Friday, March 18, 2011

Tennessee draws on support of fans in NCAA tourney

Fans of the Lady Volunteers travel so well that Tennessee forward Glory Johnson says if they played on another planet at least one carload would show up.

“We’d make it there … and everyone would be wearing an orange shirt,” Johnson said.

She won’t have to worry about that now, at least not in the first round of the NCAA tournament—that’ll be more of a concern for Stetson, Marquette and Texas.

The No. 1-seeded Lady Vols (31-2) will be playing in front of thousands of their own fans on their home court named “The Summitt” in honor of their coach. They’ve won 34 straight there and have never lost a first- or second-round NCAA game in Knoxville in 36 tries.

No. 16 seed Stetson hopes to interrupt those streaks Saturday. Eighth-seeded Marquette and ninth-seeded Texas meet later that day for a chance of possibly facing the Lady Vols in the second round on Monday.

Stetson coach Lynn Bria warned her players not to get too caught up in Tennessee’s tradition. After all, the only Lady Vols team the Hatters are playing is the 2010-11 version.

But senior guard Tierra Brown enjoys the idea of going against a team that has eight national championships.

“I came in just wanting to take in the whole experience and take in Tennessee,” she said. “I grew up being a Tennessee fan. I think it’s better for me to come in and look at the (championship) banners and look at all the history. To just have the opportunity to beat the No. 1 team, it gets me a little more pumped up for the game.”

Stetson (20-12) earned its spot in the tournament after winning the Atlantic Sun tournament. The Hatters were nearly done in the semifinals until Victoria McGowan hit a 55 footer as the clock expired, sending them to a 48-46 win over Belmont.

The Hatters had been picked to finish second from last in the conference but beat Jacksonville 69-50 in the championship, so they don’t have a problem as the underdog.

“Certainly nobody thinks we’re going to win” against Tennessee, Bria said. “We’re used to it This isn’t a position we haven’t been in all year. We had confidence before (McGowan’s shot), but for her to even take that shot showed that we believe we can win if there’s time on the clock.”

Tennessee coach Pat Summitt doesn’t want to think about the prospect of her team losing an NCAA tournament game at home. She’s only lost one first-round game before—in 2009 to Ball State—and doesn’t want to be in that position again.

She’s got a lot to be confident about with the Lady Vols coming off an undefeated Southeastern Conference season and an SEC tournament championship that saw her team shot 70.4 percent in the second half of a 90-65 victory against Kentucky in the championship game.

“I’m just trying to hold onto the positives and think about what we have to do to prepare,” Summitt said. “It would not be a pretty scene. I have a lot of confidence in the maturity of our team.”

Marquette is happy to be back in the NCAA tournament for the first time since the 2006-07 season. After a trip to the NIT last season, this year’s senior class pledged to work harder. The Golden Eagles (23-8) finished fifth in the Big East this season and believe their tough conference games have prepared them for Texas and any team they might face, should they win.

“It makes us tougher emotionally, mentally and physically to play in the Big East,” Marquette coach Terri Mitchell said. “As we prepare for Texas, we have said to our players, ‘They run like this team. They do this like this team.’ It’s given them familiarity with Texas by using Big East names.”

Texas (19-13) is also glad to be playing in the tournament after a difficult Big 12 season. The Longhorns finished seventh in the conference and were holding their breath when the NCAA brackets were announced.

Coach Gail Goestenkors didn’t actually hear Texas’ name called, but felt the sense of relief from her players as they screamed and hugged when they drew their spot in the Dayton region.

“There was that joy, but once you are in you want to make a statement,” the coach said. “You want to prove you deserve to be here.”

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