Photo by Danny Parker

Evina Westbrook signature recruit

Elite guard wants national championship for Lady Vols

When Evina Westbrook ruled out Tennessee early because three Oregon players were on the roster, and she wanted to find another path, this was the response: Blaze a trail back to the Final Four and a national title for the Lady Vols.

That recruiting pitch ultimately worked – that and Westbrook’s visualization session by herself inside Pratt Pavilion while on her official visit – as the elite recruit from Salem, Oregon, selected Tennessee last week.

“Every visit I take about five minutes to myself in a gym, just me, no one is around me and I envision myself playing on the court,” Westbrook said. “I was in the gym at Tennessee by myself. Everyone was eating lunch, and I walked off. I was looking at the practice court and the banners of all the players, the checkered floor and every little detail.

“I could see myself practicing in there and working hard and doing my extra stuff because that is how you get better. I saw myself being there, and I felt it in my heart.”

Westbrook’s visit occurred Sept. 17, so the Lady Vols waited almost two months to hear the word yes from a player who was considered a recruiting centerpiece for Holly Warlick and crew.

Tennessee had said no to a few players in 2017 in hopes of clearing the path for Westbrook, a 6-0 guard. It was a risky strategy that ultimately worked as Westbrook is the No. 1/2 player in the country depending on the ranking service.

“She’s a game changer and leader with a complete all-around skill set,” Warlick said after Westbrook’s scholarship papers were certified by the school. “She has great court awareness and vision and is an incredible passer. Passing is such a lost art, so I really admire that aspect of her game.

“I also love her will to win and her willingness to spend extra time in the gym constantly working to improve. She will be a tremendous addition to our program.”

Westbrook and her parent, James and Eva Westbrook, spoke to InsideTennessee by phone several hours after the signing ceremony last Thursday at South Salem High School and the media interviews and celebration. The excitement in their voices was still apparent – and their closets are about to be full of orange.

Evina Westbrook wanted Tennessee to be surprised by her announcement, so she didn’t tell the coaches ahead of time. Westbrook did, however, let the other schools know of her decision so those coaches would not find out via social media.

“I called every school to let them know,” Westbrook said. “I told them beforehand. I didn’t want them to figure it out live. To me that’s kind of disrespectful.”

She also notified the Tennessee coaches that they should watch, but the Lady Vols didn’t exhale until they heard Westbrook say Tennessee. The Lady Vol coaches and players were watching the announcement on Facebook Live, and Westbrook made the official phone call to Warlick via FaceTime minutes after the announcement.

“She was kind of speechless at first,” Westbrook said. “She told us how nervous she was watching the video and how excited she is to have me on the team. For a head coach to say that and with the experience that she has through everything with Pat Summitt and her legacy, it was pretty special to hear as a young player.”

Westbrook later saw the reaction online of the Lady Vol coaches and players.

“The whole team was watching it,” Westbrook said. “There is a video of them just going crazy. I saw that after my signing. It made me feel really good to see the excitement of all the players and all the coaches of me becoming a Lady Volunteer. It was crazy and probably one of the best feelings I have ever had.

“They texted me and said, ‘Welcome to the family.’ It was nothing but love.”

Warlick said, “Everyone in our program was invested, all the coaches and players, and we are elated to have her join our family.”

Westbrook’s finalists were Tennessee, Maryland, Notre Dame, Southern Cal, Oregon State and South Carolina.

“It was a pretty difficult decision to make having all of the opportunities that I had from the schools on my list, but after my visit I couldn’t really get Tennessee off of my mind – the whole vibe, the people, the coaches, the players, everything,” said Westbrook, who made her decision last week. “I felt in my heart that it was Tennessee. I knew I made the right decision.”

Westbrook and her family kept the decision to themselves for several days. They had T-shirts made that said Tennessee, which were revealed under sweatshirts once Westbrook announced the decision.

“My circle is pretty small – it’s always been that way – keeping my business always in my family,” Westbrook said. “We were able to get it done. My parents knew, my hoop family knew, but that’s basically all who knew.”

Schools send high school players the official paperwork and hope it’s their school that ultimately is affixed with a signature. In this case, Westbrook had three LOIs to choose from, as she had the official paperwork from her final three of Tennessee, Maryland and Southern Cal. The forms were the originals, so she carefully wrote her signature on the paperwork to be sent to the Lady Vols.

The legacy of Pat Summitt resonated with the entire family.

“It absolutely does,” James Westbrook said. “But ultimately it was our daughter’s decision, and she does know of Pat Summitt. We pride ourselves on doing our homework and knowing about all of the colleges that were interested. We are a big basketball family. We always have been. The kids have grown up watching basketball. We do know about Pat Summitt.

“Tennessee is rich in tradition as far as women’s basketball. It was a great decision for my daughter to choose Tennessee.”

Tennessee’s program is unsurpassed in terms of wins – the Lady Vols have 1,301 programs wins, the most in NCAA Division I women’s basketball history – and integrity and character in securing those wins because of Summitt. But the Lady Vols last trip to the Final Four was in 2008 when Tennessee won its eighth national title. While the Lady Vols remain on the national radar, it’s been eight years since they earned the national recognition of national champion. Westbrook wants to change that.

“That is one of my biggest goals, coming in, having the opportunity to earn my spot and having a big impact on the team,” Westbrook said. “As long as we work hard and do what we need to do, I believe that we can get it done. I am excited to get there and to start working.”

