Lady Vols get No. 1 seed

A year ago Tennessee didn't know where it would begin play or what seed it would get, and many of the players watching the Selection Show had never even participated in an NCAA tourney game. A year later, the Lady Vols knew they would start at home, learned they would route through Memphis if they advanced and, after a first round flameout last season, refused to talk past their first opponent.

Angie Bjorklund, the junior leader of the team, conducted several interviews for print, Internet, radio and TV and uttered the same theme Monday: Tennessee won't overlook its first round game.

That would be against Austin Peay, the alma mater of two of Pat Summitt's brothers, located in Clarksville, Tenn., near the Summitt family's hometown of Henrietta.

The Lady Governors have a 15-17 record and got into the field of 64 by winning the Ohio Valley Conference tournament in Nashville in an upset of Eastern Illinois. They are the eighth team in NCAA history – the tourney began in 1982 – to enter the brackets with a losing record.

Austin Peay didn't avoid top teams this season. The Lady Govs played Xavier, Vanderbilt, James Madison, Middle Tennessee, Arkansas-Little Rock and Chattanooga, all of which made the tournament field.

"I believe we can compete and represent ourselves well in the NCAA tournament," Austin Peay Coach Carrie Daniels said. "We played the schedule we did to prepare us for just this instance."

Austin Peay has one of college sports' unique cheers in "Let's go Peay," which brought smiles to the faces of Shekinna Stricklen, Briana Bass and Alyssia Brewer.

"That's funny," Brewer said.

"I get it," Stricklen said.

"That's a good one," Bass said.

"We'll have ‘Rocky Top,' " Bass and Stricklen said simultaneously.

Freshman guard Kamiko Williams, who is from Clarksville, is familiar with the school and some of its players.

"I know a few of them," Williams said. "One of my teammates from high school played (there) for a year. We played against them in scrimmages in high school basketball. I played with them a little bit in the summer before I got here."

Austin Peay is the No. 16 seed and will face No. 1 seed Tennessee. It is the 20th time the Lady Vols have been a one seed in the NCAA tourney.

"Obviously, we knew we were going to be a 16 seed and face a No. 1 seed," Daniels said. "I don't know if there is a No. 1 seed that's going to be easy to face. I believe Knoxville is going to be an easy place to travel for our fans and that's one thing about the tournament – you want to go have a great experience with your team and be able to have fans there to support you."

The Lady Vols entered the brackets as the fourth No. 1 seed with top seed overall Connecticut going to Dayton – the two teams are on course to meet in the semifinal of the Final Four if both make it that far – the second No. 1 seed Stanford in the Sacramento region, and the third No. 1 seed Nebraska in the Kansas City region.

The regional placements made sense, but Tennessee's body of work plus RPI/SOS and record in its last 10 games would have seemed to have earned the Lady Vols the third No. 1 seed and a spot on the opposite side of the bracket from the top overall seed.

"A lot of this has to do with what they want to see," Summitt said. "I think a lot of people feel this is a matchup that we've got to have for the NCAA tournament and women's basketball. I'm not looking down the road at all, though."

That last theme was evident from the players, too. Tennessee was a No. 5 seed a year ago after a 22-10 season entering the tournament and lost in the first round to Ball State. Ever since that game, the Lady Vols have said they would not look ahead again.

Tennessee, 30-2, faces Austin Peay at 12:16 p.m. Eastern (ESPN2) on Saturday at Thompson-Boling Arena.

"You have to continue to stress the same things we did at the OVC Tournament even though it's on a much greater stage," Daniels said. "It's still just another game – it's still 40 minutes, the court is the same size, the goals are the same size. Yes, the crowd is going to be that much bigger and there will be that much more orange, it is going to be an amazing atmosphere.

"But that is why we do this. They should be proud they are on that stage but yet we're there to step on the floor and compete for 40 minutes."

The second game of the Knoxville sub-regional, set to tip 30 minutes after the completion of the first one, will be between No. 8 seed Dayton, 24-7, of the Atlantic 10 Conference and No. 9 seed TCU, 22-8, of the Mountain West Conference.

