No. 2 seed Tennessee (24-8) tips off against No. 15 seed Tennessee-Martin (23-8) at 4:10 p.m. Eastern (TV: ESPN2) at Allstate Arena.
After a career of ups - three consecutive SEC tourney titles and two regular season trophies - and downs - the earliest NCAA postseason departure in program history and last year's disappointing loss in the Elite Eight - the seniors realize the pressure valve should just be released.
"When it's your last shot, this is it," said senior Briana Bass. "Leave it all out on the court. Play every game like it's your last because it really is."
Bass knows the program's lofty goals are always hovering, but she doesn't want that to affect team performance.
"The expectation is still up there," Bass said. "We go with the flow. Fight for everything. Never give up. Always push forward."
Sophomore Meighan Simmons is headed into her second postseason. She understands that the regular season no longer matters once the calendar flips to March.
"It is gone," Simmons said. "We have to worry about what we want to do right now. We just have to go out there and play.
"The second time around I realize it's more about poise and patience, one game at a time."
It's the last time around for senior Shekinna Stricklen, and she decided to release the anxiety and enjoy the process.
"That is something I have done," Stricklen said. "I am enjoying it with my teammates. It's coming to an end and we're coming to practice every day and having fun and working hard."
Junior Taber Spani also understands the weight of the expectations at Tennessee and how important it is to embrace them, rather than be suffocated. The team gained a lot of confidence in Nashville in the SEC tourney and will need to tap into that source again.
"We needed confidence," Spani said. "When our team plays confident, we are tough to beat. We try not to focus on that (expectations) just because everyone else is, but we understand that we are playing for Pat and we are playing for this senior class."
Vicki Baugh is a member of that senior class, but she's a fifth-year one, has been to a Final Four and has a national championship ring after being a key contributor in the 2008 postseason.
Now, she wants to help the true seniors - the ones who call her grandma - realize the success that she had on a senior-laden team in Tampa.
"I think everyone really, really wants it for this group," Baugh said. "We don't want to make history in a bad way. That group has gone through a lot and they've always had great talent but putting it together and getting past the Elite Eight is definitely a goal.
"I am willing to do whatever it takes and I am sure they are as well to make sure we go out happy."
Baugh's also postseason success seems like a long time ago, and she wants to experience it again, too.
"I am very excited, but I think a better word right now is hungry," Baugh said. "Any game can be your last. I want to play for Tennessee as long as possible."
What Tennessee hasn't done in the past three postseasons is a topic - the seniors know the issue will be raised since their group has yet to reach a Final Four, and every other Tennessee class has done it at least once - but the staff wants them to change how they approach it.
"The winner sees what he or she wants to do and accomplish," Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood said. "The loser focuses on what he or she wants to avoid.
"We don't want them thinking about what they want to avoid. We want them thinking about what they want to do."
That quest starts Saturday.
Tennessee Coach Pat Summitt is expected to start: Briana Bass, 5'2 guard, No. 1 (2.1 points per game, 0.7 rebounds per game); Shekinna Stricklen, 6'2 senior guard/forward, No. 40 (15.4 ppg, 6.4 rpg); Alicia Manning, 6'1 senior guard/forward, No. 15 (4.1 ppg, 4.5 rpg); Glory Johnson, 6'3 senior forward, No. 25 (14.1 ppg, 9.4 rpg); and Vicki Baugh, 6'4 redshirt senior forward, No. 21 (7.5 ppg, 6.6 rpg).
Tennessee-Martin Coach Kevin McMillan is expected to start: Heather Butler, 5'6 sophomore guard, No. 11 (24.1 ppg, 4.1 rpg), hails from Medina, Tenn., has hit 98 treys this season; Jasmine Newsome, 5'7 sophomore guard, No. 12 (19.9 ppg, 5.4 rpg), hails from Millington, Tenn., has tallied 188 assists this season; Jaclissa Haislip, 6'0 sophomore guard, No. 20 (10.2 ppg, 6.4 rpg), hails from Murfreesboro, Tenn., has grabbed a team-leading 197 rebounds, cousin Marcus Haislip played for the Vols; Aubrey Reedy, 6'0 sophomore post, No. 45 (4.8 ppg, 3.1 rpg), hails from Dyer, Tenn., can step out of the paint and hit threes, has connected on 19 this season; and Shelby Crawford, 6'2 junior forward, No. 34 (2.7 ppg, 3.1 rpg), hails from Thomasville, Ala., will make her 19th start of the season, has played in all 31 games.
