Four teams will play tonight, and the two winners will advance to the Sweet 16 in two different regionals. LSU and Arizona get it started at 7:07 p.m. with the winner moving on to the Chattanooga Regional. Thirty minutes after that game ends, Tennessee will tip off against Purdue with the winner punching a ticket to Philadelphia. Both games will be broadcast by espn2.
On Monday, the NCAA and UT, which is hosting the first two rounds, announced a special ticket price of $10 for upper deck general admission. The ticket will be good for both games tonight.
All four teams held pre-game press conferences Monday to talk about the match-ups and what hangs in the balance.
GAME ONE: No. 1 seed LSU, 30-2, vs. No. 9 seed Arizona, 20-11.
Arizona made it to the second round after surviving Oklahoma. The reward is an overall No. 1 seed LSU team that is on a mission to make it to the Final Four and win a title. Coach Joan Bonvicini is just happy to still be breathing in the brackets.
"I have no complaints about the seeding or the format," Bonvicini said, referring to the "pod" system in which eight teams feeding into two different regionals start out playing at the same site instead of only four teams per site. "The new format is what's best for women's basketball. This is a great site. It's great to be in the NCAA Tournament here. It's great that Pat Summitt has the opportunity to break the record at home. It's a privilege and an honor for us to be here."
Bonvicini will have a chance to sit on the sideline and watch Summitt chase history, but in the meantime she's more concerned with the Lady Tigers of LSU.
The teams have met before, most recently on Jan. 4, 2004, in Baton Rouge, and Nov. 22, 2002, in Tucson, Ariz. The 2002 game was the collegiate debut of LSU's Seimone Augustus, and several players on both teams logged considerable minutes in that game including the Wildcats' Shawntinice Polk, Natalie Jones and Dee-Dee Wheeler and the Lady Tigers' Temeka Johnson and Augustus. LSU won both games, but there were close - 78-71 in overtime (2002) and 76-66 (2004).
In the 2002 game, Augustus debuted with 27 points and eight rebounds. Polk, who was also a freshman, played center and had 29 points and 11 rebounds.
"I just remember it was a tough game," Augustus said. "It was in Arizona, and the altitude and dry air kind of got to us. It was stiff competition; they competed with us throughout the regular session, but we ended up coming out with a victory in the end. It was very tough."
"I remember it being a close game," Jones said. "I remember me, Polkey and Dee-Dee were freshmen, and it was a close game. Seimone was also a freshman. We came out with a loss, but I think we battled well. LSU was a great team back then, and I think for the past three years they have just gotten better."
LSU coach Pokey Chatman was an assistant on that team under the now-retired Sue Gunter. Chatman filled in for Gunter last season when she was ill and earned the head coaching job in her own right this season.
"The fact that we have played each other the last two years bring some familiarity to this game," Chatman said. "I am not sure that is an advantage either way. But in terms of Arizona, it starts with who their point guard is, in my opinion, one of the best in the country. You also have to worry about Polk down low, but they have some complementary players, and they do an excellent job for them.
"For LSU I think we will have some carryover from the previous night's game (a 70-36 win over Stetson). It means getting back in our transition defense, getting to the rim and to the perimeter with their shooters, the things we have talked about all year long."
Arizona has some size in the 6'5 Polk, and 6'2 forward Danielle Adefeso to counter the height of LSU in 6'5 Sylvia Fowles, a key reserve, 6'3 Tillie Willis and 6'1 Wendlyn Jones. Arizona also has superb guard play in Wheeler and Jones - neither had a turnover in Sunday's 72-69 win over Oklahoma in a combined 75 minutes of play - but LSU counters with Augustus and Johnson in the backcourt.
"I don't know if I'd say that I feel at ease," Bonvicini said when asked if she felt at ease about the size match-ups. "We match up well with their size in the post. We don't have anyone like Seimone Augustus. I don't know that anyone does. She has a great feel for the game. Temeka has a feel, particularly for where Seimone is, but for where everyone is."
Bonvicini's point guard concurs.
"They have a great guard-oriented team," Wheeler said. "Temeka Johnson is one of the best point guards I have ever seen play for her size, and Seimone Augustus is one of the best players I have ever seen play."
The marquee match-up, at least based on the press conference questions, will be Polk and Fowles.
"She is really talented," Polk said. We watched a little bit of the game last night, and she has game. She is good offensively, defensively, and she is a great leaper. I am really interested in seeing what it is going to be like because last night they let us bang a little bit, and it should be fun banging with a big post. I am excited and the team is excited, but you can't focus on any one person or match-up because that is not going to determine the game."
