Tennessee and Texas Tech play first on Easter Sunday at noon (ESPN) at the sports facility on the campus of Temple University near the center city of Philadelphia. Ohio State and Rutgers follow at 2:30 p.m. The winners will meet Tuesday at 7 p.m. for the right to go to Indianapolis.
GAME ONE: No. 1 seed Tennessee, 28-4, vs. No. 4 seed Texas Tech, 24-7.
It was nearly the end of coach Pat Summitt's press conference before a question was asked about her becoming the NCAA's all-time winningest coach in basketball with 880 wins.
Summitt welcomed the respite from records.
"We try to keep the focus at hand," Summitt said. "It was talked about probably more than I ever had imagined. I really thought our basketball team did a great job of just preparing and sticking to the scouting report. To have that in the past is a good thing. I say that because I don't even want to take a chance of any distractions at this point. It's tough enough to play in post-season and survive and advance to begin with. Right now our focus is obviously strictly on one opponent."
That opponent is the Lady Raiders of Texas Tech, a balanced squad with scorers at every position.
"That's been our strength," coach Marsha Sharp said. "We've averaged pretty close to double figures in all five spots. We need to get production from everyone."
If Texas Tech has a weakness it's depth. The Lady Raiders' five starters average a lot of minutes, including the backcourt, both of whom play more than 32 minutes a game. Tennessee's starting guards play six to eight minutes less per game.
But a strength of Tennessee's – depth – was negated by injury, and the Lady Vols were left with nine scholarship players.
"Theirs is because of injury and ours is because of inexperience," Sharp said of the teams' depth issues. "When we've played Big 12 games this year, we've pretty much gone with that short rotation. I don't think at this time of year, unless because of foul trouble, it's a problem because they're used to playing that many minutes by now. Both teams will be equally prepared to do that. I think they understand that survive and advance mentality. Both teams will do that well. I don't think that's a problem. It could become a problem if we're in foul trouble."
Summitt will start: Loree Moore, Alexis Hornbuckle and Shanna Zolman on the perimeter; and Shyra Ely and Nicky Anosike will open up inside. Only two players are averaging double figures in scoring, Ely with 14.4 and Zolman with 12.5.
Sharp will start: Erin Grant, 5'8 junior guard, 8.1 ppg, 2.8 rpg (Arlington, Texas); Chesley Dabbs, 6'0 junior guard, 12.3 ppg, 3.6 rpg (Plano, Texas); LaToya Davis, 6'1 junior forward, 12.5 ppg, 7.8 rpg (Houston, Texas); Alesha Robertson, 6'0 sophomore forward, 12.7 ppg, 5.3 rpg (Plainview, Texas); and Cisti Greenwalt, 6'5 senior center, 13.2 ppg, 8.8 rpg (Clovis, N.M.).
It is Tennessee's size and depth in the post – 6'5 junior center Tye'sha Fluker comes off the bench – that is particularly worrisome for Sharp.
"She's big and powerful," Sharp said of Fluker. "You have to limit her catches when she's deep as much as you can. When she gets you down on the block or close to the rim she's hard to handle. They're powerful, and they're going to try to drive you deep in the paint."
Sharp also is trying to scheme against one of Tennessee's best offenses – a missed shot with at least four players hitting the offensive boards.
"Sometimes they shoot the first shot so they can go get it and shoot the second shot," Sharp said. "They like that power game. We're going to have to try to contain that as much as we can."
Greenwalt and the other post players know they have to perform Sunday and heard from their coach in practice how much they would be needed.
"You can win or die based by the rebounding, but I think that may make us win tomorrow if we rebound on the defensive and offensive ends and not let them get second looks on offense," Greenwalt said. "That's probably our biggest key."
Texas Tech's guard play, particularly that of Grant, has gotten Tennessee's attention.
"I've been really impressed and I'm not easily impressed," Summitt said. "Looking at her stats alone (213 assists to only 60 turnovers) you're talking about one of the most efficient point guards in the game. Her ability to get others involved. I think she sees the floor. She thinks pass first, and that's what you want as a coach for a point guard, but at the same time she can obviously make shots. I think we just have to respect her total package."
Grant said the Lady Raiders want to push tempo, a forte of Tennessee's game.
"We do want to push the ball up and down the court," Grant said. "We want to try to get it up the floor pretty quick so we can get some easy transition baskets and not have to face their pressure so much. We like the up-tempo game, but we can also try to slow it down a little bit and run our half-court sets if we need to."
Moore will draw the primary responsibility of guarding Grant and hopes to push her away from the paint, where she likes to drive and shoot or dish.
