LSU, Stetson, Arizona and Oklahoma are playing in the Chattanooga Regional. The winners will play Tuesday evening for the right to move on to the Sweet 16. Tennessee, Western Carolina, Purdue and New Mexico are playing in the Philadelphia Regional. The winners also will play Tuesday for the right to advance.
Tennessee fans looking for another team to pull for might consider Arizona. Two of their players gave major props to the Lady Vols program and coach Pat Summitt, and one even said she loved the color orange.
GAME ONE: No. 8 seed Oklahoma, 17-12, vs. No. 9 seed Arizona, 19-11. Tipoff is set for noon (espn2).
Oklahoma's players didn't seem to know they were a bubble team until advised so by the media during its press conference.
"I didn't know there were any doubters," said Sooners senior guard Dionnah Jackson, an All-Big 12 First Team selection. "We know we were deserving of getting in, and that's what counts."
Jackson, a 5'9 senior guard from St. Louis, Mo., averages 14.5 points, 8.2 rebounds, 5.8 assists and 2.2 steals per game. She's part of a four-guard starting lineup – 5'9 sophomore Erin Higgins (9.0 ppg, 3.1 rbg); 5'11 senior Lauren Shoush (6.3 ppg, 2.9 rbg); and 5'8 sophomore Britney Brown (1.8 ppg, 1.7 rbg) – deployed by Oklahoma coach Sherri Coale. Leah Rush, a 6'1 sophomore forward, (15.1 ppg, 6.3 rpg) rounds out the starting lineup.
Jackson, Shoush and redshirt junior Antoinette Wadsworth are the holdovers from Oklahoma's 2002 Final Four team so they are familiar with the arduous path of the postseason.
"I remember what it was like to make it to the Final Four and hopefully I can help my teammates get to that level again," Jackson said. "You have to have fun. If you don't you miss everything. Have fun and play hard."
Standing in the way are the Arizona Wildcats, which are led by guard Dee-Dee Wheeler and center Shawntinice Polk.
Coale, whose team lacks size, said she knew very little about the Pac-10 opponent and logged onto the Internet after the selection show to print out Arizona's roster. Polk's height at 6'5 stood out immediately.
"I thought, ‘Oh great, a 6'5 player. Here we go again,' " Coale said. "We're undersized in the post."
Coale has since watched a lot of film on the Wildcats.
"Arizona is impressive on film," she said. "Their bigs are really big. Shawntinice Polk is very skilled. She can really pass. They have skilled shooters on the perimeter. They're terrific on transition. There's a reason why they've scored 80-plus points in the games that they scored 80 points. They're very dangerous in transition. We'll have our hands full."
Polk, a junior, averages 12.9 ppg and 8.1 rpg. Wheeler, a 5'6 senior, leads the team at 17.8 ppg and also grabs 5.1 rpg and dishes out 4.4 assists per game. They are joined in the starting lineup by 5'4 freshman guard Jessica Arnold (8.7 ppg, 2.6 rpg); 5'10 junior guard Natalie Jones (9.6 ppg, 4.7 rbg); and 6'2 senior forward Danielle Adefeso (6.3 ppg, 4.9 rbg).
Arizona coach Joan Bonvicini said the Wildcats must try to take advantage of their size. Oklahoma's Rush will be matched up against Arizona's Polk.
"This will be a real key," Bonvicini said. "We have a big size advantage, but I'm sure they will make adjustments. They may double down, play zone. Teams do all kinds of things to defend ‘Polkey.' "
Polk expects a battle from Rush nonetheless.
"She is a very smart post player," Polk said. "She has good moves for her size, and although she isn't very big, size doesn't matter; it's your determination. It is a good matchup for me. I am sure there are things I can show her that she has not seen before, but I know there are things she will show me that I have not seen before either."
Rush said the team strategy against Polk would be "to try to wear her down."
"She has some great skills and her team utilizes her abilities," Rush said. "It will definitely be a challenge for me, but I am ready for it."
Wheeler will draw the assignment of guarding Jackson, who leads her team in rebounding despite being a guard. Wheeler wasn't that familiar with Jackson's game until she watched film.