Another key player is Taylor Hall, a 5'9 senior guard from Mount Juliet, Tenn., who transferred two years ago to UTM from Roane State. She has connected on 79 three-pointers this season and played in all 31 games.
McMILLAN'S VIEW: Kevin McMillan, who is in his third season at UTM and got one of the youngest teams in college basketball to the NCAA tourney last season, had considerable success this year, too.
The Skyhawks have won 14 consecutive games coming in to Chicago.
McMillan's concerns are the glass and the uniforms.
"You saw the reaction when you asked the girls did they grow up watching Tennessee - well, there's no question," McMillan said. "We felt when we saw Tennessee come up that our biggest challenge would be taking that Tennessee name off that chest and just playing a basketball game."
The Skyhawks are excellent three-point shooters. Their weakness is on the boards, and that concerns the head coach.
"They have got too many rebounders," McMillan said. "We've got one or two, three, but they've got five kids out there at any time that can kill you on the glass.
"If they're not executing well, or defending well, they are still going to kill you on the boards."
UTM's players expressed excitement about playing the Lady Vols.
"I love Tennessee; I've always watched Tennessee," said a beaming Heather Butler. "Since Candace Parker, and even further beyond that, I've watched them ever since I was in middle school.
"I've always, always wanted to play against Tennessee and am very glad that we get this opportunity to go out on the floor with Tennessee, but Coach always tell us it doesn't matter if they are Tennessee - that shouldn't matter.
"We shouldn't be out there wanting their autographs or anything. I'm going to go out there and just act like they're normal student-athletes, which they are."
McMillan put together a tough non-conference schedule for his team - the slate included NCAA participants Purdue, Louisville and Vanderbilt - and the Skyhawks were able to complete against teams with more talent because they can shoot the ball.
"They shoot a lot of threes," Tennessee Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick said. "We have not been known to defend the three-ball very well, so it's going to be a huge challenge for us.
"We are not taking this game lightly. We are preparing for UT Martin like we would anyone."
SCOUTING REPORT: Dean Lockwood handled the scouting report for the Tennessee-Tennessee-Martin game. Here is his assessment.
Offensively, the Lady Vols will have to guard shooters. Tennessee-Martin averages 27 three-point attempts per game.
"They'll shoot them quick in transition," Lockwood said. "They'll drive and kick. They set a ton of ball screens. They are awful good. When they can spot up four players who can all shoot the ball with a great deal of effectiveness, it's hard.
"Defenses are so trained to help. If there is dribble penetration or someone is attacking, even one step (by the defender) and a kick, you're curtains."
Lockwood said the team's commitment to the long ball reminds him of Rick Pitino bursting on the scene with Providence - and getting the Friars to a Final Four in 1987 - by calculating that three points, if a team makes enough of them, will out-pace twos over the course of a game.
"They live and die," Lockwood said. "They have made a commitment to shoot threes. They are going to try and beat you with threes."
Defensively, Lockwood expects a mix of looks in the half-court.
"They do a lot of man, and they mix in some 2-3 zone as well," Lockwood said. "I don't see a lot of pressure. I don't anticipate a whole lot."
Keys for Tennessee: "We have to really do a good job (against the trey)," he said. "The key to that is keeping dribblers in front of us. We have to match up at the arc.
"We have to make dribblers out of shooters. That's it in a nutshell."
Tennessee has wanted to deploy Glory Johnson on the perimeter for defense, and she'll need to play there at times by necessity, not design. Vicki Baugh and Kamiko Williams will need to be ready, too.
"She'll have to," Lockwood said. "Miko, her defense, will be critical. With Vicki, there will be times they will play a post who will pop out and shoot a three.
"Vicki Baugh has got to be ready to guard the arc."
Lockwood indicated that Tennessee would like to go deep into the bench.
"We're playing 11 players, and we want to make this a little bit of a game of attrition," Lockwood said. "We want the tempo to be a little bit up. At some point we're going to pressure them.
"We want to go inside and go to our strength. We want to play to our strengths and take away theirs."
DEFENSIVE STOPPER: Junior guard Kamiko Williams is now being inserted into games for her ability to guard the ball - the notion of which would have brought vigorous shakes of the head from the coaching staff two seasons ago.
"My freshman year I struggled," Williams said.
Williams entered the game in the second half against LSU and helped set the tone on the ball. The Lady Tigers sputtered, and Tennessee secured the win.
It was Dean Lockwood who suggested it on the bench in Nashville and hearing the words out loud even startled him.
