2021 has been the year of the freshman in NCAA women’s basketball.
Paige Bueckers, Caitlin Clark, Hailey Van Lith, even Canada’s own Aaliyah Edwards has made a name for herself.
But not every freshman has traversed the same path or opportunity that those in the spotlight have – for Ottawa native Merissah Russell, teammate of Van Lith at the University of Louisville, it’s been a season of patience and learning.
With so many freshmen on the horizon, and the WNBA draft class of 2024 loaded with talent, Russell doesn’t dwell on her position, and entering a transfer portal wouldn’t solve any issues. She’s instead using this time to take in as much as she can until her time comes.
“In terms of playing-wise, I haven’t been getting the playing time that I wanted, but with this year I know in the off-season exactly what I need to work on,” Russell said in a recent interview. “I know after watching Hailey Van Lith and [John Wooden Award finalist] Dana Evans everything I need to put into my work.
“Being in an environment like this one has helped me figure out how I can get better and how I can help my team be impactful in the game, not only to finish this season but for the next seasons as well.”
Russell committed to Louisville in her freshman season in high school, having secured her position years before many of her Canadian colleagues that also made it to NCAA schools, like her AmeriCup teammate Edwards.
The journeys of the two are similar – both play with two of the top freshman in the country, for some of the best programs in college hoops, but for Russell the opportunities have been limited on a veteran-heavy team, a different dynamic to UConn’s young squad.
The difference in their respective situations hasn’t changed the relationship of the two, however, as they both continue to navigate pandemic life, being freshmen and Division I athletes together.
“I respect Aaliyah so much,” Russell said. “Our families are close, we’re both close. She’s been showing out at UConn. We talk about the national team, everything that we’re required to do with that on top of being NCAA athletes.”
The Cardinals were a No. 2 seed heading into the 2021 women’s March Madness Tournament and are about to face off against a star-studded Oregon club that includes Sedona Prince and Nyara Sabally, sister of Ducks alum and Dallas Wings forward Satou Sabally.
Louisville head coach Jeff Walz has a strong belief in all of his players, including his bench, and sees a bright future for his squad. But after a shaky start against Northwestern in the second round, ending the first quarter with a 15-point deficit, Walz knows that it’s do-or-die time with players like Evans averaging over 30 minutes per game.
“In our Marist game [in the first round], I took Dana out with about eight minutes to go and made a substitution to play with five guards, and we go on a 20-1 run. I told them in the locker room, I don’t care if LeBron James is on our bench, when we go on a 20-1 run I’m not subbing anybody in,” Walz said.
— Louisville WBB (@UofLWBB) March 27, 2021
In games where Russell has contributed 16 or more minutes, she has averaged at least eight points and five rebounds, making a solid contribution off the bench. Even in her March Madness debut against Marist, Russell had three rebounds in seven minutes.
With star guard Evans in her senior season and leading Louisville in scoring, Russell has had the opportunity to watch one of the best players in women’s college basketball lead her team to a fifth consecutive Sweet Sixteen.
“She’s not just an amazing basketball player but she’s an amazing person – she’s taken us all underneath her wing since Day 1, you see all the work that she’s put in and you can just tell she deserves everything that she’s earned,” Russell said.
“We’re sisters, everyone cheers for each other and we just want everyone to do well. Just the energy from everybody, it’s a competitive atmosphere, we all just want to win, we want to cut down those nets and we want lift our banner and that trophy.”