In­juries leave Lady Vols with­out depth

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - SPORTS -

KNOXVILLE, TENN. >> Ten­nessee be­lieves its short­ened ros­ter shouldn’t limit its ex­pec­ta­tions.

The 13th-ranked Lady Vol­un­teers have only nine avail­able play­ers due to knee in­juries that will side­line guard Te’a Cooper and for­ward Cheri­dene Green for the en­tire sea­son and a va­ri­ety of in­juries that caused guard An­draya Carter to forgo her fi­nal year of el­i­gi­bil­ity. Ten­nessee opens the sea­son Fri­day at James Madi­son.

“It may af­fect how we play a lit­tle bit,” Ten­nessee coach Holly War­lick said. “Maybe we can’t run as much, we can’t press as much. But you have a ca­pa­bil­ity of win­ning with who we have on the floor. They’re qual­ity kids.”

Ten­nessee has dealt with sim­i­lar sit­u­a­tions be­fore. The Lady Vols have en­coun­tered in­jury problems in each of Holly War­lick’s four pre­vi­ous sea­sons as coach, from the head in­jury that side­lined Ariel Mas­sen­gale for much of the 2013-14 sea­son to the foot surgery that side­lined Mercedes Russell for the en­tire 2014-15 cam­paign.

But the depth is­sues are par­tic­u­larly acute this sea­son as Ten­nessee chases its first Fi­nal Four ap­pear­ance since its 2008 cham­pi­onship. The Lady Vols have lost in the re­gional fi­nals five of the last six years.

“You’ve got to keep grind­ing,” War­lick said. “You’ve got to keep mov­ing for­ward. That’s what we’re do­ing. We’re down to nine play­ers who can play, but they’re solid. They’re solid. You don’t have to worry about play­ing time. Ev­ery­body’s go­ing to play.”

In the front­court, Ten­nessee must re­place Bashaara Graves, who ended her col­lege ca­reer as one of only five Lady Vols ever to com­bine 1,000 re­bounds and 1,500 points.

Ten­nessee could use a big sea­son from Russell, a 6-foot-6 ju­nior cen­ter. Russell av­er­aged 9.9 points and 8.3 re­bounds but showed she’s ca­pa­ble of much more by de­liv­er­ing 25 points and 15 re­bounds in a re­gional semi­fi­nal vic­tory over Ohio State.

The Lady Vols also are seeking a boost from 6-3 grad­u­ate trans­fer Schaquilla Nunn, who missed the en­tire 2015-16 sea­son with a bro­ken foot af­ter av­er­ag­ing 11.2 points and 10.3 re­bounds in three sea­sons at Winthrop.

Ten­nessee’s back­court must re­place the play­mak­ing and shoot­ing abil­ity of Cooper, who av­er­aged 8.6 points per game last sea­son.

“We’ve got tal­ent on this team,” ju­nior guard Di­a­mond DeShields said. “We’ve got the pieces to do some­thing spe­cial. What’s go­ing to hap­pen is that we are go­ing to have to find it within our­selves be­cause it isn’t (just) two or three peo­ple that will do it. It’s like what are the nine of us go­ing to bring each and ev­ery night con­sis­tently to ben­e­fit this team.”

Ten­nessee needs DeShields to bring plenty.

DeShields ar­rived at Ten­nessee with much fan­fare af­ter be­ing named the At­lantic Coast Con­fer­ence rookie of the year her lone sea­son at North Carolina. But af­ter sit­ting out the 2014-15 sea­son due to NCAA trans­fer rules, the 6-foot-1 guard bat­tled nag­ging leg in­juries and strug­gled to adapt to her new team­mates last sea­son.

Late in the sea­son, DeShields turned a corner and helped Ten­nessee make a sur­pris­ing run to an NCAA re­gional fi­nal as a No. 7 seed.

“I feel bet­ter phys­i­cally and emo­tion­ally,” DeShields said. “I think that will tran­scend my game to an­other level and hope­fully al­low me to el­e­vate my team­mates’ games as well.”

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