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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Tennessee center Mercedes Russell will begin her college career as the Lady Vols' most heralded incoming freshman since Candace Parker, a player she grew up idolizing and recently met.
Russell was on vacation this summer when she stopped by a Los Angeles Sparks practice and spoke briefly with the 6-foot-4 Parker, a WNBA most valuable player and two-time Olympic gold-medal winner.
"She told me just to work hard," said Russell, who stands 6-6.
Russell now faces the challenge of living up to the expectations accompanying her arrival. The freshman makes her debut Nov. 8 when Tennessee opens its season at Middle Tennessee.
Russell was rated as the nation's No. 1 player in her class by multiple recruiting services. She was named the Gatorade national high school player of the year and led Springfield (Ore.) to two state titles and one runner-up finish.
"Mercedes has a tremendous knowledge of the game," Tennessee coach Holly Warlick said. "Her basketball IQ, I didn't know it was that high until coaching her and being around her."
Tennessee hasn't reached a Final Four since Parker led the Lady Vols to consecutive national titles in 2007 and 2008. Those teams helped make Russell a Tennessee fan even while she grew up over 2,500 miles from campus.
"I just loved watching Pat Summitt coach, and Candace Parker has always been my favorite player," Russell said. "I just love her game. It just made me fall in love with Tennessee."
Russell now wants to help Tennessee return to the Final Four after its last three seasons ended with losses in the regional championship.
The Lady Vols don't need her to be a star right away. Russell just has to fill a role on what junior forward Cierra Burdick calls "hands down... the best frontcourt in the country."
Tennessee returns 6-2 sophomore Bashaara Graves, last season's Southeastern Conference newcomer of the year. The Lady Vols also bring back 6-3 junior Isabelle Harrison, who averaged 9.5 points, 7.5 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per game last season. Burdick and sophomores Jasmine Jones and Nia Moore give Tennessee five returning players who are at least 6-2.
Now Tennessee adds Russell, only the sixth player 6-5 or taller to suit up for the Lady Vols.
"Mercedes is a force to be reckoned with on the defensive side of things," Burdick said. "She not only blocks a lot of shots, she changes a lot of shots. One of the biggest things I was impressed with Mercedes was her passing ability. She can pass the ball for a big man extremely well. Whether it's a back door or a high-low pass, she does a great job with that. And she's got a consistent 10- to 15-foot jumper."
Tennessee assistant coach Dean Lockwood said Russell's passing ability is one of the most underrated aspects of her game.
"She's like Candace in this regard," Lockwood said. "People have asked, and they're two different players. But one thing (is that) Candace was very unselfish and had a great feel for, when she was being double-teamed, to kick out and find open players. (Russell) has shown in just the little bit we've done of that, she's shown a very good ability to pick up on double teams and also pass out of them and pick up open players."
Russsell's height and prep ranking have earned her plenty of attention before she's even begun her college career. Russell says she tries not to pay attention to what others are saying about her.
Her former coach believes she has the personality to handle the expectations.
"She never let things rattle her," Springfield coach Bill Wagner said. "As a player in high school, she'd get double- , triple- and even sometimes quadruple-teamed. People would try to do different things against her, sometimes physical play and all that kind of stuff. You never saw her complain to an official, never saw her bark at another player.
"She just doesn't let a lot of things affect her."