"I haven't seen as good a rebounding point guard in a long time," Bonvicini said. "She does whatever her team needs – rebounding, scoring, making an assist."
"She is a quick guard and is good in transition," Wheeler said. "You never really can stop a great player like that; you can only slow them down a little. The only thing I can do is try to slow her down and alter her decisions."
Both teams like to run, but Oklahoma will pick its spots against Arizona.
"We don't want to get into a running contest with them," said Coale, who said the Sooners would play "situational transition."
Coale sees similarities between the two squads: both coaches were nervous during the selection show two weeks ago, and both teams survived "a tough league and made it to the Big Dance, and now we can take a big breath."
Coale also noted that both teams have played in competitive spurts but sometimes lacked enough to finish.
"If they (Arizona) string 40 minutes together, they can beat just about anybody," Coale said.
"The big thing is that we have to play hard for 40 minutes," Bonvicini said. "Rebounding will be a huge indicator of who will win this game."
Oklahoma's Higgins is just happy to play someone out of the Big 12.
"It's something new," Higgins said. "It's something fun and fresh."
STAT WATCH: Oklahoma's Brown averaged 1.8 ppg and 1.5 apg this season but averaged 11.0 points and 5.0 assists in two Big 12 Tournament games. Jackson's career high of 30 points was set against Baylor earlier this season with 26 coming in the second half. Oklahoma lost by one point, 73-72. Arizona's Polk is the school's career leader in double-doubles (46), blocks (219) and rebounding average (9.8). Wheeler is first in steals (301) and games started (116).
"If we stay here long enough, I'll double my body weight. You've got the food in this town. We're good for the economy." –Coale, talking about Knoxville's restaurants. The team "knocked out Litton's and Copper Cellar" on Friday, and ate at Calhoun's on Saturday night.
"I thought we should change our name from Sooner to Catamount. See if we can't win one." -Coale, referring to the men's NCAA Tournament and the upset win by the Vermont Catamounts over Kansas.
When you come to the West Coast, you get used to that lifestyle." –Bonvicini, explaining how a coach with a Northeast accent ended up in Arizona. She explained she played at Southern Connecticut State – and played in the first four AIAW Championships – and then had an offer to play in a summer league in Los Angeles. She coached at Long Beach State for 12 years before taking the job at Arizona in 1991.
"I watched Pat Summitt and Tennessee ever since I was a little girl, and it is a dream to play for a team like Tennessee. I think every girl dreams of playing for a team like Tennessee when they are growing up. It is a dream come true to play in a place like this." -Wheeler, on playing in Knoxville on the home floor of Tennessee.
"I think they have the best colors in the country. I love orange." –Polk, on playing at Thompson-Boling Arena. She added that being in this atmosphere "gives you that little extra umph to play at your best."
GAME TWO: No. 1 seed LSU, 29-2, vs. No. 16 seed Stetson, 17-13. Tipoff is 30 minutes after the first game ends, approximately 2:30 p.m. (ESPN).
LSU is ready to kick off this tournament and make a return trip to the Final Four. Stetson is truly happy to be here and thrilled to have the Hatters in the national spotlight.
"I am just excited because we are the (Atlantic) Sun Conference champions, and we get a chance to play in the NCAA Tournament," said Stetson senior center Kristy Brown of Marietta, Ga. It means so much to the school, and I am so honored to represent it. We just want to let people know who we are and what we are here for."
LSU comes to Knoxville with the bull's eye of the No. 1 overall seed.
"This is what you prepare for all year," LSU coach Pokey Chatman said. "We know that LSU needs to execute for 40 minutes. I guess every coach shares those same sentiments at this time of year."
LSU is led by its guards, Temeka Johnson and Seimone Augustus. The Lady Tigers spent much of the season ranked No. 1 in the country and only lost two games – 51-49 to Rutgers in New Jersey on Jan. 5 and 67-65 to Tennessee on a neutral court March 6.
Augustus said the 14-day break between the SEC tourney title game and today's contest allowed LSU to regroup as a team, reestablish its confidence and get "ready for the next challenge that we have to face."
