Lady Vol frosh ready for SEC

Mercedes Russell arrived first for the interview, trailed by Jordan Reynolds, and the fun began. Go inside for a chat with the two Lady Vol freshmen as they prepare for their first postseason at Tennessee.

Tennessee (24-5) officially begins postseason in Duluth, Ga., for the SEC Tournament at the Arena at Gwinnett Center. The Lady Vols, the No. 2 seed, will take on Thursday's winner of No. 7 seed Alabama vs. No. 10 seed LSU. The Tennessee game is scheduled for 6 p.m. Eastern on Friday and will be broadcast on SportSouth.

Mercedes Russell and Jordan Reynolds, who both hail from the state of Oregon, recall watching the tournament on television. They now get to be a part of postseason.

"I remember watching it," Reynolds said. "And seeing the intensity and the upsets. I know it's going to be intense. It's March Madness."

The conference tournament is a win-or-go-home format but basketball remains to be played because the NCAA tourney still beckons, so it serves as a precursor for first-year players to what awaits.

"I have no idea how I am going to react," Russell said when asked if she would get nervous. "It's going to be really tough."

Tough is an apropos word for Russell, who has spent the season hearing she had to get tougher. The 6-6 freshman is lean and agile, but she has taken a pounding inside this season. Play on the perimeter has been cleaned up with the no hand-check rule, but it's still open season on interior players, and freshman posts are at a disadvantage when going against stronger upperclassmen.

Russell has made strides this season. She was forceful on the glass against South Carolina in the regular season finale and had a contributing role in stopping the Gamecocks' 10-game winning streak. She also had some physical box-outs, even drawing a bizarre foul call when making a textbook box-out.

"I think everyone has noticed it, especially from the beginning of the year and high school, just watching her grow," said Reynolds, who has played with Russell in summer league basketball and is very familiar with her college teammate. "I think she has gotten stronger and a lot more prepared for this game."

Russell also has seen growth in Reynolds' overall collegiate game.

"I always knew she was a great leader," said Russell, a remark that brought a big smile to the face of Reynolds. "She was always leading her team in AAU. Coming here it's kind of been a learning experience for both of us, but I think she took that role of learning and leading at the same time, and she's done a great job with it."

Tennessee needed Reynolds to accelerate the maturity process. Junior point guard Ariel Massengale has missed the last 10 games and is still out because of headaches after she sustained a facial injury against Florida on Jan. 23.

Tennessee went 9-1 over that stretch thanks to redshirt freshman Andraya Carter, who took over at the point position with solid backup from Reynolds. Massengale is listed as doubtful to play this weekend.

"I was really impressed," Russell said. "To have our starting point guard go out and have Draya and Jordan step up in big games and play a lot of minutes … they had to step up.

"Losing our point guard was really tough, but they have done a great job."

Reynolds' personality is now emerging on the court and it's a feisty one, something Tennessee needs on the floor. After Reynolds missed a three against South Carolina, her displeasure was apparent as she sprinted down the sideline.

"It was a tough game, and I thought it would have been a good shot, but it didn't fall," Reynolds said. "I was in the moment, and it was a big game."

Reynolds and Russell have a good connection on the court, because of how much they played together before getting to college, and Reynolds does an excellent job of finding Russell on the floor.

"She can help us a lot with her length and her size," Reynolds said. "There are not a lot of mobile 6-6 players, so I think that will be a key part in our success."

Reynolds sounds like a point guard as she describes what Russell needs to do in Duluth.

"Rebounding, be mobile, running up and down the floor. Being more physical," Reynolds said. "Also, leading other posts. I think she will help us a lot."

The freshmen hope to play three games in Duluth, a back-to-back-to-back scenario that is reminiscent of summer basketball when players would often have two games a day over a three-day weekend.

"Absolutely," Reynolds said. "I think it will go right back to the summer days, playing every day – but it's just one game – and mentally preparing for the first game, the second game, the championship game. Being back in that AAU mentality, that is what we are used to."

Russell smiled when asked about physical recovery for post players when playing multiple games in a row. Guards don't absorb the contact that interior players do, where possessions can often resemble rugby scrums in the paint.