"Just to get after her," Moore said of her defensive approach. "Looking at them and the type of competition she's played and people guarding her, a lot of people never really got after her and made her play fast and made her get out of her rhythm. Make her feel uncomfortable. That's all I'm trying to do tomorrow. I know she's a great point guard, and she's very efficient in every thing she does. I just want to make her feel uncomfortable. That's my main goal is to get her out of her rhythm and make her play a little bit faster than she normally does and not so much look for turnovers. That's out of my mind."
Hornbuckle also will be asked to pick up Grant in the backcourt.
"She likes to push tempo," Hornbuckle said. "She's very athletic. She gets from one end of the court very quickly. She likes to get deep in the paint, and when she gets there that's what makes her assist to turnover ratio so great. You either have a choice to shoot or you're going to get somebody wide open, and she does that so well. It's going to be very crucial that we stop the ball at half-court or before."
The perimeter player getting the most attention from Texas Tech is Zolman because of her shooting prowess.
"She's a terrific player, and she can hurt you in a lot of ways," said Sharp, who recruited Zolman in high school and has watched with interest how she expanded her game at Tennessee. "She can put it on the floor and bring it at you and shoot the three with more distance than she ever had."
Dabbs will draw the defensive assignment on Zolman initially, Sharp said, because she is always is matched up with the best perimeter player.
"She's done that for us all year long," Zolman said. "We believe Chesley understands what the challenge is."
Summitt compared Zolman's shooting ability to former Lady Vol Cindy Brogdon, who scored 1,458 points from 1977 through 1979 at Tennessee after transferring from Mercer College. Her career total was 3,204. She averaged more than 20 points a game in both seasons at UT.
"When you think about the pure shooters in our program, she would remind me of Cindy Brogdon," Summitt said. "The thing about Shanna she didn't come in that way. Shanna really has developed. To be a great shooter you have to spend an enormous amount of time in the gym. Shanna's footwork is what's really gotten her into a position to score quickly coming off screens, her footwork in transition, she's shooting the ball well on the pull-up.
"She's one of the purest shooters that we've ever had in our program and could go down without question as the best. When she was struggling, we were struggling. I was very concerned and yet I kept thinking she'll get out of this. I think her dad had a lot of influence on her and tried to keep her loose."
The team has developed a loose and fun-loving personality combined with a fierce competitiveness. Unlike Tennessee's teams of the past, it lacks a true go-to player – Zolman and Ely are primary scoring options, but others players can fill it up, too, including Hornbuckle, Fluker and Brittany Jackson.
It's a group that Summitt is comparing to her first national title team.
"This team reminds me somewhat of our '87 team in that we didn't have an All-American so to speak, but we had players step up and make big plays for us, and we had good balance," Summitt said. "This team also has their own personality.
"As I really thought about why we have this personality that we have, I think our freshmen have had a big influence on our team, Nicky Anosike in particular. She's as motivated as any freshman I've ever coached, and it's every day. It doesn't matter what kind of drill we're doing she wants to be first; she wants to be the best. And when we start playing she is up and down the floor, playing on the ball like a guard, trying to be a guard in transition, which I sometimes am not real crazy about, but she just brings such energy, attention and aggressiveness.
"It's been really contagious for our team. I think she's had a great impact. I think Alexis Hornbuckle has had a great impact. If you return seven veterans you're going to have pretty much the same personality you had a year ago unless you bring in a personality or two. And we have that in those two freshmen in particular. I think they've really done a great job, and then our seniors have provided leadership. I like the personality of this team, and I like the competitiveness. We've lost some games, but it's not like they quit. They will fight you to the bitter end. I like the fight in this team."
Hornbuckle has a very playful personality and is often smiling or making someone else laugh.
When a reporter walked into the locker room Saturday, Hornbuckle was leading injured freshman Sa'de Wiley-Gatewood and sophomore Dominique Redding in an impromptu rap routine. They provided their own instrumentation.
"I really just came into this season looking to help and trying to make a difference, not take over the team but just add something to the team," Hornbuckle said. "I think we've done that pretty well this season. Pretty much listen to the seniors and the coaches and what they want us to do and just kind of do that. I've got to keep things fun because as soon as it gets tight that's when you know something's wrong. I'm a fun person. I like making people around me laugh. Nicky is probably the queen of that. We just keep it fun."
The two freshmen, along with freshman Sybil Dosty, have blended rather seamlessly into the team.
"I just try to adjust by listening and by watching what the other players do in certain situations and really just trying to follow," Anosike said. "On top of that just really trying to work hard at everything I do to let my teammates know I'm going to do what needs to be done to win."