"I agree with Seimone," Johnson said. "I think it was good for us to work on some things that we needed to work on that was exposed during the SEC Tournament. We had the opportunity to work on it, along with getting our mind right as a team. … I think we got it accomplished, but we'll see."
LSU ultimately lost the game to Tennessee after turning the ball over on its end of the floor. The Lady Vols converted on a fast break to go up by one point. A scramble for a loose ball at the end of the game ended up with a foul call against LSU, and Tennessee boosted its lead by one more point.
Augustus was asked if she was prepared to pick up her scoring if her team needed it, especially at the end of the game.
"I am very prepared to do that," Augustus said. "We worked on a couple of situations during practice this week, on last-second situations, whether it be coming to the ball or whatever I need to do to help my team, then I am going to do."
Johnson, a 5'3 senior (10.0 ppg, 7.5 apg, 3.1 rpg), and Augustus, a 6'1 junior (20.1 ppg, 4.5 rpg), are joined in the starting lineup by: Scholanda Hoston, a 5'10 junior guard (8.7 ppg, 2.5 rpg); Wendlyn Jones, a 6'1 junior guard (5.2 ppg, 5.1 rpg); and Tillie Willis, a 6'3 senior (3.2 ppg, 3.7 rpg). A key reserve is 6'5 freshman center Sylvia Fowles, who averages 12.0 ppg, 9.0 rpg and 2.8 blocks per game.
The Lady Tigers won't overlook Stetson or its leader in Brown, Johnson said.
"They are a good team, and they made it to the tournament," Johnson said. "We are not going to overlook them. They are going to bring their ‘A' game and do what they have to do to try and beat us. We just have to make sure we do what we have to do to get past them. … We can't look past them. They have some good three-point shooters, and they love to push the ball up like we do. But if we play defense like we know we can, then I think we will be OK."
Besides Brown, a 6'2 post player averaging 16.8 ppg, 10.9 rpg and 2.6 apg, Stetson is expected to start: JoAnn Smith, a 5'4 senior guard (8.9 ppg, 4.5 rbg, 3.4 apg); Nefertiti Walker, a 5'7 junior guard (15.7 ppg, 3.2 rbg, 2.2 apg); Lucy Martinez, a 5'7 freshman guard (3.5 ppg, 3.3 rbg); and Janene Maclin, a 5'10 sophomore forward (8.5 ppg, 6.1 rpg).
Stetson is fully aware of the challenge that awaits them, but the players said they must focus on their game, not LSU's.
"I am so excited to play LSU because they are the No. 1 team," Brown said. "How else are you going to get better without playing the best? I think it is an honor to play them, and I think it will be a wonderful experience for the university, for our coaches, for the girls, for everyone involved."
But Brown and Walker aren't content with just being here.
"If we can play as a team and know our role, I think we can play with them," Brown said.
Walker said the Atlantic Sun Conference teams are regarded lightly, "but all of the teams in our conference are good. Our conference play has us ready for this tournament."
Walker also is heartened by some of the upsets in the men bracket, including two shockers, Bucknell over Syracuse and Vermont over Kansas.
"I think if we play our game, we play hard and we play together, anything is possible," Walker said. "This is an opportunity for us to let the world know who the Stetson Hatters are."
Stetson's coach, Dee Romine, smiled while her players spoke and had to admire their attitude.
"I'm realistic," Romine said. "I realize that LSU is big, strong, quick and very athletic and they have arguably the best player in the country right now (in Augustus). So we have to play almost errorless basketball for 40 minutes.
"I told our kids this week, if we can duplicate as close to the type of game we had in our conference championship – and maybe pick it up a notch – and LSU is maybe not at the top of their game, there's a possibility. We feel like we're as prepared as we can be, and our kids will fight until the end."
Another key for the Hatters will be not folding under LSU's defensive pressure and trying to slow down the Lady Tigers.
"Tempo is huge," said Romine, who also cited shot selection, poise under pressure and rebounding.
"They get a lot of their points off second shots," she said. "We have to limit their second-shot opportunities. We have to rebound the basketball and play great team defense."
