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Mercedes Russell

USA Basketball Junior National Team Trials Participants Travel Varied Paths To Colorado

  • Date:
    May 15, 2015

Just a few weeks ago, Notre Dame forward Taya Reimer (Notre Dame/Fishers, Ind.) was taking on the University of Connecticut’s Moriah Jefferson (Connecticut/Glenn Heights, Texas) and Breanna Stewart (Connecticut/North Syracuse, N.Y.) on college basketball’s biggest stage – the NCAA National Championship game. This weekend at the United States Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, all three players are among 51 of the nation’s top collegians who are competing for a roster spot on either the U.S. Pan American Women’s Basketball Team or the USA Women’s World University Games Team. 

“It’s definitely hard, but they are great players and great people off the court,” Reimer said of what it was like to encounter those two again after losing to them in the NCAA title game. “It’s hard to hold a grudge and be mad.”

And though Reimer’s national title hopes came up just short, she hasn’t lost sight of the incredible season she helped Notre Dame put together.

 “I think we had a really strong run in the tournament, and just getting that experience, getting confidence from going that far in the tournament, I think that helps in a setting like this. For us to get that far as a team, that gives me a little bit of momentum, definitely,” said Reimer.

Jefferson, Reimer and Stewart aren’t the only ones who helped their college teams compile an impressive season in 2014-15. Also on the court is 2015 WNIT champion, Jordin Canada (UCLA/Los Angeles, Calif.), who was MVP in the title win.

“It boosted my confidence,” Canada said. “Coming in here, playing against the best players in the country, you definitely need confidence. So playing in that tournament and playing as great as I did, it definitely helped me for this trials.”

Also riding on the heels of a recent experience is Tiffany Mitchell (South Carolina/Charlotte, N.C.), though her last basketball outing was not her team’s Final Four appearance. Instead, Mitchell trained with the USA Basketball Women’s National Team May 4-6 in Las Vegas. Also at the Women’s National Team camp was Stewart, though Stewart is a national team member, while Mitchell still is a women’s national team hopeful.

“Just being out there, it was a good experience for me,” said Mitchell. “At first, it was a little overwhelming, because I was there with people I’ve been watching my whole life. Actually playing with them and going against them, I kind of was taken back a little bit. Then they started to talk to me, and I calmed down and started to play my game.

“I’ve been with the top of the top, and then I come back here, and I just feel like I have to compete at the level at which the National Team was playing at while I’m here. Not necessarily talking to these players, but trying to carry on the things I learned. The National Team players were always talking, running hard – just in warm ups. If I can do that here, then it all just rolls over for me.

“I feel like I’m playing pretty well, talking more. I wasn’t really a vocal person the past three years in college. So, being here and being vocal with some of the top players in the country is a big step for me.”

Three other players on the court are entering trials from a different perspective after missing this past year due to transferring schools --  Diamond DeShields (Tennessee/Nocross, Ga.) and Alexis Jones (Baylor/Irving, Texas) --

or injury, as was the case for Mercedes Russell (Tennessee/Springfield, Ore.).

For DeShields, the time spent off the court did not deter her from improving, or from being ready for USA Basketball trials.

 “I know now, being here, especially being one of the veterans, this past year helped me a lot having watched so much basketball this past year,” DeShields said. “I’m actually seeing myself come out here and lead on the floor. It’s just weird because I’ve been so used to being a go-to scorer, and now it’s easier for me to kind of look around and facilitate for others.”

Jones said watching the game rather than playing the game made her a better point guard, and when the invitation came to participate in USA Basketball trials, her comeback already was in motion.

“During the whole season while I was sitting out, I was always working out,” Jones said. “Before I even knew I was invited, I was already working out. This just made me want to try and work out even harder and be prepared for this moment.”

While DeShields and Jones were free to train while they could not play, Russell spent much of the season rehabbing after surgery on both of her feet.

“I think it was kind of hard (to get ready for trials), just because I haven’t played in a game in over a year,” Russell said. “And when you work out, it’s hard to get the same intensity as a game.”

Working to the benefit of DeShields, Jones and Russell, however, is their previous USA Basketball experience. DeShields and Jones each have three USA Basketball gold medals to their credit, while Russell owns two gold medals with USA Basketball.

“I kind of had expectations, because I’ve been here before,” Russell explained. “The competition is always intense, and everyone is high energy.

“I feel like I’m doing well. It feels great to play and feel healthy.”

Though the 51 players on the court each traveled their own path to Colorado Springs, they are on the same journey over the next three days. Where they go next will be determined by whose name gets called on Sunday morning when the teams are announced.

“I have been through a lot, and being at these trials, it feels like a reward for all of my hard work,” DeShields said. “I’m not used to not being able to showcase my game, and now I’m finally back in between these four lines, and I’m just going to make the most of it.”

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