- Associated Press - Saturday, February 24, 2018

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - Tennessee struggled through a recent sluggish first-half performance when senior Jaime Nared suggested teammates who weren’t playing hard should get benched.

Her blunt comment had the intended effect. Tennessee turned a four-point halftime lead over Florida into a 70-42 blowout victory Thursday. That’s just the latest example of how Nared and senior Mercedes Russell are leading a team relying heavily on freshmen .

“It wasn’t anything in particular with anybody personally,” Nared said. “We just needed to play the way we were capable of playing.”

Nared and Russell will play their final regular-season home game along with reserve Kortney Dunbar on Sunday when the 15th-ranked Lady Vols (22-6, 10-5 SEC) host No. 7 South Carolina (23-5, 12-3) on ESPN2.

South Carolina will look to avenge a 16-point loss on Jan. 14, when the Gamecocks were without injured leading scorer A’ja Wilson.

This game caps a long journey for Nared and Russell, former McDonald’s All-Americans who came from Oregon to play for the Lady Vols. They’ve combined for over 2,900 points and 1,700 rebounds in their Tennessee.

Russell, who redshirted in 2014-15 while recovering from foot surgery, even stuck around for a fifth year at Tennessee when she had an opportunity to enter the WNBA draft. She didn’t want her college career to end with last year’s second-round NCAA Tournament exit.

“Obviously, last year was something that we want to forget,” Russell said. “I didn’t want to leave on a note like that.”

Russell and Nared have found a way to make this season more enjoyable. Although Tennessee has staggered a bit after a 15-0 start , the Lady Vols have played more consistently and shown much more chemistry than last season.

Now they want to make sure the younger players understand what’s at stake as they approach the postseason.

“It’s a matter of everybody getting on the same page and playing that way all the time,” Nared said. “That’s what makes us a good team and that’s what we were doing at the beginning of the year, which made us so tough. We kind of stepped back from that.”

Tennessee coaches have raved all year about the Oregon duo’s leadership.

Russell has 43 double-doubles to rank behind only Chamique Holdsclaw and Candace Parker on Tennessee’s career list. The 6-foot-6 center ranks fourth in the Southeastern Conference in rebounding (9.0) and 13th in scoring (15.5) this season.

“It’s been an awesome, really fun senior year,” Russell said. “College is something you won’t get back, so spending another year is just awesome.”

Nared, a 6-2 guard/forward, ranks sixth in the SEC in scoring (17.6) and ninth in rebounding (7.8). Russell and Nared have combined for 41.9 percent of Tennessee’s points and 37.9 percent of the rebounds this season.

They’ve also set the example for a roster that lacks experience. Tennessee has three freshmen - forward Rennia Davis and point guards Evina Westbook and Anastasia Hayes - playing at least 24 ½ minutes per game.

Nared and Russell understood they’d need to spend this season guiding these freshmen. They’ve welcomed the assignment , with Nared saying “I think of leading as serving.”

“When people need rides, when people need to talk, just being there in any way,” Nared said. “It’s to put people before yourself. I think that’s what it ultimately means to serve. When people need anything from you, just being here despite what you have going on.”

And it also occasionally requires providing some tough love, like during the Florida game.

Nared seemed somewhat embarrassed the comment became public knowledge. Tennessee coach Holly Warlick had referenced Nared’s remark during a postgame radio interview.

It didn’t stop Nared from essentially repeating that message during a press conference on Saturday. She won’t shy away from admonishing a teammate who isn’t giving her all just to spare someone’s feelings.

“At this point in the season, if you’re talking things personal, I don’t think you really want to win,” Nared said. “At the end of the day, we all want to win as a team.”


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