That's a lot to ask of any team for 40 minutes, but a monumental upset isn't without precedent. Harvard, as a No. 16 seed, beat No. 1 seed Stanford on its home floor in 1998. However, LSU has no intention of being on the wrong end of shocking the world.
"The experience of this team – they understand that rankings and seedings are other people's opinions," Chatman said. "They look at it as one game at a time. I don't even know if they realize that it was six games (to win a national title) until someone told them."
"There is no pressure," said Johnson, who wears jersey No. 2 and was sporting a "Meek No. 2" headband during the press conference. "The only pressure there is is the pressure we put on ourselves."
Johnson can pattern her game after Chatman, a former point guard for LSU and star in the SEC. Chatman deflects attention from herself, but Johnson said the team is aware of her accomplishments, both as a player and a coach.
"She is being very modest," Johnson. "Everywhere you go people are talking about Pokey Chatman and what she did. But I think the mental aspect of it, trying to be able to break down my opponent is what I would like to learn from her."
STAT WATCH: Brown is clearly the class of the Atlantic Sun Conference. She leads the conference in shooting and rebounding and is first on her team in blocks (17). She has a host of community and academic accolades for her work at Stetson and in the Deland, Fla., community. Stetson is 0-3 in games this season in which it scored 50 points or less. Sunday is a day of firsts for Stetson: first time for any school player, male or female, to play in the NCAA tourney; first Romine-led team to be in the tourney; and first time to ever face LSU. It was also a season of firsts for LSU: first SEC regular season championship (14-0); first player in Augustus to be SEC Player of the Year; and first first-year head coach in Chatman to ever be conference Coach of the Year. LSU is 0-18 in Thompson-Boling Arena, but the opponent was Tennessee on 16 occasions, Auburn in the 1980 SEC tourney and Georgia in the 1983 SEC tourney. The Lady Tigers are 27-2 when leading at halftime.
"It is funny. At the Sun Conference Championship game they (fans) were chanting, ‘What is a Hatter?' " -Brown, when asked about the school's nickname. The Hatters' logo is a cowboy hat draped over a capital S. According to the school's Web site the name originated with John B. Stetson, maker of the hats with the same name. Henry DeLand founded DeLand Academy in 1883, but three years later, a freeze affecting the citrus industry left DeLand in financial straits. Stetson, who had a winter home in DeLand, became interested in the school and was made chairman of the board of trustees in 1889. The university was renamed in his honor. Stetson fielded the first football team in Florida in 1901. The name "Hatter" was used then and remains in use today.
"This team really has a lot of character." –Romine after being asked about Stetson surviving a four overtime contest against Lipscomb on Feb. 10. The Hatters also had three buzzer beaters this season against Georgia State, Mercer and UCF.
"It is playing whoever we have to to reach that goal. We are not overlooking anybody. If Tennessee happens to be there for that final game for us to reach that goal, then that is just that. … I am a junior now, and that was three years ago." –Augustus when asked if she looked ahead to a rematch with Tennessee and if she was inspired to play well because the Lady Vols also recruited her. LSU and Tennessee would have to both reach the title game to play again this season.
"The picture on the Harley was a big deal. I had kept it a secret. I just rode it up there, and they took the picture." –Chatman on a newspaper article in which she was shown on her motorcycle, a classic Softail made by Harley-Davidson.
"Every person who owns a motorcycle is best friends with the next person who owns a motorcycle. I guess I'll have a plethora of friends now." –Chatman, when asked if the cycle shot earned her some new fans.
"I think I heard her whisper last night that they were having a team meeting." –Chatman on the quiet nature of Augustus, who has become a more vocal leader this season, though not a loud one. She also said Augustus has improved by adding 12 pound of muscle, becoming a smarter player and moving more without the basketball.
GAME THREE: No. 8 seed New Mexico, 26-4, vs. No. 9 seed Purdue, 16-12. Tipoff is set for 7:22 p.m. (espn2).
New Mexico is enjoying its fourth straight trip to the NCAA tourney, and coach Don Flanagan was quick to thank his seniors, Lindsey Arndt and Mandi Moore.