Chatman also downplayed the significance of the clash.
"I think it is unfair to put that much emphasis on it," Chatman said. "From my team's standpoint there are several keys for us, and it starts with our ability to secure the boards on both ends of the floor."
Fowles has been prone to foul trouble, but her teammates and coaches said her personality is such that she wants to please and has been eager to learn to cut down on getting them.
"Just tell her, pretty much," Johnson said. "You don't really have to fuss at her. She likes to do things right, she likes to please people and do everything that she can to help her teammates or just anybody. We'll talk to her and put some things in her ear."
Players from both teams were relaxed at their press conferences and smiled often. Arizona had the air of a team that knew the task at hand was formidable, but they also seemed confident that they could come out with a win.
"With a team like LSU they don't really have any weaknesses," Polk said. "They are a well-rounded team. For us it is going to be exciting. If we can execute to the top of our game then I think it is going to be a good one. Finding a weakness in a team like LSU is really hard because you cannot really pinpoint anything."
LSU knows it has a bull's eye on its back, but the players seem to have accepted the pressure and scrutiny that comes with it. Johnson was asked if LSU has reached the stature, of aura, of a Tennessee or Connecticut in which an opposing team can initially be somewhat intimidated or in awe.
"We accept it, and we have surely earned it," Johnson said of the respect. "One thing we don't do is disrespect our opponent. We respect them just as well as they respect us. Arizona has a lot of talented players. ... I feel that we have earned the respect, and we are glad that we are up there, but we respect them as well."
GAME TWO: No. 1 seed Tennessee, 27-4, vs. No. 9 seed Purdue, 17-12.
This should be a physical game, and coach Pat Summitt plans to use four post players in 6'4 Nicky Anosike, 6'3 Sybil Dosty, 6'2 Shyra Ely and 6'5 Tye'sha Fluker to counter the ruggedness of Purdue's frontline.
"I think it will be a physical game because you have physical teams," Summitt said. "Physical teams usually are not bringing finesse. They're bringing more power. I would expect it to be a physical battle from an offensive/defensive standpoint and on the boards. I think our team has gotten a lot tougher. I would never describe our team as soft. After watching Purdue I certainly wouldn't describe them as soft. I think you're going to see physical basketball and aggressive play."
Purdue counters with its own size - though not quite as big as Tennessee - and considerable strength in 6'1 Katie Gearlds, 6'0 Emily Heikes, 6'2 Lindsay Wisdom-Hylton, 6'2 Erin Lawless, 6'4 Natasha Bogdanova and 6'1 Carol Duncan.
"I am not sure we have the size they do," Purdue coach Kristy Curry said. "We are undersized, but we have a lot of heart. Emily is only 6'1, Erin is 6'2, and we bring in Bogdanova and Duncan, and we are a little bigger. We just have to use our quickness and our heart. It is about our head and our heart in the paint. Believe me we can't out-size them, so we are going to have to put a body on everyone and cut down on second-chance opportunities."
The "bigs" for the Lady Vols are looking forward to it.
"As far as I'm concerned we always go in the game trying to initiate being physical with the post players," Fluker said. "I watched the game and saw they were a lot more physical than New Mexico so we know that we have to bring that. We have to be focused enough to know what we have to do. I've always liked being a physical player. I've always liked to bang. It's been fun to me. I don't back down to physical-ness. I don't think anyone on this team does. That's why we came to play here."
"They don't have our size, but strength is just as big a factor," Dosty said. "At this time of year any game is going to be physical so we just have to stay on the boards, strong post-ups and be physical in the paint."
"I go into every game like it's a war," Anosike said. "I'm going to try and focus on my strengths and try to use quickness to get to the basket."
Anosike also needs to be able to stay on the floor.
"I really like rotating four post players, particularly because Nicky Anosike seems to have trouble staying out of foul trouble," Summitt said.
Anosike struggled with this at the beginning of the season and then corrected it. But she's once again picking up fouls too quickly.
"I just think I get too excited," Anosike said. "I just have to calm myself down and not let the emotion of the game really get to me."
That might be even harder tonight.
The backdrop for the game is Summitt's pursuit of Smith's record and the arena should be packed with Tennessee fans hoping to see history. Even Curry has gotten caught up in the spirit.
"I just respect and admire her," Curry said. "To a certain degree in my heart I have to be pulling for her a little bit tomorrow night. That is human nature. Tomorrow is going to be special; either you are going to do something special in a very tough environment, or it is going to be special because you are pulling for coach Summitt. And how can you not? I just respect her as a mom and as a basketball coach. She is what we aspire to be like."
