surrounding the Lady Vols program when both basketball programs hosted Rocky Top Tip-Off last month.
“It was great. People here just love women’s basketball. They show it all the time and I got a glimpse of that,” Davis said of the event. “It wasn’t even really that many fans there, but it was crazy.”
With the departures of Diamond DeShields and Jordan Reynolds, all of the highly touted freshman that Warlick brought in will play a pivotal role in the success, or failure, of the 2017 Lady Vols.
“This team, everybody can score the ball, everybody can defend, everybody can run and everybody can rebound,” Davis said about anybody on the roster having the ability to start. “The fact that any of us can start a game says a lot about the team and how versatile we are.”
Davis, a 2017 McDonald’s All-American, averaged nearly 26 points-per-game during her senior year of high school. Despite a tremendous amount of success prior to arriving on Rocky Top, Davis doesn’t plan on looking back to those days.
“I don’t really like to think of high school because scoring in the SEC is way different than scoring in high school,” Davis said. “I think we have a lot to prove (as a team) and I am excited.”
Davis has one goal in mind this season, both personal and team oriented. “To do what I can to help our team win — whether that is defense or offense.”
Anastasia Hayes, Guard
Hayes is a 5-foot-7 guard out of Hendersonville, Tennessee who was ranked the No. 7 overall player in the 2017 class, according to ESPN. She also considered Florida, Kentucky and Ole Miss before signing with Tennessee. Hayes was the Tennessee Gatorade Player-of-the-Year in 2017, as well as a McDonald’s All-American.
Hayes is excited for what Holly Warlick can teach her in the future, but when asked about what Warlick has taught her since being on campus, Hayes did not hesitate to say that Warlick wants her to be the head of the freshman class.
“(She’s) helped me being a leader,” Hayes said. “Having confidence in my voice.”
Hayes ran track-and-field in high school in order to keep her conditioning up. Competing at an elite level in both basketball and track, Hayes hatred for losing has never been higher. On the court though, pride in her defense has never been higher.
“My defense for sure. I don’t like to get scored on, I hate losing,” Hayes said when asked if she takes more pride in her offense or her defense. “I try to play defense as hard as I can and get steals, as defense is what is going to win the games, not offense.”
Being in a college strength-and-conditioning program has already elevated Hayes’ game in the short time she has been on campus.
“I’ve gotten so much stronger,” Hayes said. “You can tell the difference from high school with my body, and now. My muscles are toning up and my legs are getting stronger. It has really helped”
Evina Westbrook, Guard
Westbrook, a 6-foot guard out of Salem, Oregon was the No. 2 overall player in the 2017 class, according to ESPN. Before signing with Tennessee, she considered USC, Notre Dame, Maryland and Oregon State. Westbrook won the Oregon Gatorade Player-of-the-Year in both 2016 and 2017. She was a McDonald’s All-American Team selection in 2017.
With all the hype surrounding Tennessee’s incoming freshman, Westbrook is just ready to hit the court against Carson-Newman. While she knows the team has been working hard behind closed doors, she’s ready to see it translate to a game. “I think just being on the court with my team, we’ve been working really hard in the weight room, and the court,” Westbrook said. “I can’t wait for it to transition.”
Westbrook admitted she prefers the court over lifting weights, but knows that it will help them become better all-around players. “I’m not a big fan of the weight room but we’re in there constantly so I think It’s definitely going to help the four of us being our first year. All the girls are going to be a lot strong and a lot faster.”
Westbrook, having lived in Oregon her entire life, was pried far away from home to come play for Warlick’s Lady Vols. Oregon to Knoxville is about as far as it gets, but the freshman always knew she wanted to move on to new adventures.
“I always knew I wanted to go far away from home, but at the same time I wanted to be in an environment that is like I’m at home — to me I felt like Tennessee was really home for me,” Westbrook said. “Being around my teammates all the time, I feel like I’m home.”
Westbrook, much like the freshman class, is ready to move past their high school accomplishments. “I think Jaime (Nared) kind of nailed it when her and Mercedes (Russell) were at the SEC Conferences, what we did in high school doesn’t really matter anymore. It’s basically a fresh new start once you get to college and I really don’t think of it that way,” Westbrook said. “For me it’s a fresh start, and I have to work harder than I ever have before.”
Warlick is persistent on her freshman not thinking, or playing, like a freshman. “Every day I hear you are not a freshman,” Westbrook said. “You’re not a freshman on this court, don’t ever tell yourself you’re a freshman. She just doesn’t want me to be nervous, but I’m not nervous. I don’t think she knows that I’m not nervous, but I think she knows I need to lead this team the best way I can.”
“Every game we’re going to have to bring it either way.”
Kasiyahna Kushkituah, Center
Kushkituah is a 6-foot-4 center from Alpharetta, Georgia. She was a McDonald’s All-American in 2017, and was ranked the No. 57 overall player in the 2017 class, as well as the No. 6 ranked center. Kushkituah considered Florida State, Georgia and South Carolina before deciding to sign with Tennessee.
When asked about the transition from high school to college so far, Kushkituah responded, “It is way faster, girls are definitely stronger. I have to get used to me actually being the smaller one.”
Kushkituah, who is used to being the most dominant player on the court has a lot to get used to when it comes to college athletics, much like the other freshman girls, but she is ready for the challenge. Kushkituah knows the journey starts in the weight room, and she’s already begun to reap the benefits.
“I am so happy,” Kushkituah said. “I tell my mom everyday I’m getting stronger. I’m proud of that.”
Sitting behind a future WNBA draft pick in Mercedes Russell will be a challenge to Kushkituah, but she’s embraces the task. “She has given me tips,” Kushkituah said. “Her being taller than me is an adjustment but at the same time she is helping me — on-and-off the court, she has been a great role model for me.”
Kushkituah made it a priority to point out she plans on making this a season to learn as much as she can. “My personal goal is learning. Since I got here day one, I’ve worked so many days and I didn’t even know about my position.”
With preseason practice in the books, the freshman class with a ton of potential begins their journey in exhibition against Carson-Newman on Tuesday night. The Lady Vols will tipoff with the Golden Eagles at 7 p.m. in Thompson-Boling Arena.
Edited by Ben McKee