"I'm fortunate to have these two seniors sitting next to me," said the Lobos coach. "They've been in the NCAA Tournament all four years. I'm just glad they brought me along with them."
For Flanagan the tournament exposure also could mean a recruiting boost. His roster is made up primarily of players from the West and Southwest, but he does have one player from Purdue's territory in Lynnville, Indiana, native Julie Briody, a sophomore guard.
"She was going to another school," Flanagan said. "She was looking at another school in the area, Colorado State, and the coach left. We happened to be the next school in the area. We don't get a lot of attention east of the Mississippi.
"People don't realize our story. They don't know that we are fourth in the nation in attendance, and that we were fourth in attendance last year. They don't know that we play in the Pit and that we average 12,000 fans. I think there are a lot of people who would like to play (at New Mexico), and we want to tell as many people as possible."
The best boost for the Lobos, who play in the Mountain West Conference, would be a win over Purdue of the Big 10 Conference.
"They're a physical team," Flanagan said. "They play like a Big 10 team. They make a lot of contact off the ball. They have great shooters and are difficult to defend."
"We don't know much different," said Purdue coach Kristy Curry, who described her players as "big and corn-fed." "Playing in our league, 16 games, makes you tougher. It makes you meaner. Physicality will be a difference in this game. They are a more finesse team. A lot of it depends on how the game is called."
The Boilermakers are led by: Katie Gearlds, a 6'1 guard/forward (14.0 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 3.0 apg); Erin Lawless, a 6'2 sophomore forward (14.2 ppg, 5.4 rpg); and Emily Heikes, a 6'0 senior center (5.3 ppg, 6.5 rpg). The other two starters are Sharika Webb, a 5'9 junior guard (4.4 ppg, 2.8 rpg, 2.6 apg); and Lindsay Wisdom-Hylton, a 6'2 freshman forward (8.5 ppg, 4.6 rbg).
"Katie, Erin and Emily are the core of this team," Curry said. "They understand at this point of the season, it's one and done. They watched Bucknell beat Kansas (Friday night) in the men's tournament. They know that it doesn't matter what name's across the front of your jersey. … If we put together 40 minutes, we're as good as anybody. How consistent we have been is the difference."
Gearlds will draw a lot of attention from New Mexico.
"We hope to be able to defend Gearlds the best we can," Flanagan said. "Their inside play is good. We will do the best we can to keep the ball out of the interior. We don't want to give Gearlds open looks."
For her part, Gearlds is ready to get back on the court after sweating out the selection show.
"I miss playing the game on someone other than on our own teammates," Gearlds said. "I felt very grateful to even be in the tournament. It is awesome to have the opportunity to be able to even play in the NCAA Tournament, and being a No. 9 seed just goes to show you that the committee has a lot of respect for our program and what we have done in the past. Having the opportunity to play New Mexico is having the opportunity to play another game."
The Lobos got waylaid by Minnesota, a Big 10 team, on Jan. 9 by a score of 75-35. Purdue lost three times to Minnesota this season – 58-38 on Jan. 13 at home; 71-49 on Feb. 13 on the road; and 71-68 on March 5 on a neutral court.
Gearlds said she watched "a little bit" of New Mexico's game with Minnesota.
"I don't think it does New Mexico justice to compare them in that game," she said. "New Mexico is a good basketball team. Minnesota just kind of put it to them, but Minnesota kind of put it to us twice."
New Mexico's coach hopes she's right.
"We had an awakening at Minnesota," Flanagan said. "Hopefully, we're better prepared now. I think we understand the physical nature of the game now. I thought we did then. I think that was a turning point in our season. We're playing more physical now."
One tactic both Minnesota and New Mexico use is to have the high post feed the low post.
"We saw that against Minnesota a lot," Heikes said. "We have learned from the Minnesota loss, and I think we are going to try and not let that happen again."
