Rematch with overall top seed Baylor awaits
By Steve Megargee | AP Sports Writer
KNOXVILLE — Tennessee will need to produce at least one more surprise in order to earn the program’s first Final Four appearance since its 2008 national championship.
The second-seeded Lady Vols (24-7) open the NCAA tournament Saturday on their home floor against No. 15 seed Oral Roberts (18-12). Tennessee is in the Oklahoma City regional that includes defending national champion and No. 1 overall seed Baylor, which beat the Lady Vols in two of the last three NCAA tournaments.
“Of course, I don’t know of too many people who would say, ‘Gosh, I’d love to be in Baylor’s bracket,’ “ Tennessee coach Holly Warlick said. “I think everybody in Baylor’s bracket would want to be in the others, but it is what it is.”
That puts Tennessee in a position where it has to beat the odds again.
Although Tennessee is the only team that has reached the tournament ever since the NCAA started running it in 1982, this marks the first year Pat Summitt isn’t on the bench. Tennessee traditionally has watched the unveiling of the NCAA brackets at Summitt’s home, but she was out of town Monday and the Lady Vols instead viewed Monday’s selection show from a Neyland Stadium club overlooking the 50-yard line on one side and downtown Knoxville on the other.
“I think this team enjoys the underdog role,” Warlick said.
That role isn’t typical for Tennessee, but this season has been anything but typical.
Summitt announced in 2011 that she had early-onset dementia, Alzheimer’s type, and she ended her 38-year coaching tenure last April with 1,098 wins, eight national titles and 18 Final Four appearances. Summitt remains on staff as head coach emeritus, attends most practices and was in the stands for nearly every home game this season.
Not much was expected of these Lady Vols — at least not by Tennessee standards.
Tennessee didn’t return a single player who started an NCAA tournament game last year during its run to a regional final. The Lady Vols were ranked 20th in the preseason Top 25. After getting stunned by Chattanooga in their season opener, they dropped to 24th, their lowest ranking since 1985.
Tennessee was picked to end up fifth in the SEC by the league’s coaches, while the SEC media had the Lady Vols finishing fourth. Tennessee instead won its 17th regular-season conference title, but lost in the SEC tournament.
“We take it as motivation,” sophomore forward Cierra Burdick said. “People have been calling us underdogs all year. They picked us fifth in the SEC. ... We’ve just proved all these people wrong. It would just make a statement for the season that we’ve had if we could make a lot of noise in the tournament and make a deep run. It would just be the ultimate conclusion to our season.”
Tennessee also has had to overcome injuries to get to this point.
Freshman guard Andraya Carter underwent season-ending shoulder surgery after starting five of Tennessee’s first seven games. Burdick missed eight games with a broken right hand. Sophomore center Isabelle Harrison has sat out nine of Tennessee’s last 11 games with an injured left knee that required surgery, though she has returned to practice and hopes to play this weekend.
“This team has surprised a lot of people,” Warlick said. “Nothing really fazes us.”