"I remember saying it and thinking, ‘What did I just say? Who said that?' " Lockwood said. "She is so capable. That kid is so understated athletically.
"She can guard people when she wants to. When we want to lock up on the perimeter and she's engaged, she's going to have that opportunity."
An engaged Williams can be a shutdown defender, a crucial role in postseason.
"I wanted it," Williams said. "I wanted it for this team. I gave it my all."
Williams tore the ACL in her left knee last July and rehabbed with an eye on coming back this season. She was cleared to play in games in late December.
"It had a lot to do with my knee surgery," Williams said. "Getting hurt kind of opened my eyes, and I am grateful to come back this year, and I am not going to take it for granted.
"This is my last year to play with the seniors. I busted my tail when I was hurt to play with them, so I am not going to let up."
OFFENSIVE POP: The Lady Vols need scoring from Shekinna Stricklen in the postseason, and they hope to see it starting in the first half, rather than the second, as what happened in Nashville.
The team's recent analysis - Alicia Manning said the players did some introspective work with a psychological bent - revealed the need to be intense as opposed to tense.
It was a message Stricklen needed, and, to some extent, Manning, too.
"Tense means you're apprehensive and fearful about your performance a little bit," Dean Lockwood said. "You worry about outcomes.
"She said, ‘Sometimes when I miss my first couple of shots, I get a little (hesitant).' I said, ‘You can get tense about it, which is not productive at all or stay intense, where you are in the moment, you are very focused, you believe in yourself, and you know great shooters have that mentality that the next ball is going in.'
"That was the team talk. Tense is when you're not sure of yourself and you're very uncertain."
Lockwood compared it to traversing unfamiliar territory. There are reasons to be cautious but don't lose confidence.
"It's almost like walking up a blind, dark alley," Lockwood said. "Intense is, ‘I'm very focused, but I'm very confident. If something happens I have a plan. Or if that plan fails I have a Plan B.'
"So I am, intense, I am very tuned in, but I am not at all worried or fearful."
When Stricklen hit a deep three-pointer against South Carolina in the quarterfinals of the SEC tourney, she let loose a scream as she ran down the court.
"Showing that exuberance, she was like a kid that someone just fed her a packet of Kool-Aid," Lockwood said. "We want that, and we don't want her to be fearful of outcomes.
"We want her to trust herself and say, ‘I am a good player. I am going to make this play. No fear.' "
Getting Manning to loosen up has paid dividends, too. She has been a steady rebounder and hustle player, but Manning scored in the SEC tourney, too - she hit a trey in each of the three games - and kept the defenses honest.
Lockwood noted that at times Manning's arms can get so rigid as to resemble steel cables.
"At times she tries too hard," Lockwood said. "You can self-sabotage. It's like the baseball pitcher who says, ‘Don't throw it high and wide. Don't throw it high and wide. Don't throw it high and wide.'
"Sure enough when you think about what you want to avoid and not do, you end up almost flipping the script on yourself."
Lockwood's advice to Manning was to embrace the moment instead.
"I said relax, take a deep breath, look around, enjoy this and go play," Lockwood said.
The advice is rather simple but not always easy to implement internally. But Manning was able to do so.
She consulted with the team's life coaches and absorbed the lessons.
"It is better to play intense and not tense," Manning said. "I've really taken that. He taught me a lot about myself and my personality and how I can best perform. It has really helped."
ALLSTATE ARENA: The arena, which is located near O'Hare Airport, is directly under a main incoming flight pattern and the sound of aircraft ahead is constant.
But it is unlikely to register too much inside. The arena seats 18,000, but it has a low roof, and it is likely to get noisy inside.
It is DePaul's hometown, but the Blue Demons play on campus near downtown Chicago, while Allstate is in Rosemont. Saturday also is St. Patrick's Day, so that could cut into attendance as the festivities are plentiful.
"Daggumit, we've got to go up against St. Patrick's Day in Chicago," DePaul Coach Doug Bruno said. "We all love St. Patrick's Day in Chicago."
Tennessee fans should still turn out, as the Lady Vols have fans in the area, plus plenty who will travel, including a bus tour from Knoxville.
"It helps a whole lot," Shekinna Stricklen said. "It's like another player on the team. We really get the energy and we feed off of that. We love it."
ACADEMIC RESPITE: Tennessee's spring break is well-timed this March with school out next week. The players were able to fulfill academic obligations before Friday's departure for Chicago.
