Friday, March 18, 2005

Western Carolina-Tennessee Preview

If Tennessee keeps a pair of perfect records intact, Pat Summitt will celebrate becoming the winningest coach in college basketball history in front of the home crowd.

First, she'll try to grab a share of the all-time record as the Lady Vols try to stay unbeaten at home in the NCAA tournament, opening against former Tennessee star Kellie Harper and tourney newcomer Western Carolina.

The Lady Vols are 44-0 at home since the tournament began in 1982, beating teams by an average margin of 37.8 points. The Lady Vols are also 34-0 all-time in the first and second rounds.

Tennessee will host the first two contests of its regional before the venue changes to Chattanooga for the round of 16.

With wins in the first two rounds, Summitt will pass Dean Smith as the winningest coach in NCAA history. A victory Sunday will be the 879th of her career, tying Smith for the record, and if she just shows up Summitt will pass Smith for the most all-time NCAA tournament appearances with 24.

``For me it is not so much what happens personally, but what happens for this team,'' said Summitt, who is 878-171 in 31 seasons at Tennessee. ``I haven't discussed it with our team; it has not been mentioned once. The only thing we are talking about is Western Carolina and having a 'survive and advance' approach to this tournament, taking it one day at a time.''

Summitt has led the Lady Vols to an 85-17 record in the NCAA tournament, with 15 trips to the Final Four and a record six national titles. Tennessee hasn't won one since 1998, its last of three consecutive championships.

Last season, the Lady Vols lost in the title game to Connecticut, which won its third straight championship.

The Lady Vols went five years without winning a Southeastern Conference tournament title before knocking off then-No. 1 LSU 67-65 for the championship last week.

Senior Shyra Ely led Tennessee with 25 points as it won for the ninth time in 10 games.

Western Carolina is making its first NCAA tournament appearance, but its coach has plenty of experience.

Harper was the starting point guard for the Lady Vols from 1996-99, then known as Kellie Jolly.

``I'm excited about getting to go back to Knoxville,'' Harper said. ``It is great that we will be close enough for our fans to make the trip with us to see us play.''

After serving as an assistant for a Chattanooga team that upset Rutgers in the first round of the NCAA tournament last season, Harper guided the Catamounts to their first ever Southern Conference tournament title this season.

She became the first first-year coach to claim the league's title as Western Carolina beat Georgia Southern 97-95 in double-overtime on Saturday.

Senior Jennifer Gardner scored a tournament-record 45 points, including the game-winner with 16 seconds remaining. The tournament MVP also had 13 rebounds while shooting 15-of-19 from the field and 13-for-15 from the foul line. Gardner set the record for points (106), field goals (33), free throws (37) and rebounds (43) in a Southern Conference tournament.

The Catamounts, who became the first team in league history to win four consecutive tournament games, have won nine of 10 overall.

Western Carolina leads the all-time series 10-8, though the teams haven't met since 1977.

The winner faces New Mexico or Purdue in the second round on Tuesday.

PROBABLE STARTERS: Western Carolina - F Lori Tanner (13.3 ppg, 9.7 rpg), F Gardner (13.8, 9.3 rpg), G Sigita Maleraite (6.5 ppg, 2.4 rpg) G Ki-Ki Glass (3.0 ppg, 3.3 apg), G Shaketia Barnes (6.6 ppg, 2.4 rpg). Tennessee - F Ely (14.5 ppg, 6.9 rpg), C Nicky Anosike (6.0 ppg, 5.6 rpg), G Shanna Zolman (11.9 ppg, 2.3 rpg), G Alexis Hornbuckle (8.2, 5.0 rpg), G Loree Moore (4.6 ppg, 4.3 rpg).

HOW THEY GOT HERE: Western Carolina - Automatic bid, Southern Conference tournament champion. Tennessee - Automatic bid, Southeastern Conference tournament champion.

ALL-TIME TOURNAMENT RECORD: Western Carolina - first appearance. Tennessee - 85-17, 23 years.

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