The Lady Vols have three players from the state of Oregon on the roster – and all three are in the starting lineup – in senior guard Jordan Reynolds, junior forward Jamie Nared and redshirt junior center Mercedes Russell. At first glance that would have seemed to work in Tennessee’s favor, but Westbrook balked at the roster of players from her home state.

“It was one of the reasons why I wasn’t considering Tennessee at the beginning,” Westbrook said. “I didn’t want to be seen as a follower. But my visit totally changed my mind – I ran into people on the street who knew my name – from the coaches to the players and how real it was.

“The tradition is obviously crazy. I felt it in my heart that it was Tennessee. I made the decision that was best for me. It wasn’t based on the players (from Oregon) who are there now. I am lucky that I know players going in, and all of the players are great. It’s an amazing feeling. I feel like I am already a part of team.”

Eva Westbrook will savor her daughter’s senior year in high school and then turn her loose to cross the country.

“I have trusted Evina’s heart forever,” Eva Westbrook said. “When Evina has her mind set on something, we trust her.”

The Westbrooks also intend to make as many trips as possible to see their daughter play.

“You are going to see me on Rocky Top. You are going to see us in Knoxville,” Eva Westbrook said. “We are going to be there to support the Lady Vols. We are there to win a national championship. At the end of the day, we are all in it together. The staff for the Lady Vols has done an amazing job. We didn’t meet Pat Summitt herself, but the tradition speaks for itself.

“Our daughter wants to be a Lady Vol. My family, my extended family, we all support Evina, whether it’s Knoxville or Mars. It doesn’t matter where it’s at, that is where we’re going to be. Evina and I are very close. Everyone knows that, but Evina was never going to stay close to home. Evina has big aspirations. Evina has put in the time and effort on the court. Evina is amazing, and I am her biggest fan.”

The family made unofficial and official visits to Tennessee so that they could see the campus, get to know the coaches and players and make sure Westbrook was a fit on and off the court.

“We didn’t take this lightly,” Eva Westbrook said. “When Evina told us this was the school for her, the Westbrooks rallied around her.”

So far, Tennessee has an elite signing class of three with Westbrook; 6-4 post Kasiyahna Kushkituah of Alpharetta, Georgia; and 5-7 guard Anastasia Hayes of Murfreesboro, Tennessee.

The Lady Vols have one more target in the Class of 2017: Rennia Davis, a 6-2 wing from Jacksonville, Florida, whose stat line in a Ribault High School game Monday was one steal short of a quadruple double with 38 points, 11 rebounds, 10 assists and nine steals.

Davis hasn’t yet announced a decision and has until Wednesday if she wants to ink her LOI in the early signing period. The Lady Vols hosted Davis on the weekend of Nov. 4. She also is considering Oklahoma, Kansas, Georgia Tech and Maryland.

Westbrook, who was named to the 2016-17 American Family Insurance All-USA girls basketball preseason team, has started 86 of 87 career games for South Salem. Her career totals include 1,465 points, 452 rebounds, 433 assists, 401 steals and 162 blocked shots.

As a junior, she started 28 of 29 games and helped lead South Salem to a 28-1 record and second consecutive Class 6A state championship. She averaged 22.6 points, 6.2 rebounds 6.7 assists, 5.5 steals and 2.5 blocks per game.

James Westbrook played basketball at Oregon State and overseas. Eva Westbrook was a softball player. Evina’s brother, L.J. Westbrook, plays basketball for Prairie View A&M University in Texas. James Westbrook offered this assessment of his daughter’s game:

“She is good all-around player. She has the skills. She can play from the one to the five if she wanted to. The part of her game that she would work on, if she wanted to play post, would be the post game, and she can still post up right now. From the one to the four – point guard, shooting guard, small forward, power forward – she can basically do it all. She’s a shooter. She can score off the dribble. She can rebound. She can pass.”

Tennessee definitely has gained a full family of new fans.

“We are excited,” Eva Westbrook said. “The Lady Vols are coming back. It’s national championship time.”

Evina Westbrook is a fan of Lady Vol Diamond DeShields’ game, and they got along well on the official visit. DeShields and Russell, who are both redshirt juniors, could opt out of their fifth year of eligibility to focus on a professional career. Westbrook intends to be in their ear before she gets on campus next summer.

“If they want to win a ring, I am going to tell them they need to stay,” Westbrook said with a laugh. “The WNBA is going to be there when they get there, so they might as well just wait.”

The family will soon be decked out in orange. An order was placed online the same day that Westbrook announced Tennessee was her destination. Westbrook’s jersey arrived in Knoxville before she did. As the Gatorade State Player of the Year in Oregon, her high school jersey is on display at the downtown Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame.

“We are orange,” Eva Westbrook. “We are just so proud to be a part of the Lady Vols legacy. When we were there we went to the Hall of Fame and my daughter’s jersey is hanging up in the Hall of the Fame. She could have picked any school that she wanted to, and Holly and her coaching staff did an amazing job to let Evina know how special she was. Those girls are ballers, and my daughter is going there to win a national championship. Help is on the way.”

The Lady Vols and the program’s iconic logo also resonated with the Westbrooks, who repeatedly said the words during the interview.

“It’s Lady Vols,” Eva Westbrook said. “Whether people don’t like the name or people are saying it’s gone, oh no. This is Lady Vols. We are not settling for the Elite Eight or the Sweet 16. No ma’am. We are winning a national championship.

“The Lady Vols – it’s not for four years. It’s for life.”

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