Friday, March 04, 2005

Lady Vols begin quest for first SEC tourney title in five years, face Auburn

Not only has Tennessee not won the Southeastern Conference tournament in five years, it is entering postseason play without a regular-season title for the first time since 1997.

Have the Lady Volunteers lost their aura of invincibility?

The No. 2 seed in the SEC tournament for the first time in eight years, Tennessee (23-4) will begin addressing that question when it takes on seventh-seeded Auburn (16-12) at the Bi-Lo Center in Greenville, S.C., on Friday.

The Lady Vols' run of regular-season dominance in the SEC came to an unceremonious end this season thanks to LSU, the nation's No. 1 team. The Lady Tigers, who finished 14-0 in SEC play, handed Tennessee its only conference loss.

``It's been a good SEC run for the team with only one loss,'' Tennessee coach Pat Summitt said. ``I think this team right now is more focused on winning the SEC tournament.

``We do have a veteran team that understands tournament play. And (there's) a little bit of motivation since they did not win the regular season.''

While a team like Tennessee is entitled to an occasional off-year by its lofty standards, the Lady Vols' struggles in the SEC tournament have been perplexing. During their run of seven straight regular-season titles, the Lady Vols won the conference tournament just three times.

Seniors Shyra Ely, Brittany Jackson and Loree Moore hope to leave with their first SEC tournament title after helping Tennessee to a 54-2 conference record in four seasons. In last year's tournament, the Lady Vols defeated Mississippi State 67-57 in the second round, then lost to Georgia 68-66 in the semifinals. The Lady Bulldogs went on to lose the title to Vanderbilt.

``We've won the last three regular seasons but lost the last three tournaments. Maybe it's time to turn the tables and win the tournament games,'' said Ely, who is averaging team highs of 14.8 points and 6.8 rebounds. ``I think it's really important to the senior class.''

Tennessee has won seven of 10 meetings against Auburn in the SEC tournament, and is 19-4 all-time in neutral site games in the tournament. Overall, the Lady Vols are 27-8 against the Lady Tigers, winning the last 11 meetings by an average of 12 points.

Tennessee shot 58 percent from the floor in an 81-71 win at Auburn on Jan. 20.

The Lady Vols are riding a five-game winning streak heading into Friday, with Ely averaging 20.2 points, 9.4 rebounds and shooting 57 percent in that span.

``I am very pleased to see Ely stepping up on the inside and doing a great job for us.'' Summitt said. ``I think the team looks to Shyra to play a big role for us offensively.''

With 875 wins, Summitt is one shy of tying Adolph Rupp for second place on the NCAA all-time list, and just five away from passing leader Dean Smith.

Auburn knocked off 10th-seeded Kentucky 62-57 in the opening round Thursday.

First-year coach Nell Fortner said the victory should cement her team's case for selection to the NCAA tournament.

``If you're going to put this in the paper, then yes, we belong,'' Fortner said. ``I want the NCAA committee to read that.''

Sophomore Nicole Louden tied her career high with 23 points, and senior Natasha Brackett, averaging a team-high 17.1 points, added 18.

Junior Marita Payne had four blocks, giving her 134 for the season, three more than the previous SEC record, set be Heidi Gillingham of Vanderbilt in 1992.

Auburn, which has won four SEC tournament titles, is looking for its first since 1997.

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