The Tennessee women’s basketball team welcomed in the No. 1 recruiting class in the nation for 2017, with some of the nation’s top talent now donning Lady Vols jerseys.
The much-heralded class has panned out well thus far. Two freshmen, Rennia Davis and Evina Westbrook, have already carved out prominent starting roles for themselves.
Davis ranks third in scoring on the team, averaging around 12 points per game, while Westbrook is arguably the best distributor on the team, having recorded 121 assists on the year already.
Freshman Anastasia Hayes, though not a starter, has been a spark off the bench for the Lady Vols and earned SEC Freshman of the Week honors for her performances in Tennessee’s wins against Texas A&M and Vanderbilt.
There are four freshmen that composed the number one recruiting class. However, the fourth has been silently waiting in the wings for her time to shine.
Kasiyahna Kushkituah was ranked No. 6 overall as a post player coming out of high school, according to espnW. She was given the unlucky task of coming in at a time when Tennessee still has standout senior Mercedes Russell on the roster.
But by all accounts, she has taken her role at Tennessee in stride.
“I keep telling her (Russell), stay the course,” head coach Holly Warlick said. “You’re playing behind an All-American that can teach you, and you can learn. And I think she’s done just that.
“We’re going to need her.”
Russell has been dominant for the Lady Vols, and there aren’t many post players in the nation that could better serve as a teacher and mentor to the young Kushkituah.
Despite being trapped behind the almost-certain future WNBA player, Kushkituah has played a relevant role in a couple of the Lady Vols' wins this year. The freshman from Atlanta scored six points and pulled down five boards with just 18 minutes of playing time, both career-high accomplishments, in Tennessee’s win against Troy on Dec. 6.
On Sunday’s win against the Georgia Lady Bulldogs, Kushkituah made a surprise appearance very early on, playing a significant amount of time in the first half and scoring three points.
According to Warlick, it is likely that Kushkituah’s minutes will steadily increase.
“Kasi got in as a result of having three great practices,” Warlick said. “And I told her, if you (had done) this the whole year, you would have gotten more playing time.”
What stands out to Warlick and her teammates is Kushkituah’s physicality. She is a player that isn’t afraid to get bumped around or bump people around down in the low post.
Physicality is a huge part of Kushkitah's game.
“At the beginning of the year, I talked about how good our freshmen are going to be,” senior Jaime Nared said. “Kasi in particular. She’s really strong, and she has so many moves in the post.”
When Tennessee loses Russell after this season, the Lady Vols will feel the departure of one of the most dominant post players in Lady Vols history. The redshirt senior from Springfield, Oregon, has been a mainstay for the Vols for all four years she has played, and this season she has been the foundation of Tennessee’s success.
Averaging almost a double-double with 16.2 points and nine rebounds per game, it is clear Russell is a vital cog in the machine.
Considering this, Kushkituah’s presence on Tennessee’s roster seems incredibly important even though she has been a scant producer this season, unlike her freshman counterparts. Outside of Russell, she is the only other pure post player on Tennessee’s roster, standing tall at 6-foot-4.
The former McDonald’s All-American’s future appears bright.
“The impact that she will have in this program will be huge,” Nared said. “Especially in the next couple of years, and I think she’s just growing.”