The winners will meet this coming Monday evening at 7 p.m. Eastern (ESPN2) for the right to go to Memphis.

"It's three two-game tournaments. It's one at a time," Lady Vol guard/forward Taber Spani said. "One at a time and take care of business here at home. We're really excited to play here at homes with our fans. We're really focusing on Saturday, and that's what we need to do."

That's coming from a freshman who watched the debacle of last year's postseason from home in Lee's Summit, Mo., so the message has trickled down throughout the team.

Spani has always watched the Selection Show on television and welcomed being part of the team assembled inside the game/television room at Summitt's pool house to see the brackets get unveiled.

"It's different because it's like now you're really a part of it," Spani said. "I was thinking back and when we watched it – I know my family was watching it – it's fun. I think we were excited about it, and we really want to go and take care of business."

Those assembled inside the room included Summitt's two yellow labs, Sally and Sadie, Tennessee administrators, support staff, team managers, coaches, players and media.

The group gathered at 6 p.m. to eat a meal home-cooked by Summitt, with a few helpers, that included steak, chicken, salmon, salad, muffins, rolls, rice medley, steamed vegetables, bacon and beans, mashed potatoes, green bean casserole, jalapeno corn, macaroni and cheese, pound cake and strawberries and homemade ice cream.

The cover was off the saltwater pool and when Summitt was asked if it was heated, she invited the media member to jump in and find out. Given the chilly temperatures Monday evening – a fire roared in the fireplace of the covered eating area – nobody accepted the offer.

The players ate plates full of food – nobody got between them and the spread; Summitt said if they rebound in postseason like they attacked the buffet tables, the team would be in good shape – and then went into the game room and played ping pong and pop-a-shot on an indoor arcade basketball game that had Lady Vol logos and the championship years on the sides.

Summitt did live standup shots for the TV stations and then filled her own plate after everyone else had been through the line. A few folks were headed through a second time when the head coach made her first pass through the chow line.

Tennessee's bracket was the third to be announced – Sacramento and Kansas City flowed in first on the wide-screen TV – and the players cheered when the school name popped up in the Memphis region.

"We're taking it one game at a time," Bjorklund said. "It's tough when you have the bracket laid out to not look ahead, but we learned from last year. No. we're taking it one game at a time. We're going to focus in on Austin Peay and then we'll go from there."

After the Ball State loss, some of the then-freshmen acknowledged that the "one-and-done" moment seized them, and they played tight and nervous. Sophomore Glory Johnson thinks the class has now evolved past that and its performance this season would suggest that is the case.

"I think it's gone now," Johnson said. "We've been there, messed up, worked on what we messed up and now we're back again. We should be used to it by now. We should get a little excited but right after the ball goes up for the jump ball, we should be out of it. We should be ready to play."

"I hope so," sophomore Alicia Manning said. "Last year was a learned lesson. It was valuable for us, especially coming into this year. I think we learned every game you've got to give everything you've got. It doesn't matter who you're playing. Prepare for every team the same way and play a 40-minute game.

"Last year was a perfect example of that. You can't look past the first game. You've got to take it game by game."

"One game at a time," Bass and Stricklen again said simultaneously in an indication the point guards are on the same page.

"One possession at a time," Stricklen said. "Go hard every possession. Defense is the key in the NCAA Tournament."

A year ago, Brewer stood poolside and guaranteed that the Lady Vols would keep the streak of Sweet Sixteen appearances intact. She laughed heartily at the reminder.

"I have told everybody I am focusing on our first game," Brewer said. "I am not guaranteeing nothing. I am not saying nothing. But I do not plan on losing at home."

Brewer couldn't help but take a peek at the rest of Tennessee's bracket, especially when she saw Georgetown in the other half. The Hoyas, a five seed out of the Big East, play No. 12 seed Marist in Berkeley. The other two teams in that sub-regional are No. 4 seed Baylor and No. 13 seed Fresno State. The winners of Berkeley and Knoxville will meet in the Sweet 16 in Memphis.

