Tennessee, 28-4, will take on Army, 20-10, on Sunday at noon (ESPN2, Lady Vol Radio Network). George Washington and Old Dominion, which will hold public practices Saturday at 1 p.m. and 2 p.m., respectively, play in the second game Sunday at 2:30 p.m. The winners meet Tuesday night for the right to advance to the Cleveland Regional.
The Lady Vols started this week furious about their low No. 2 seed and placement in the overall No. 1 seed's bracket. If Tennessee survives in Norfolk, it will be facing a strong field in Cleveland that will likely include Final Four favorite North Carolina. The Tar Heels and Lady Vols were the top two teams in RPI but yet found themselves bracketed together.
The Lady Vols hope to end this week by making a statement about their intent in the NCAA tourney.
"I certainly don't see it as anything negative," coach Pat Summitt said. "I think it brings some positive energy and an attitude. Tennessee is very seldom in an underdog role, but folks we're in one. Big time. If that doesn't get their feathers ruffled up a little bit, their attitude going, then they really aren't true Tennessee Lady Vols, and this group is. They've been in big games. We've been in a lot of hostile arenas. I think our schedule has prepared us for about any and everything you could possibly see on the floor."
Strength of schedule and RPI were believed to be big factors in helping the committee seed teams, but Summitt saw no evidence of that.
"It certainly did not have any influence on the seeding that I could see," Summitt said. "RPI? No. Strength of schedule? No. Winning the tournament? No. What I would say is we still, thinking that all those factors would matter, played a very tough schedule, and we had a lot of success.
"It's tournament time. I don't think this team has to look very far to find reasons to be motivated. If they needed it they got it. Surely they'd be motivated at this time of year regardless."
Tennessee has had some baffling placements in the tournament before. In 2002, the Lady Vols won the regular season – as LSU did this year – but lost the conference tourney, which was claimed by Vanderbilt. The selection committee seeded Vandy as a No. 1, Tennessee as a No. 2, and sent both teams to Iowa for the regional.
"We had to go to Iowa to find out who was the best SEC team in the end," Summitt said. "It was a close game down to the wire, could have gone either way. We were fortunate enough to win that one. I think their minds are in a good place."
It was quite a journey to get there. Tennessee was 18-0 when it rolled into Durham on Jan. 23 and got rolled over by Duke, 75-53. That was followed by a nearly unthinkable loss to Kentucky on the road and later a loss at home to LSU. The shocker came on the final day of the regular season when Tennessee fell in overtime to Florida in Thompson-Boling Arena.
"I went in and told them: Never lost senior day, never lost to an unranked team in this building since it was built in 1987. Congratulations. You're in the record book," Summitt said. "If that didn't make them mad then they don't have any competitive fire in them. And we've got a lot of competitive people on this team. We really do."
Summitt said the Florida and Kentucky losses weren't a complete surprise to her.
"I think this team hasn't always respected every opponent, and that's been a bit of a problem," she said. "We've gotten into a game situation, and we're sloppy and just not sharp. I don't think they thought Kentucky was going to beat them. I don't think they thought Florida was going to beat them. The Florida game I couldn't comprehend what I was seeing. I saw something in this team I hadn't seen in a long time. Panic plays. Our defense was so bad I could have scored 20, and y'all have seen me shoot. They had no pride in their defense.
"What they got on senior day is what they deserved. It taught them and prepared them for what is down the road. Their focus in Little Rock was really, really strong."
Tennessee went to the SEC Tournament in Little Rock, Ark., with the intent of redeeming itself. The players also finally bought into Summitt's system of defense and board play. More importantly, they paid attention to their scouting reports and used the information to beat Auburn, Georgia and LSU.
"I think they grew a lot at the SEC Tournament," Summitt said. "I think that the Florida loss might have been the one game that they grew from and just realized we've got to bring it every night and every possession. They haven't been a team that valued possessions as much as teams in the past. That's what surviving and advancing in the SEC is all about and in the NCAA. It's possession basketball, and I think they're starting to understand that a little better.
"They used their scouting reports. Amen. Hallelujah. It took how many games? It's unbelievable the time our staff puts in. I could guard their in-bounds plays. There's no excuse. It's the cheat sheet for the test, and you have all the answers on your scouting report. So how are you going to miss all these situations? I think they were more serious in using it some times than others. Now when they got to the SECs they used it three consecutive times, really focused."
Senior guard Shanna Zolman said the team would need that same game focus starting Sunday. The team was irritated by the seeding but was careful not to let it be consuming.
"That's part of us being able to be mature enough to handle it in a manner that we can channel it in a correct way and not in a fashion that's going to make us appear to be raving lunatics out on the floor," Zolman said. "However we channel that – whether it's going to be used as motivation, whether it's just going to be completely forgotten about for a little bit so we can get our focus back – I think that that has definitely helped us in our preparation for the tournament.
"It has been used as motivation. We've been practicing very well; we've been practicing very focused. It can be (a positive). It's basically how we handle it."
This will be the first NCAA Tournament as a player for forward Candace Parker. The redshirt freshman has kept a journal in college and will take it out from time to time and re-read entries from a year ago. When she was starting preseason conditioning last summer she remembered how frustrating it was to sit out the year before, and that helped get her through the rigorous sessions. She will pull out the journal as needed for motivation and reminders.
"Before the SEC Tournament I did," Parker said. "I was at the SECs last year ready to watch from the sideline. This year I had to be focused to play. Going into postseason I'm really excited about everything."