Lady Vols’ Cancun challenge schedule revealed

KNOXVILLE — The schedule for the 13th Women’s Cancun Challenge has been announced, and the Tennessee Lady Vols will face Marquette, Oklahoma State and South Dakota in the Thanksgiving Tournament.

The Cancun Challenge will take place at the all-inclusive Hard Rock Hotel Riviera Maya on the Yucatan Peninsula from Nov. 23-25. All games will be played in the modified convention center on the resort property.

Competing in the Riviera Division, Tennessee will open with Marquette at 6:30 p.m. ET on Nov. 23, followed by Oklahoma State at 4 p.m. ET on November 24 and South Dakota at 4 p.m. on Nov. 25.

UT is a combined 3-0 vs. its Cancun Challenge opponents, standing 2-0 vs. Marquette and 1-0 vs. Oklahoma State. The meeting with South Dakota will be the Lady Vols’ first. Tennessee last faced MU in Knoxville during the 2011 NCAA Tournament Second Round (W, 79-70, on March 21) and faced OSU at the 1992 Rainbow Wahine Classic in Hawaii (W, 69-60, on Dec. 4).

Marquette finished 25-8 overall and 13-5 in the BIG EAST last season, winning its conference tourney before falling in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. The Golden Eagles, coached by Carolyn Kieger, lose only one senior from that squad and return their top five scorers, led by WBCA Honorable Mention All-American Allazia Blockton.

Oklahoma State, coached by Jim Littell, ended up 17-15 overall and 6-12 in Big 12 play in 2016-17. The Cowgirls, who fell in the first round of the WNIT a year ago, lost four seniors from that squad but return their top three scorers.

South Dakota produced a 23-9 overall mark and 11-5 effort in The Summitt League, falling in the second round of the WNIT last season. The Coyotes, who are coached by Dawn Plitzuweit, lost five seniors from that squad but also return their top three scorers.

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 seven letterwinners, including three 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 the two Coaches All-SEC First-Teamers 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 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.

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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