The seniors, Ely, Jackson and Moore, have been to three Final Fours without winning a title and are trying to get to a fourth and win it all. They have set aside any issues of ego or playing time and embraced the youngsters.
"The freshmen have been great for us," Moore said. "I love Nicky to death. She's just a hard worker in everything she does. Like she was saying, she does listen, and she does follow. She does the little things that we need for this team. She brings the attitude. She brings that hard work, the competitiveness, the fight.
"Looking at Alexis, she's just coming along very well. She had to take my spot when I was injured and out. She's brought a lot of leadership. She's growing in each game we play. Together they knew what they had to do, and a lot was expected from Pat and what she wanted out of them. We knew what they could bring to this team and from that they knew whatever we wanted them to do, they would do it. I'm proud of them and everything they've done so far."
The only sophomore on the depth chart is Redding, because her classmate, Sidney Spencer, is out for the season with a knee injury. Summitt needs Redding to raise her game in the post-season, which means play defense and rebound. Redding is one of the best shooters on the team, but she said she's trying to raise her game in that aspect, too.
"Learning what's a good shot and what's not a good shot. That's what I'm trying to focus on right now. Just knocking shots down," Redding said.
So what is a good shot?
"If it goes in it's always good," Redding said with a smile. "When you miss it, that's when you hear it. (But) basically not the first pass in offense."
Sunday's game is one more step to the Final Four in Indianapolis, which is Ely's hometown.
"I don't think I could have dreamt a better ending," Ely said. "It would definitely be icing on the cake to go back to Indianapolis and finish my career where I started. I'm just really excited about the opportunity. I'm going to do whatever I can – as well as my teammates also – to get to Indianapolis. I'm just really pulling for us and hoping that we can get there."
Texas Tech is the next foe in Tennessee's path and it promises to be a formidable one. But the Lady Raiders must match Tennessee's intensity from the onset, Sharp said, or the game is over.
"It will be the only way we can stay in the game," Sharp said. "If we come out, and we're a little tentative or a little soft we won't hang around very long, because they'll really bring it at you. That is what I perceive as the strength of their team is how strong they are. They bring it right straight to you. You're going to have to be physical back. We've talked about that all week."
Greenwalt is prepared for a fierce fight – and perhaps an aesthetically unpleasing one – inside the paint.
"I think, coming from the Big XII, we face that all year, being physical in the paint and playing against big post players," Greenwalt said. "I think, being here for four years and coming in today, we're all veterans and know how it's going to be. We know it's going to be scrappy and maybe ugly at times. It's just going to be physical, pushing and shoving on the blocks."
Tennessee has the bodies to battle it out inside. Ely may have a finesse body, but she has a power game. And since moving back to the power forward position, it has been on display, especially in the post-season.
"I think the intensity is much greater; there is much more on the line, and the game is brought to a different level," Ely said.
At the conclusion of Tennessee's public practice, the players again gathered at center court to take turns trying to sink a long shot. After several failed attempts, it was Ely who ended the post-practice exercise by draining hers. She doesn't always participate in the drill – which players and some staff members do for fun – but she did Saturday, and it was a walk-off shot.
SCOUTING REPORT: All three of UT's assistant coaches, Holly Warlick, Nikki Caldwell and Dean Lockwood, have immersed themselves in Texas Tech film. Warlick has been walking the team through the scouting report on the court. Here are Lockwood's assessments on the post play:
"With their team (LaToya) Davis really concerns us. She's really come on. She's had some double-doubles here of late. She's scoring now. She really is doing some good things. She can play out away from the basket a little bit. That's a player we're going to have to be really concerned with. (Cisti) Greenwalt, she's got a nice touch, and if you let her do what she's comfortable doing around the basket and let her get position, she's very capable. So we've got to be very physical in this game, and we've also got to be able to be ready to do a good job of coming out on the floor and guarding and taking away high-post action."
GAME TWO: No. 2 seed Ohio State, 30-4, vs. No. 3 seed Rutgers, 27-6.
For Ohio State and Rutgers, the game feels almost like a conference one even though the Buckeyes are in the Big 10 and the Scarlet Knights are in the Big East. The two teams will play for the third time in 15 months and last played Jan. 16.
The Buckeyes won that one, 52-50, in Columbus, Ohio, and the rematch at the Liacouras Center is more like a home game for Rutgers, which plays in nearby New Jersey.
It's also a homecoming for Foster, whose alma mater is Temple (Class of 1980.)
"It's great because Temple was the only place that I could get into, but it was real hard to get out of," Foster said. "I'm happy to be back in Philadelphia, and I'm happy my wife handles the tickets."