"It helps a lot," Ariel Massengale. "This past week I had a test Tuesday night and two Wednesday. So when I got out of class Wednesday I was relieved.
"Now, we can focus on nothing but basketball."
That means Tennessee-Martin had the players' full attention at practice sessions.
"They are going to challenge us guarding the three ball," Alicia Manning said. "It is going to be a defensive game for us. I like starting out like that."
The seniors' instructions have been to set the tone early in the game.
"Defense," Briana Bass said. "We've got to make defensive stops early and make plays early and get us off to a good start."
UTM is likely better than a 15 seed - earlier bracket projections had them as a 13 - but the committee may have found matching the Lady Vols with Pat Summitt's alma mater too tempting.
The Skyhawks game notes have a photo on the third page -the first page contains starters and game info, the second the NCAA bracket - of Summitt scoring for UTM, who were known then as the Lady Pacers.
The photo notes Summitt, who played from 1970 to 1974, held the single-game record of 35 points that was broken this season by Heather Butler, who poured in 42 against Tennessee State, and got to 1,000 career points in 50 games, whereas Summitt did so in 59.
"We've got to play defense," Massengale said. "That's the main thing. They can drive and kick. We know they can shoot the ball very, very well.
"For us to win we are not going to be able to trade baskets with them because they are one of the top teams in the country when it comes to scoring points per game.
"We've got to go in there with a defensive mindset just like what this program was built on."
That may seem like a basic statement - how crucial defense is in postseason - but fifth-year senior Vicki Baugh indicated it has taken the team quite a while to figure that out.
"We've had to mature and grow up and learn that and we've done that just in time," Baugh said Friday at Tennessee's press conference.
TABER TIME: Taber Spani can't sit still, even in the locker room during the open media portion.
The team was scheduled to practice as soon as their press duties were done Friday, and Spani sat in front of her locker, with her right foot tapping the floor like a metronome.
"It's just me wanting to get ready," Spani said. "I just do it. I don't know why."
It was an interesting locker room with modern wall décor and wood accents and then blue metal lockers that looked circa 1950.
The press conference area is held in an annex building that is across the street, but nobody has to go outside. The arena and the building are connected by a long tunnel that goes under the street, and a golf cart ferries the coaches and players back and forth.
When the golf cart slowed uphill, the hyperkinetic Glory Johnson jumped off and pushed it from behind.
Spani has that same energy, and her right leg never stopped moving in the locker room. Her left leg still has a brace on the knee, and Spani has accepted the fact she won't be well until the off-season, but this is the time of the year that matters the most to her.
"The first two years going in and then having it taken away (by losses in the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight), I learned how much it really does matter," Spani said. "You have two great regular seasons, great start to postseason and then it ends.
"We're at a program where the NCAA and what you do and the results of that define a legacy and how a team comes together. This is everything."
Spani has been able to practice this week and has tried to adjust to her limited mobility.
"I am going to give everything that I have," Spani said. "The knee doesn't feel great, but I feel like I am producing well and I had some really good practices, so I am confident in how I can perform with it."
Tennessee wants to use its depth in this tournament and has 11 players it can use in various situations.
"We need everybody in different ways," Spani said. "Depth is one of our biggest advantages. We just have to make sure that we use it. We have to play hard when we are out on the floor. When you are on the floor, give everything."
BALMY CHICAGO: It is unseasonably warm in the Windy City with temperatures in the 70s. This time of year usually brings cold weather, even snow in Chicago.
Vicki Baugh, whose surgically repaired knee feels better when it's warm, welcomes the climate.
"Just in time," Baugh said. "I haven't noticed any aches and pains with my knee. I am praising the weather gods right now."
ASSISTS FOR ARIEL: Ariel Massengale has piled up 149 assists this season for her teammates but after Tennessee was assigned to Chicago, the Windy City native needed some help.
Massengale, who is from nearby Bolingbrook, Ill., needed to expand her allotted tickets so she sent a text asking teammates for any unused ones. Several players offered to help, including fellow freshmen Cierra Burdick and Isabelle Harrison, and she was able to compile a ticket list of 20.
"I gave her all my tickets almost," Harrison said. "This is her hometown."
Burdick had been giving her friend a hard time about Tennessee getting Chicago - Burdick, a native of North Carolina, had hoped for Chapel Hill in the sub-regional - but she made a ticket donation.
"Don't hurt my heart," Burdick said when reminded that Tennessee went north instead of east.
Burdick has become a go-to player for quotes. She took a swig of orange juice right before the interview started and then made a nasty face. She had just brushed her teeth.
