Mercedes Russell explains decision

The Lady Vols secured a verbal commitment from Mercedes Russell, the No. 1 recruit in the country. Go inside with Inside Tennessee to read what the player and her high school coach had to say about the decision.

Both Mercedes Russell and her high school coach, Bill Wagner agreed they were happy the decision-making process was over.

"I am so glad," said Russell, a 6-5 post player who made her announcement Tuesday in an assembly in the gymnasium at Springfield High School in Springfield, Oregon. "I am very relieved. The whole process was fine, but I am happy that it is over now."

Wagner had served as a buffer for Russell, who was inundated with media requests and inquiries about her college decision. He handled the onslaught of questions, made visits to the campuses of her finalists – Tennessee and Louisville – and listened as she tried to sort out the process.

Both also were content with the choice that Russell made.

"We are all ecstatic for her," Wagner said. "The bottom line is this has always been her decision, and this is the place she wanted to be. We are so happy for her.

"Getting a chance to know the coaching staff I feel like she is in good hands and that they are going to do a great job with her and not only make her a better basketball player but make her a better person as well, and I think that's what is important."

Wagner sensed that his star player was ready to announce the decision and end the process. Russell could have waited until the early signing period, which runs from Nov. 14-21, to make a commitment but opted to announce in October.

"I don't think she slept a whole late lately and to be honest with you, I don't think any of us have," Wagner said. "I think it's a huge weight off of her shoulders, and I think she'll sleep good tonight.

"What always weighs on you is she built such a great relationship with both staffs and obviously it's an easy phone call to tell one staff that she's coming, but it's obviously a hard phone call to make when she has to tell another staff that she's not going to be coming to her school. I think that was weighing on her."

Russell called Louisville on Tuesday before she announced the decision.

"I give her her due for stepping up and making that phone call," Wagner said.

"It was a very hard decision," Russell said. "Both have great schools, great coaches, great players, but I just felt like I fit better at Tennessee and it's always been my dream school ever since I was a little kid."

Springfield is nearly 2,600 miles away from Knoxville, but the distance didn't deter Russell's familiarity with the program. Tennessee, under Pat Summitt, played coast to coast, and was frequently on national television.

"Ever since I was a little kid growing up I would always watch the Tennessee games and watch Candace Parker play and Pat Summitt coach so I have always loved Tennessee," Russell said.

It also didn't affect Russell's decision, as she was willing to play far away from home with the blessing of her mother, Tammy Hill. Russell initially had a list of 10 schools was able to trim it rather quickly to two.

"Not at all," Russell said. "She helped me a lot. She helped me decide pretty much. She helped me go through all the schools."

Wagner handled the media crush to allow Russell time to make her decision with as little distraction as possible.

"He had a huge impact," Russell said. "He helped me through the whole recruiting process."

Russell won't play for Summitt – she is now the head coach emeritus at Tennessee, where she coached for 38 years, won 1,098 games and raised eight national title banners – but that also didn't stop Russell from wanting to wear orange.

Russell, the consensus top player in the country, had visited both schools several times – her official trips were on consecutive weekends this month – and she made it official that her choice was orange and white in the school assembly.

Russell opened the assembly by sitting at a table wearing a dark blue zip-up sweatshirt. After remarks of thanks to both schools and those who had helped her along the way, Russell stood up and revealed that she was wearing bright orange underneath the blue attire.

Russell called the Lady Vol basketball office on Monday evening and was put on speaker phone. When head coach Holly Warlick heard the news she started jumping on the couch in her office. Her three assistants, Dean Lockwood, Kyra Elzy and Jolette Law, also let loose.

"They were jumping up screaming, yelling in the phone so excited," Russell said.

Warlick coached with Summitt for 27 years and then succeeded her last April. Lockwood, who came to Tennessee in 2004, will be Russell's position coach, and he stayed on the staff.

"That was big," Russell said. "He's a great guy, great personality. He is a great recruiter overall. I just really loved him."

Warlick hired two new assistants in Elzy and Law, and Russell also was able to establish relationships with them.

"They are both hilarious," Russell said.

The connective thread of Warlick and Lockwood to Summitt was beneficial.

"Absolutely just because of the continuity of the relationships as far as recruiting," Wagner said. "Keeping those two was huge but the addition of Jolette and Kyra was big as well. When she was out there for her official weekend she really connected with those two.

"So I think she has a great relationship with all four on the staff and of course having Pat still there and her being able to be mentored by her, that's just a good deal."

Wagner will enjoy a final season with Russell – she averaged 25 points and 15 boards last season – in Springfield.

"Obviously, you don't get (to coach) the number one player (more than once)," Wagner said. "Mercedes is a once-in-a-lifetime player. My job was to make sure she was protected and not taken advantage of or anything like that, make this thing as smooth as possible."

Russell will also be ready to get to work in Knoxville. She plans to enroll in June of 2013 for the first session of summer school.

Russell joins Jannah Tucker, the No. 8 player in the country, to give Tennessee two top 10 commits in the class of 2013. Tucker, a 6-0 wing from Maryland, reaffirmed her commitment over the weekend.

Tennessee remains in the hunt for additional recruits and hopes to sign three to four players in November. That process just got a lot easier Tuesday when the top player in the country said yes to Tennessee.

Russell intends to serve as a recruiting aide and see if she can sway some recruits to join her. Among those still on Tennessee's recruiting board is Jordan Reynolds, a 5-11 guard from Portland, Oregon.

"Of course, I am working on it right now," Russell said.

The verbal by Russell was important to Tennessee for two reasons. One, post is a tremendous position of need for the Lady Vols. Two, and most importantly, Warlick is a first-year head coach and she just secured the top recruit who could have chosen any school in the country.

It validated Warlick being selected to succeed Summitt and it established that she can indeed recruit, the biggest question Warlick had to answer.

That was the furthest thing from Russell's mind. She was just trying to make her college decision.

"I was just making mine," said Russell, who intends to sign her LOI on Nov. 14.

Wagner, a coach himself who knows the importance of recruiting, was fully aware of the message that Russell's commitment sends that Tennessee remains on the national map in the post-Summitt era.

"Absolutely," Wagner said. "I think this creates a lot of excitement. The bottom line is there are still great players at Tennessee right now, and I think that was one of the deciding factors for Mercedes is the fact she really liked the current roster and really felt that those were players that when she came in could, as a team, jell and bond and everyone can help each other reach the goals that you set when you play for a college like Tennessee and that is reach Final Fours and play for championships."

When the top recruit in the country picks Tennessee there can also be a ripple effect on current recruits and future classes.

"Absolutely there could be a domino effect," Wagner said. "Once Mercedes committed I think a lot of people will take a look at Tennessee.

"The bottom line is that a school like Tennessee is always going to be in the forefront of women's basketball. I don't foresee Tennessee taking a step back at all. They've got a phenomenal coaching staff in place.

"Obviously, I'm a little biased but having Mercedes go there, I think she is going to be able to help them stay at the top."


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