Besides its two seniors – Moore (5'7 guard, 6.9 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 5.2 apg); and Arndt (6'1 forward, 10.8 ppg, 5.8 rbg) – New Mexico is led by Dionne Marsh, a 6'1 forward (13.1 ppg, 5.6 rbg); Katie Montgomery, a 5'10 sophomore guard (7.4 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 3.5 apg); and Abbie Letz, a 6'0 junior guard (6.9 ppg, 4.6 rpg).
"I would say she has not played like your typical freshman," Moore said of Marsh. "She has been a big offensive threat for us throughout the year."
The play of Marsh was a surprise to her coach.
"Dionne Marsh was a sleeper, but she has become a quality college player," Flanagan said. "She has almost improved weekly. I'm not expecting her to carry us, but she has done a great job of contributing to our inside play."
Marsh has attracted a lot of attention from Purdue.
"She's good," Curry said. "She moves well without the ball. She does a nice job of getting open. If she gets many touches, we'll be in trouble. We have to limit her touches, or she will catch and shoot over us. She fits their system so well. We have to keep her off the foul line."
Curry noted that Marsh has shot nearly twice as many free throws – 191 – as any Purdue player. She hits them at a 68.6 percent clip. The closet Purdue player is Lawless with 114 attempts. The closest player on Marsh's team is Arndt with 66.
"Their leading scorer Dionne Marsh down low is something we need to focus on, and we have been doing that all week," Heikes said. "We have been practicing and getting yelled at all week about how to defend that."
Flanagan is impressed with Purdue's freshman post player in Wisdom-Hylton.
"Their freshman player looks like an outstanding player, the kind of player you can build a program around," he said.
"Without a doubt Lindsay has to be an impact player for us," Curry said. "She has to be an impact player on both ends of the floor. She needs to come to play."
Curry wants to control game tempo and "get up and down the court" as often as possible for easy baskets, because "they make you earn everything in the half-court.
Flanagan said his players deploy team defense and try to free up a shooter on offense.
"We go with a team-type concept on defense and everybody stopping the ball," he said. "We don't have great athleticism on this team. We'll look for the break and go with movement and motion in our offense and hopefully free up a shooter. We're versatile. Our emphasis is on defense. We try to make it one and done on defense and limit possessions."
The winner gets the winner of Tennessee-Western Carolina on Tuesday night.
STAT WATCH: The Lobos have lost in the first round of the tourney in 1998, 2002 and 2004. They made it to the "Sweet Sixteen" in 2003. The 2002 loss was in Knoxville against Notre Dame. The Lobos won 47 of their last 48 games when scoring 59 or more points. New Mexico has compiled a 26-2 record when holding its opponent to 69 or fewer points. Purdue has averaged only 62.2 points per game this season, but has an 11-1 record in the first round of tourney play. Purdue and New Mexico have only played once before – a 62-51 Boilermaker win in 1981. The last time Purdue was unranked to open NCAA tourney play was in 1997. That team beat Maryland but lost its next game to Old Dominion (a Final Four team) in overtime.
"A lot of people aren't even sure we're a state." –Flanagan, on the challenges of attracting players outside his region to New Mexico.
"Y'all are quiet today." –Curry when the media hesitated before asking her questions. The questions came quickly thereafter.
"She's one kid who was sleepless over the idea that for the first time in 11 years Purdue might not get in." –Curry on freshman Wisdom-Hylton awaiting the bracket announcements.
"I had always dreamed of playing here at Tennessee, but as I grew up and matured I realized that my heart belonged in a Purdue uniform." –Gearlds, on being recruited by Tennessee and Purdue.
"There is great tradition here, and a lot of great basketball is played in this state." –Moore, who is from Canyon, Texas, on playing in Knoxville. She played at Thompson-Boling Arena in 2002 during the tourney as a freshman.
"It is a neat floor to play on. I enjoyed it four years ago because there is a lot of tradition and history here." –Arndt, who is from Albuquerque, N.M.
"The rest of my team boxes out, and I am able to just go in there and get it." –Moore on how she leads her team in rebounding despite only being 5'7.
GAME FOUR: No. 1 seed Tennessee, 26-4, vs. No. 16 seed Western Carolina, 18-13. Tipoff is 30 minutes after the third game ends, approximately 9:50 p.m. (espn2).
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