ANNE M. PETERSON
AP Sports Writer
Mercedes Russell's transformation into the nation's prep basketball player of the year took a turn between her freshman and sophomore years, when she grew five inches and moved from guard to the post.
The 6-foot-5 Springfield High School star who is headed to Tennessee in the fall says the shift made her a better player.
Others apparently thought she was good, too, because on Wednesday she was named the Gatorade Girls Basketball Player of the Year, becoming the first girl from Oregon to earn the honor.
Russell joins the likes of Lisa Leslie, Candace Parker and current Stanford star Chiney Ogwumike in receiving the award. Kevin Love, who played at Oregon's Lake Oswego High School, was honored with it on the boy's side in 2007.
Russell is certainly deserving after averaging 25.1 points, 12.3 rebounds, 3.9 assists and 5.5 blocks per game her senior year for the Millers. In this year's the OSAA Class 5A girls tournament, she had 32 points, 14 rebounds and 12 blocks in a semifinal victory over Hermiston.
She wrapped up her prep career with 2,273 points, 1,642 rebounds and 562 blocked shots.
Russell turned her focus solely to basketball early in high school, but as a 5-foot-11 guard she didn't get that much attention.
Then she grew. And grew. As a result, she shifted positions.
"It's made me more versatile," she said. "Going to a post, you still keep those skills that you learned as a guard. I think that helps."
Russell did her homework when it came to making sure Tennessee was the right fit. She even sold pizza coupons door-to-door to make unofficial visits to prospective schools.
Russell said she ultimately chose Tennessee because she'd been a fan since Parker played there. Legendary Lady Vols coach Pat Summitt's resignation last year after 38 years never gave Russell any pause.
"I've actually met her a few times when I was there," Russell said of Summitt, who was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's disease. "She's a great woman. She has a great personality."
On Wednesday morning, Russell was surprised in psychology class by Maya Moore, the former NCAA Player of the Year and Olympic gold medalist, who presented her with the award. Moore herself was a Gatorade national player of the year at Collins Hill high in Georgia.
"There were a bunch of camera and I was like, 'What are they doing here?'" Russell said. "Then I turned around and Maya Moore was right there. I was surprised."
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