Lady Vols eyeing trip to Cancun

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee women’s basketball fans looking for a 2017 Thanksgiving getaway need look no further. Holly Warlick’s squad is set to participate in the Women’s Cancun Challenge in Mexico on Nov. 23-25.

The 13th edition of the women’s event includes long-respected powers from major conferences and a mix of mid-major teams looking to flex their muscle. The Cancun Challenge will be held at the all-inclusive Hard Rock Hotel Riviera Maya on the Yucatan Peninsula.

In the Riviera Division, it will be Indiana State, Marquette, Montana, Oklahoma State, South Dakota and Tennessee; the Mayan Division will feature Arizona State, Columbia, Green Bay and Mississippi State, which broke UConn’s 111-game winning streak in March and reached the NCAA championship game. Matchups and schedules will be announced later this spring.

This will be the fourth visit to the Cancun Challenge for Arizona State (2005, 2007, 2013) and Montana (2008, 2010, 2014). Mississippi State (2005, 2007) will be on hand for the third time, and it’s the second trip for Green Bay (2012) and Marquette (2009). Six of the teams (Arizona State, Green Bay, Marquette, Mississippi State, South Dakota, Tennessee) had 20 or more victories in the 2016-17 season.

“We are thrilled to be able to showcase such a great group of teams at the Cancun Challenge,” said Renee Carlson, executive director of the event. “Returning teams and first-time teams alike will find a competitive experience that also promotes team bonding, recruiting opportunities, a Mayan cultural view, and a team/fan relationship like no other.

“We are excited to welcome the Tennessee Lady Vols and their fans to the Cancun Challenge for the first time. We appreciate the storied history of the UT program and are excited to feature the Lady Vols in a great environment.”

Tennessee will be making its second in-season trip outside the U.S. during the Holly Warlick era and third overall. UT went 2-0 to win the Lucaya Division championship at the Junkanoo Jam at Freeport, Bahamas, during the 2013-14 season and went 3-0 during a tour of Italy during the summer of 2015.

The Lady Vols welcome back eight letterwinners, including four starters from a 2016-17 squad that finished 20-12 overall and 10-6 in the SEC. Heading that cast will be a trio of seniors in WBCA Honorable Mention All-Americans Diamond DeShields (17.4 ppg., 6.4 rpg., 3.8 apg.) and Mercedes Russell (16.1 ppg., 9.7 rpg.) as well as Jaime Nared (15.6 ppg., 6.9 rpg.), who joined her two First-Team Coaches All-SEC squadmates as a second-team selection. The 6-foot-1 guard, 6-6 center and 6-2 forward, respectively, will arm UT with arguably as talented a trio as there is in the nation.

After sitting out last season with knee injuries, 5-8 redshirt sophomore guard Te’a Cooper and 6-3 redshirt junior forward Cheridene Green should provide Tennessee with immediate help in both the backcourt and front court. Cooper was an SEC All-Freshman performer in 2014-15 (8.6 ppg., 2.1 apg.), while Green was a two-time junior college All-American at ASA College in Brooklyn, N.Y., averaging 20.5 ppg. and 16.5 rpg. two seasons ago.

In addition to returning starting guard Alexa Middleton (7.9 ppg., 2.3 rpg., 2.0 apg.) and reserves Meme JacksonKortney Dunbar and Kamera Harris, Warlick welcomes the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class. That group includes elite guards in 5-7 Anastasia Hayes and 6-0 Evina Westbrook, an athletic wing player in 6-2 Rennia Davis and a strong post presence in 6-4 Kasiyahna Kushkituah.

Tennessee had only nine healthy players in 2016-17, with seven seeing the bulk of the action. The roster will grow to 13 in 2017-18, and UT will return 84.2% of its points, 76.9% of its rebounds, 69.0% of its assists, 76.6% of its steals and 80.3% of its blocked shots. Beyond the arc, UT will return 92.2% of its three-pointers made a year ago and re-insert a player in Cooper who netted 25 three-balls as a rookie.

The Cancun Challenge is one of the premier basketball events held each year and was rated as a top-five preseason tournament by Sports Illustrated in 2014. Teams stay and play at the Hard Rock Hotel Riviera Maya. The resort’s convention center ballroom is converted into an arena, which provides fans a special close-up view of the games. Once arriving to the hotel, teams and fans are treated to a spectacular all-inclusive rock star vacation with games, practices, unlimited dining and drinks, world-class entertainment and fun all in one location.

Located just off the azure waters of the Caribbean Sea, Hard Rock Hotel Riviera Maya offers the ultimate vacation for guests of all ages with both the adults-only and family friendly resort experiences. With a combined 1,264 ultra-posh and lavishly appointed guestrooms boasting balcony, terrace views or new, expansive sky terrace options with picturesque views, hydro tubs in each room, world-class shopping and endless style, Hard Rock Hotel Riviera Maya is nothing short of the ultimate crowd-pleaser. Complete with expansive outdoor pools and private beach, this all-inclusive escape offers nine world-class restaurants, eight bars and lounges, in addition to 88,915 square feet of state-of-the-art meeting and event space ideal for elegant banquets, themed parties, weddings, concerts, and more.

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