Lady Vols Take On Talented Challengers

When the road to the Final Four runs past the front door of your home arena, a place in which you've won 42 straight NCAA Tournament contests, you've got to like your chances, but you've also got to deal with high expectations and an assortment of distractions.

You also step up in competition with the Sweet 16, although the Lady Vols are 5-0 in home games in the round of 16, as well as, 5-0 in Elite 8 contests at Thompson-Boling Arena. Overall, Tennessee is a remarkable 17-4 in the Sweet 16 and 13-4 in the Elite Eight.

No. 16 Penn State (26-8, 13-3) comes in off a 77-67 home victory over South Carolina and is 2-1 against SEC team's with a 16-point victory over Mississippi State and a 17-point loss at LSU.

No. 4 Tennessee (30-4, 14-0) was 4-1 against those same three teams, beating S.C. 97-78 in Knoxville, defeating Mississippi State 82-68 in Knoxville and 76-75 in the SEC Tournament and knocking off LSU in Baton Rogue before suffering a 78-62 setback in the SEC Tournament.

Clearly, Penn State hasn't been the same team on the road as it has been at Jordan Center in State College, Pa., and that could be bad news for the visitors who have to overcome both history and a decisive home court against a highly gifted Tennessee team.

The Lady Nittany Lions are 16-0 at home, compared to 7-7 on the road this season. However an even better barometer is comparisons in the home-away conference contests. Penn State lost to Minnesota on the road by 16 points and beat the same Lady Gopher team by 30 points at home. Penn State lost to Iowa 80-75 on the road and dominated the same team 86-52 at home. PSU lost to Ohio State by 11 in Columbus after beating the Lady Buckeyes by 15 at home. Penn State lost to Purdue 73-66 at West Lafayette, Ind., only to defeat the Lady Boilermakers at home 80-68.

The average Penn State loss this season was 13.7 points while its average home victory was 19.1 — a swing of 32.8 points according to the venue. Among those road losses was a 22-point defeat at Kansas State and seven-point setback at Villanova.

Add it all up, and Tennessee should have a decisive edge against Penn State during Saturday's 2:30 p.m. ET contest which is televised by ESPN. However you can always expect the unexpected under tournament pressure and you're only as good as your worst game.

Penn State should give Tennessee all it wants at the guard position where All-American Kelly Mazzante, a 6-0, junior and a former National Freshman Player of the Year, is averaging an eye-popping 24.3 points per game while 5-11 sophomore Tanisha Wright is averaging 16.1 points per contest. Junior guard-forward Jessica Brungo is averaging 11.7 points. Collectively, this outstanding trio is scoring 52.1 of Penn State's 77.1 points per game. The Lady Lions have a pair of 6-3 post players Ashli Schwab (7.1 ppg) and Hazel Joseph (3.0 ppg), but no one taller and no one scoring more points in the paint.

That means Tennessee should have the advantage up front and on the boards where Penn State had a mere 1.4 rebounding advantage over opponents this season. The Vols smaller back court comprised of 5-9 sophomore Loree Moore, 5-8 senior Kara Lawson and 5-11 Tasha Butts will be giving away some inches, but should have an advantage in quickness. The Lady Lions are forcing an average of 18.3 turnovers per game and recording 10.6 steals.

Penn State also holds opponents to 65.6 percent and .429 percent shooting from the field and are shooting nearly 78 percent as a team from the free-throw line.

The Lady Vols will need to take care of the basketball and be patient on offense in their half-court game, working to get the ball inside instead of settling for shots from the perimeter which could prove difficult to launch over Penn State's taller guards. Tennessee also needs to parlay its advantage on the boards into second basket opportunities on the offensive end and into transition opportunities on the defensive end. Otherwise, UT's offense could struggle to score points and create a too-close-for-comfort contest.

On defense, expect Tennessee to pressure and trap the ball, not allowing Penn State to find its confidence on the road. A quick start like the Lady Vols enjoyed in opening round contests against Alabama State and Virginia would be in order for Penn State.

Pushing the pace of the game will also test Penn State's questionable depth. The Lady Lions have shown a tendency to fade down the stretch and in overtime this season and only seven Penn State players are logging at least 15 minutes of action per game this season.

Penn State's head coach Rene Portland is a 26-year veteran who has led Penn State to 19 NCAA Tournaments in 22 seasons. She'll have her team ready and a good game plan in place with a week to prepare.

Ditto for Pat Summitt, who has the added edge of a deeper, more versatile team. Plus, there's that huge home court advantage.

Prediction: Tennessee 81, Penn State 66

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