Summitt appreciated the remarks but laughed and said "that may be before we throw the ball up."
"I think that there are a lot of coaches throughout the country, a lot of coaches in the women's game, that have been nothing but complimentary of our program and the winning tradition we've had over the years," Summitt said. "But I guarantee you when the game starts I don't think they'll be anyone in black and gold cheering for Tennessee."
Curry also said Monday that she can't, as a coach, get caught up in the moment, and neither can Summitt. Both coaches want to get to Philadelphia and ultimately the Final Four, which will be held in Purdue's home state of Indiana.
"Tomorrow night it will not be about what she hopes to accomplish for her or anything on the record; our goal is to get to the Sweet 16," Curry said. "Our focus is on what our goal has been since day one of the season."
Trying to get to the Sweet 16 by meeting Tennessee is a trick no team has pulled off. Tennessee has participated in all 24 NCAA tourneys and reached the Sweet 16 all 24 times. The Lady Vols have never lost an NCAA tourney game at home, having reeled off 45 in a row.
This game is also of special significance for Ely and Shanna Zolman, both of whom are Indiana natives. Ely nearly went to Purdue before deciding on Tennessee.
"Recruiting Shyra came down to the wire," Summitt said. "She had a great visit here, but it was a jump ball."
Ely considers Curry a friend, and Curry said she has watched Ely's collegiate career unfold.
"Whenever we see each other, we give each other a hug," Curry said. "She has a special place in my heart. I have admired her from afar."
Ely welcomes the game against the Boilermakers, and when the brackets were announced two weeks ago both Ely and Zolman said they were hoping for Purdue in the second round.
"I always wanted to play Purdue throughout my career," Ely said. "I think this is a great opportunity to do it with coach's record and going to the Sweet 16. I think it's a great platform. I'm excited."
Zolman said the players aren't distracted by the looming record and if anything are inspired by it.
"I don't necessarily think it's going to be a distraction, more so a little extra incentive," Zolman said. "We know what this game means, and we know the magnitude of it. With coach being able to attain this record it is almost unbelievable. I don't think it will sink in until later down the road after we get out for a while. I am just in awe of being a part of the team and hopefully be able to get the record for her. She will say the exact same thing, I'm sure, that this probably couldn't have happened at a more inopportune time because of the focus on the tournament.
"She wants to give everything that she can to the team so we just want to give back to her and help her accomplish this by getting this record, but hopefully above everything else, be able to get to the Sweet 16. I think it is a great platform so I'm excited."
For her part Curry is trying to keep the game uncomplicated for the players. On Monday they had a film session and practice and she sent them to the mall for a couple of hours.
"I think you can over-complicate things," said Curry, who identified three key areas. "There is no way we can guard everything that they can do and be perfect."
Purdue must protect the ball, Curry said, and will need fewer than 15 turnovers to be successful. They also must find a way to score in the face of pressure defense by adopting an attacking mentality.
Lastly, Curry is concerned with Tennessee's ability to get to the offensive boards.
"That is the way they score points," she said. "All five of the girls have to put a body on someone and box them out."
One of the smaller players on the court, 5'11 Lady Vol Alexis Hornbuckle, had a reverse double-double in Tennessee's first round win over Western Carolina with more rebounds (12) than points (11). Board play is a big part of her game, and a big reason she starts in the backcourt with Loree Moore.
"Coach always emphasizes four players to the boards," Hornbuckle said. "I just want the ball so when the shot goes up I'm going to find a way to get there. They are very physical and big. I was watching them play last night, but you just have to persevere and want the ball more than they do."
Hornbuckle, a freshman participating in her first NCAA tourney, said one of the reasons she came to Tennessee was to play in games like this.
"It was definitely a big reason why I chose Tennessee, just because they are a winning team," she said. "When teams come out to play them, they are gunning for them. Coach gets the best out of you so that's a big reason why I came here."
Summitt has gotten the best out of a lot of players. That's a big reason why she should soon sit alone atop the summit.
SURGERY UPDATE: UT freshman Sa'de Wiley-Gatewood had surgery Monday to debride the patella tendon in her left knee. A debridement surgery essentially cleans up the wear and tear to the tendon so that it can heal. Wiley-Gatewood's rehab will begin today. She played in 15 games this season with severe patellar tendonitis but had to be shut down last month because of persistent pain. The surgery was performed by Dr. William Youmans, who has been busy this season. Freshmen Candace Parker and Alex Fuller had pre-season knee surgeries and are taking redshirt years. Sophomore Sidney Spencer had knee surgery last week after tearing her ACL.