"It is always tough on our bodies, but other teams are going through the same stuff," Russell said. "We are just going to have to come out and play as hard as we can every day."

That means ice baths and it is the rare player who looks forward to being immersed in freezing cold water.

"I am actually not a fan of the ice bath," Russell said. "I have a love-hate relationship with it. I hate getting in, but I love the feeling afterwards."

Reynolds is that rare player.

"I like it a lot," Reynolds said. "Sometimes I can sit in there waist deep. It's fine for me, especially if it's going to help me.

"I have to have music," said Russell, who shook her head while Reynolds was speaking. "It has to be something loud. After a couple of minutes it's fine, because you're numb."

While Reynolds and Russell chatted with InsideTennessee, Isabelle Harrison and Meighan Simmons met with the media on the other side of the arena to discuss their selection to First Team All-SEC, as voted by the league coaches. Reynolds fielded a question about Simmons, while Russell handled the one about Harrison.

"I congratulated her as soon as I saw it," Reynolds said. "I thought it was a great achievement for her, especially as a senior, coming out and taking care of business. I thought it was special for our team and for her."

"I was super happy. It was well-deserving," Russell said. "Since day one when I got here she has been helping me with everything basically. I know the hard work she has put in. I think that is great for her."

That was an unselfish post move by Harrison, because Russell is also an inside player, so they compete for minutes. But Harrison's concern was helping Russell adjust to college.

"She has been such a tremendous help to me," Russell said. "She is always there for me, and that award for her is just amazing."

Postseason is the "go hard or go home" time of year, and Tennessee will rely on two freshmen – and a redshirt one in Carter – to succeed in Duluth. The true freshmen will draw on the past six months – preseason started in late August – to try to make a difference in March.

"What I have learned is to continuously get better and never beat up on yourself if you make a bad play or have a bad game or have a bad practice, because you have a lot more opportunities ahead of you," Reynolds said. "You can't really hang your head in the SEC, because there is going to be another challenging game that you have to prepare for next.

"Go back and watch film, see everything I've done thus far, tweak anything that I can tweak and focus on what I can prepare for next."

Russell learned that the length of the season meant paying attention to daily health, a lesson that will help her in postseason.

"It's a long season, a lot of games, a lot of practices," Russell said. "Just really taking care of your body is key, and you have to come out and work hard every day. You can't take a day off, because every day you have to get better.

"Jordan and I have never been in this situation before. It's new to us, and we know it's going to be tough. It's a lot of games in a short amount of time."

The two will rely on each other as they both experience the postseason for the first time. They have been good friends for several years and are roommates at Tennessee.

They both answer basketball questions politely – Reynolds has the expansive nature of a point guard while Russell remains a tad quiet with the media – but they both light up when asked to reveal something unknown about the other.

"She literally thinks she can sing," Russell said. "Like she thinks she is Beyonce Jr., J-eyonce or something. She can't sing at all. She is awful. Every day. Every morning. Every night. All the time. I hear it."

"Everyone thinks she is quiet!" Reynolds said. "I do not know why people think that. I have to go home and live with her. She sings at the top of her lungs. She thinks she can sing as well. She plays loud music all the time.

"Mercedes is not quiet. There is nothing quiet about her, unless she is around a lot of people. If you're just with her, it's not quiet at all."

"It's not true," Russell said very quietly.

A third Oregonian enters the mix next season when Jaime Nared, a wing from Portland, becomes a Lady Vol.

"She acts like she's quiet," Russell said.

"But she's not quiet at all," Reynolds said. "There's going to be a second one. Once she gets comfortable around people, she will be amazing. She's bubbly."

Reynolds and Russell will be seasoned postseason vets when Nared arrives. For now, they are ready to experience their first SEC tourney. They have heard that despite the fact the event is being held out of the state of Tennessee, Lady Vol fans will arrive en masse in orange and white.

"I am very excited," Reynolds said. "We're freshmen, and this is our first SEC Tournament. Instead of watching it, you're actually playing in it.

"I can't wait to see how well we play together collectively. I am ecstatic."

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