Ohio State is expected to start: Ashley Allen, 5'8 senior guard; Caity Matter, 5'9 senior guard; Brandie Hoskins, 5'9 sophomore guard; Jessica Davenport, 6'4 sophomore center; and Stephanie Blanton, 5'11 sophomore forward. (Former Lady Vol Michelle Munoz is a reserve but has missed the last seven games with an ankle injury.)
Rutgers is expected to start: Cappie Pondexter, 5'9 senior guard; Chelsea Newton, 5'11 senior guard; Matee Ajavon, 5'8 freshman guard; Essence Carson, 6'0 freshman guard; and Michelle Campbell, 6'2 junior forward.
Both teams stress defense, and it should be a low-scoring affair.
Foster said it reminded him of what a coach once told him years ago when St. Joseph's was preparing to play Princeton.
"All this preparation is sort of nonsense," Foster said the coach told him. "No matter what we do the score is going to be 51-49. I don't know who's going to win, but that's the score. I think you probably have the same thing when you're playing Rutgers."
Ohio State has the edge inside because of Davenport, who has worked to improve her post play under the tutelage of assistant coach Pete Gaudet, who once served as the interim men's coach at Duke.
"When Jim (Foster) went there, along with Jim went Pete Gaudet – and if you know anything about coach Gaudet, you know that he is one of the very best at developing the post game," Summitt said, "I thought, ‘Look out.' This young lady will really develop her game quickly in this system. I am not at all surprised at her development. In knowing her work ethic and her athletic stature going in, I thought she was going to be a great center in the college game."
Foster said Davenport matured faster than most big players do.
"It's her maturity," Foster said. "Big players, be they male or female, usually mature a lot later. It's hard to be big. Jess has accelerated her development because of her maturity, and she's got the whole package."
Davenport credited her parents.
"I think that's just how I was brought up," Davenport said. "That's just my family values. I get it from my mom and dad. If I get an award it's a team award. If I get something special I share with everybody."
Foster is thrilled to have Davenport, but he's especially happy about his guard play, something he said was always lacking at Vanderbilt, where he coached before taking the job at Ohio State.
"We always could get big kids at Vanderbilt," Foster said. "I think there must be some correlation to height - GPA, SAT scores and big kids. Jess is a pretty bright kid. She fits into that category. But we didn't have guards. We have guards. I think that's the biggest difference between this Ohio State team and my Vanderbilt teams. Guard play."
One of best guards on the floor, though will be wearing a Rutgers uniform in Pondexter. She played sparingly in the previous game with Ohio State because, after missing the first half of the season for personal reasons, she wasn't in game shape, coach C. Vivian Stringer said.
"She's a pro, she's a great player, and she's playing a lot of minutes," Foster said. "Earlier in the year she wasn't. It's a pretty simple game. Throw a player like that into the mix and the amount of minutes she's playing, you're better."
Ohio State is led at the point by Allen.
"I think she's got a good feel for the game," Foster said. "The most positive thing about her is just her sense and feel for the game and her willingness to be coached. We were in a tussle for a period of time, but once she made a decision that she liked to be coached, it was a pretty easy transition."
Stringer looks at Ohio State and sees no weaknesses. But she looks at Pondexter and thinks of former UConn great Diana Taurasi. She also thinks of her seniors who started out 9-20 as freshmen and have now made their first Sweet 16.
"I think because she missed several games, her legs are fresh," Stringer said of Pondexter. "The most important is she has matured tremendously. I think she would get so tight and felt like the burden of the world was on her shoulders. Now with the addition of some young people who really can take that burden, Cappie doesn't feel like she has to own it all. Her mind is probably relaxed. She can go about being a freer player. I like her demeanor. She seems to be very, very confident. She's exuding the kind of confidence …the same kind of confidence that Diana Taurasi had exuded at Connecticut."
Pondexter had to overcome a crisis of confidence last season in the NCAA tourney when she picked up a fourth foul 10 seconds into the second half, and the Scarlet Knights lost to UT-Chattanooga, 74-69 in the first round.
"She continues to remind me what happened a year ago in Chattanooga," Pondexter said. "I just kind of laid that on my heart and promised that I'd never let that happen again to myself and to my teammates.
"I think you're going to see a very competitive game on both ends. We have two great coaches who really stress defense. Our focus, of course, is trying to stop Jessica Davenport. I just have to come out and contribute the best way I can. I wasn't able to play (before); I think I can make a difference."
Davenport hopes to exploit Ohio State's size inside.
"We have a height advantage," Davenport said. "I'm able to go over both shoulders now. I'm able to pass out of double teams. Our team is good at reversing the ball, making the open pass to get an open shot or a better shot. Overall our team game helps my game."