Brewer's best friend, Latia Magee, a sophomore from Tulsa, Okla. – Brewer is from Sapulpa, Okla. – is a sophomore for Georgetown.

"Right when that happened (when the bracket appeared on television), we started texting each other," Brewer said. "I think that would be real interesting if we played each other."

The players prefer the position they are in for this tournament – starting as a one seed.

"I think it's great," Brewer said. "It definitely shows how much of a turn-around has been made. I think this year has surprised a lot of people about how much better we've gotten."

"Last year was up in the air," Manning said. "It's a lot better, sit back and relax a little bit (while watching the Selection Show)."

The players enjoyed the show and laughed when the images of Summitt and UConn's Geno Auriemma appeared at the very beginning as if they were staring at each other. That presaged what was to come as the Selection Committee put the two titans of women's college basketball on a collision course to meet in the semifinal of the Final Four.

Tennessee had built a portfolio for the third No. 1 slot.

"I thought so, too, but that's not that big of a deal," Summitt said. "As you look at the bracket, they had a game plan."

"I was interested to see what they were going to do after Nebraska lost, but a number one seed is a number one seed," Manning said. "Irregardless you're going to have to play a good team to get where you want to be."

The players cheered when images of Williams and Stricklen appeared and got quiet at scenes of the Ball State loss, especially Kelley Cain in tears on the bench.

Brewer said the sophomores are aware that their record in the NCAA tourney is 0-1.

"It's still going to be jittery," Brewer said. "It's going to be a huge accomplishment to get past that first round because we haven't been past that. I think that we've gone through a lot of big circumstances."

Summitt was happy about the Lady Vols' early tip time on Saturday.

"Earlier is better," Summitt said. "We don't have to wait all day long. That drives me nuts."

The opponent will be a familiar one as Summitt grew up in the backyard, so to speak, of Austin Peay and saw her brothers play sports there.

"I watched Tommy play there," Summitt said. "I watch Kenneth play baseball there. I've been on that campus a lot."

The team will take off practice Tuesday and return to the court on Wednesday. The coaching staff will be busy with film study.

"We go to work on all the scouting reports," Summitt said. "The players go to class and hopefully relax. We'll go back to work (Wednesday)."

Johnson doesn't get much of a respite.

"I have back-to-back classes, treatment and then a night class for three hours," Johnson said. "That's my off day."

Johnson was a featured part of the show in that Rebecca Lobo explained why Summitt and her sophomore forward watched film during Monday's practice in the locker room for about 10 minutes.

Summitt showed Johnson clips of Stanford forward Nnemkadi Ogwumike – the two players are of similar build, ability and athleticism and are both in their second year of college, but Ogwumike averages 18.3 points and 9.4 rebounds per game and was the Pac-10 tourney's MVP last Sunday.

Summitt told Johnson that Ogwumike has invested in her basketball career, and Johnson needed to do the same. Lobo, who had done a phone interview with Summitt before the show, repeated the scenario.

"She must have been hiding in there or something," Johnson said with a laugh. "I thought it was just me and Pat. She said the exact words Pat said."

Accountability has been a season-long theme with Tennessee.

"I think we really have a lot of confidence," Summitt said. "I think we're very invested. I think this team took ownership a long time ago and they're holding on to it. If I have an issue, I'll just walk over to Angie Bjorklund and tell her to take care of it or I'll talk to Kelley Cain and say, ‘You need to make sure that everything's in check,' and I think their leadership has put us in this position."

Bjorklund was asked about dropping to the last number one seed and just smiled.

"Nebraska is a great team," Bjorklund said. "It's a tossup. It could have gone either way. I'm excited where we at. I really like it."

When asked if that meant being able to go to Memphis and stay in state, Bjorklund smiled again and shook her head.

"Just like I was telling (another writer), we learned from last year," Bjorklund said."We focus on one game at a time."


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