"Toothpaste and orange juice, ugh," Burdick said.
Burdick drove Massengale to Pat Summitt's house for the Selection Show on Monday. That was when Massengale shrieked with joy over the Chicago site.
"I was contemplating making her walk home, but I've forgiven her," Burdick said. "It's not her fault. I am happy she is playing at home."
Burdick was reminded that Tennessee will schedule a game close to her hometown, too, at some point.
"I'm happy, I'm happy," Burdick said. "I just hope I don't have to wait until senior year."
Burdick was also happy the two-week wait to play a game had nearly ended. The Lady Vols last took the court for a game on March 4 in Nashville.
"It's been awhile; it's just been playing against ourselves and practice guys," Burdick said. "I am excited. I just love the game period. I feel like I wake up every morning with a smile on my face.
"I am ready to get out on the floor, start playing and get this thing rolling."
Massengale will also have dozens of supporters in the stands from high school friends to other family members and fans who bought their own ducats.
Several Lady Vols will have familiar faces in the seats, too.
Briana Bass will have family make the trip from relatively nearby Indianapolis - though the traffic can extend the time in the car - while Shekinna Stricklen has relatives traveling from Arkansas.
Meighan Simmons will have two friendly faces in the stands - her Steele High School coach and the coach's husband, who made the trip from Cibolo, Texas - and then shared her other tickets with Massengale.
"For Rel it's coming home for her, and I think she's going to do a really good job of just going out there and playing," Simmons said.
Taber Spani's family might be able to make the trip but are hoping the Lady Vols win two games in Chicago - the regional site, Des Moines, is a lot closer to their hometown of Lee's Summit, Mo.
Vicki Baugh has family in Chicago - when she drove to Knoxville from Sacramento in August of 2007 to begin her college career, the Windy City was a stopover to rest and visit before continuing to Tennessee. Those family members will be in attendance.
"My grandfather's family is from here," Baugh said. "This is one of the spots I stopped on my way driving from California to Tennessee. We stopped and saw family in Utah and made a trip to Chicago."
Baugh wanted to have her car while in college, so she made the cross-country trek to get it to the Volunteer State.
"It wasn't that bad," Baugh said. "The longest drive was a straight day, because we stopped and saw things."
Baugh's grandparents made that 2007 trip and then flew back to Sacramento.
"I got to meet my family here in Chicago, and they are coming to the game," Baugh said. "I am very excited."
PRAISE FOR PAT: The support for Pat Summitt poured in Friday from the other three coaches in the sub-regional.
Tennessee Martin Coach Kevin McMillan had the quip of the day when he was asked how the Skyhawks would try to handle the Lady Vols on the glass.
"We're going to see if they will allow us to play with six, and we've told Coach Summitt we have her jersey in our locker room if she wants to put it on and help us, as the last time Tennessee-Martin beat Tennessee, she was playing," McMillan said.
BYU Coach Jeff Judkins spoke to Summitt on Friday at the arena.
"She is a legend," Judkins said. "I think that every coach respects what she has done and the way that she runs her program. I think as a coach she loves the game and I think she has shown that with so many people that sometimes when things aren't going the best for me, I think that she comes out and works hard and enjoys the game.
"Another part I like is that she's got some fire. I really like that. She's not afraid to say how she feels to her team."
DePaul Coach Doug Bruno has known Summitt for years - the two teams played earlier this season in the Maggie Dixon Classic - and issued an unequivocal endorsement of her.
"This is the greatest coach in the history of our sport," Bruno said. "Not just the greatest women's coach. This is 1,000 wins. She doesn't get recognized without it being qualified - she's won a thousand women'sgames. She's won a thousand college games.
"She is the winningest coach in the sport of college basketball. … She's been so much more than just Tennessee's great coach."
PRESS TRANSCRIPTS: The quotes from coaches and players at Friday's press conferences are made available online by the NCAA for each school.
Click on the school name to read the full transcript.
ODDS AND ENDS
Tennessee leads the series with Tennessee-Martin, 13-2. The last win for UTM came in 1972 when Summitt suited up for the school. The two teams last played Dec. 5, 2006, an 85-29 win for the Lady Vols in Knoxville. … Tennessee is 6-1 in games played on March 17. The last win on this date came against Notre Dame, 89-50, in 2002. The first win on March 17 came against Fordham, 76-54, in 1979. The lone loss on this date was to Maryland, 75-69, in 1978.
Lady Vols practice at Allstate Arena
Glory Johnson, Alicia Manning