"I think Ohio State has it all," Stringer said. "I don't know that there's anyone in the country that can touch Davenport. We're not going to get any taller. We've got to mix defenses."
Ohio State won the previous game with Rutgers on its home floor, and Stringer is hoping Rutgers will have that advantage Sunday.
"We're hoping all of fans will show up, and maybe that will keep us really focused," Stringer said. "Hopefully this is going to be a great, great game."
Matter noted Ohio State won its second round game on the opponent's home floor.
"We just went to Maryland and had to play a second round game on their home court," Matter said. "It's just like any other road game. That's how we have to attack it. We've played well on the road all year so we're going to be confident coming out no matter who's in the stands."
Neither side could figure out if it was advantageous or not to have already played this season, but Stringer settled on preferring the element of surprise.
"Our advantage would be seeing a person who doesn't know us," she said. "You can imagine how quick we are and how aggressive we can be defensively, but I think most people who play us the first time would tell you that you can't simulate what can happen.
"You have to convince yourself there was something you did. Because can you imagine if you said we played a perfect game and what else can you do? So we looked for things we didn't do well."
Stringer said those included a breakdown in the last minutes of the game, the unavailability of Pondexter and miscommunication on defense.
"Did they get considerably better over that time or did we get considerably better and more better than what they did," Stringer said. "That's going to be really the issue."
Stringer is certain that she wants a national title before her coaching days are over.
"The easy word would be it doesn't matter but to tell you that it wouldn't be true," Stringer said. "I would love to have a national championship. I want to know how it feels. … All of us would love to have just one."
Rutgers' players want to get it for her.
"It's one of the reasons why I personally decided to come to Rutgers because I wanted to be able to do that for her and myself as well," Pondexter said.
"I dream about it," Newton said. "Dream about seeing her holding up the No. 1 sign and having that trophy. More than anything I want it more for her than I do myself."
Ohio State also is playing for its coach.
"Coach is happy to be home, and we're happy to be here, too, because that means we're winning," Hoskins said. "We just want to play good, not for ourselves … but for coach because he's been a great coach all year. All we've got to do is come out and play hard and play how we've been playing. We don't have to change anything. There's still 16 teams left. We'll be excited when we're the last team that hasn't lost yet. You just get to the Final Four, that's nothing. We want to win."
"I marvel at the media, the kind of fan support. … Everything is magnified in a much-greater way. We try to tell players, but you know how they say we are always saying you walked 10 miles up hill the whole time … so they have no way of really knowing what it was like and I just have to smile." –C. Vivian Stringer on the changes in the tourney from 1982 to now.
"Philadelphia could easily boast – and probably true – that it is the basketball cultural center of the country. –Stringer on the "City of Brotherly Love" and its rich roots in basketball.
"I would venture to say that everyone or the vast majority of people who have any kind of connection in the coaching profession somehow have been connected to the Philadelphia-New Jersey area in some way, shape or form. –Stringer.
"I was thinking as I stood on the court I should have taken a picture, because I was standing on his name." –Stringer, on the court at Liacouras Center being named for Temple coach John Chaney.
"It was like sauce pizza. It was really good. It's a lot sauce." –Ohio State's Brandie Hoskins on Philadelphia pizza. She had just had a Philly cheesesteak and thought she was too full but ate five slices anyway.
"It's a great lift. I know she can play. Coach Stringer knows she can play. She knows she can play." –Rutgers' Chelsea Newton on Cappie Pondexter being available for the second half of the season.
"I don't want to give her a big head. I'm just kidding. She's been a great influence since she's been here just talking about all her experiences. She can teach us a lot from what she's learned." –Ohio State's Caity Matter on the presence of former Buckeye great Katie Smith in Philadelphia and what the team could learn from her.
"It doesn't matter. The early games are better. When you have the 9:30 game, you're just sitting there. It's a plus to have the earlier game." –UT's Alexis Hornbuckle on adjusting from a 9:30 p.m. tip in the early rounds to a noon tip Sunday.
"Yes, but I told my mom and my dad not to just offer anybody tickets. If they'd come to a game this year on their own time then I can give them a ticket. But you know how a lot of people jump on the bandwagon and people you've never seen before. My parents are goofy like that." –UT's Shyra Ely on whether she expects a lot of friends and family to watch her in Indy if Tennessee makes it to the Final Four. She also explained her ticket policy.
"Because of Easter Sunday I won't have that many, but my mother will be here, and that's really important to me." –UT's Nicky Anosike, who is from New York and whose family recently moved to New Jersey, on whether she will have a lot of family members in attendance in Philly.