Can Tennessee’s ‘Fab Four’ return the Lady Vols to the top?
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Anastasia Hayes knows her role during the games.
Usually the one dishing out assists as a point guard, she’s more than happy to be on the receiving end when Tennessee’s freshmen get together to play cards.
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Evina Westbrook is the baker, providing homemade cookies or brownies for the gatherings. Rennia Davis is the aspiring restaurateur, cooking chicken and rice. Kasiyahna Kushkituah often brings something to share.
As for Hayes, “I just eat whatever they make,” she said with a laugh.
Tennessee’s heralded freshmen class has spent the last few months bonding over meals, shopping excursions and hands of UNO.
The four have grown as close as sisters, developing a support system through their shared experiences as they navigate college for the first time.
They won’t have the luxury of easing into their rookie seasons. With a roster size of only 10, the Lady Vols need them to make immediate contributions as the program seeks a return to glory.
Tennessee hasn’t reached a Final Four since winning back-to-back NCAA titles in 2007 and 2008. Plagued by inconsistency and emotional oscillations last season, the Lady Vols finished 20-12 and lost to Louisville in the second round of the NCAA tournament. It marked only the second time in program history Tennessee has failed to advance beyond the Sweet 16.
The incoming freshmen were a bright spot in an otherwise dreary off-season that saw defections and transfers make the headlines. They have infused new energy into the program and provided a beacon of hope.
“The freshman are competitive. They don’t like losing,” Tennessee head coach Holly Warlick said. “They play hard. They are talented. They have that desire and will to win. They’re willing to work. They’re willing to listen. They’re just competitive and that’s what I love about them.”
Ranked No. 1 in the nation by most major recruiting services, Tennessee’s class consists of four McDonald’s All-Americans and three Gatorade state players of the year.
Warlick said there’s a chance three freshmen could be in the starting lineup this season along with seniors Mercedes Russell and Jaime Nared.
Their performance could impact Warlick’s future with the program she’s given her life to as a player and a coach for the last four decades.
If it sounds like a lot to place on the shoulders of freshmen, they are embracing it.
“I definitely knew what kind of pressure I was going to have coming in and I like that. I like to be pushed,” said Westbrook, the USA Today National Player of the Year. “All four of us knew that coming in, and it definitely makes us work harder in the gym and pushes us to our limits.”
Hayes, a Tennessee native, was the first in the class to commit. Having grown up surrounded by Lady Vols fans, Hayes understood the level of passion in the state and wanted to represent the flagship school.
“Everything just felt like home. As soon as I got to campus, it was just, ‘Wow. This is where I should be,” Hayes said. “I felt it in my spirit.”