The Lady Raiders, 14th-ranked nationally, earned a No. 4 seed in the Philadelphia Region for their 18th trip into the NCAA tournament. Since then they have won two games, handily overcoming the University of Texas at Arlington Mavericks and the MTSU Lady Raiders during preliminary tournament rounds in Dallas last Saturday and Monday. Tennessee, ranked 3rd in the nation, is the No. 1 seed in the region and enters the game with victories over Western Carolina and Purdue.
Tech's 24-7 season record includes victories over two of Tennessee's opponents this season – the Lady Raiders have beaten both the University of Texas and Mississippi – and losses to teams the Lady Vols played: Texas and Stanford. Tennessee is 28-4. While Tech split Big 12 season games with a home win and road loss to Texas, Tennessee lost in Austin 74-59 in November. The Vols won home court games over the Cardinal in December 70-67, and against Mississippi, 99-67, in February.
Lady Raider scoring leaders are Cisti Greenwalt, the starting center and only senior on the squad, who averages 13.2 points a game and sophomore forward Alesha Robertson, whose game-high 25 points against Middle Tennessee State University included five three-point shots. She averages 12.7 points an outing for Tech, slightly ahead of the Lady Raiders' most accurate shooter, junior forward LaToya Davis, whose average is 12.5 points a game. Davis' double-double in the first-round NCAA tournament game against UT-Arlington came with a career-high 26 points.
Greenwalt has blocked 101 shots so far this season. Junior point guard Erin Grant leads the team in assists with 213; she also has 39 steals this year and the Big 12's best assist-to-turnover ratio at 3.55; in conference play she averaged 7.10 dishes per contest.
Tech goes to the game looking for its first win against Tennessee. In four previous meetings the Lady Raiders have four losses, beginning March 25, 1995, in the NCAA Elite Eight. In Knoxville, the Lady Vols won 80-59; they won in Knoxville again Nov. 11, 1995, 81-44. Tech hosted Tennessee Dec. 18, 1996, and lost 79-71. The teams last met in Memphis, March 27, 2000, in the NCAA Elite Eight where Tennessee beat Tech, 57-44.
The Lady Raiders have made 11 trips to the Sweet 16. Last year the team lost its second-round match to LSU, breaking a five-year streak. This year Tech used a convincing win over Middle Tennessee State to recoup a Sweet 16 position Monday night. In previous years the Lady Raiders have advanced to the Elite Eight game four times, winning out for a trip to the Final Four once – in 1993, when they won the National Championship. Assistant Coach Krista Gerlich, in her second year on the Lady Raider staff, played for that squad, as did Sheryl Swoopes.
Players to watch for Tennessee include senior Shyra Ely, who scored 16 points in Tennessee's NCAA tournament win over Purdue. That 75-54 victory also starred Tennessee junior Tye'sha Fluker, who led all scorers with 18 points as Summitt's team earned her 880th win. That sets an all-time career record in Division I NCAA games, passing the legendary men's coach, Dean Smith of North Carolina
"Obviously, to be in the company with Coach Smith, to think about all the people that were a part of these wins, I never thought I'd live this long," Summitt said. Smith retired in 1997 after 36 years at the Tar Heel reins, with a career record of 879-254. Tennessee's defense slammed the door on Purdue in the second half, holding the Boilermakers without a field goal in the first 6:35. Meanwhile the Lady Vols used a 19-6 run to amass a 20-point lead. Fluker tied her career high with 18 points and had 10 rebounds. Shanna Zolman added 15 points for Tennessee, and Nicky Anosike 11. For Purdue, Sharika Webb contributed 16 points and 10 rebounds. Katie Gearlds added 13; the Boilermakers, who made only four field goals in the second half. Summitt overtook Texas' Jody Conradt as the winningest women's college coach early in the 2002-03 season. She holds nearly every NCAA tournament record for a women's coach including most NCAA titles (six), Final 4 appearances (15), Final 4 wins (17), tournament appearances (24), tournament games (104) and tournament wins (87). Her tournament runs often start in Knoxville; there, the Lady Vols hold a 46-0 record in NCAA games. Summitt's career record is 880-171 across 31 years. NCAA officials gave her the game ball after the victory over the Boilermakers; Thompson-Boling Arena's court has been renamed "The Summitt" in her honor. She won her first game as Tennessee's head coach over the Middle Tennessee State University Lady Raiders Jan. 10, 1975, in front of 53 fans. Summitt, 22 at the time, has built her program from scratch into a reliable national power in the sport since then; when she first took over Tennessee gave no scholarships in women's basketball, and the head coach doubled as the team's laundress and bus driver.
"That's what it's all about," Summitt said, joined on court by family members and players holding signs displaying "880" in orange. "We talk about the wins and the trophies, but it's all about the people. The players have influenced me more than I have influenced them."
Junior guard Shanna Zolman owns a school record five treys in an NCAA tournament game set in the first round against Western Carolina. Of that game Summitt said, "Obviously, Shanna (Zolman) had a great shooting night. I give the glasses (a team focus award) full credit. It obviously had an influence on her focus. She sees the target much better (with the glasses). I thought we played great in the first half. We did a great job of controlling the tempo, dominating the glass, and shooting well. We went inside and followed our game plan. We had a commitment on the part of our team. We got all nine people involved. We wanted to get them quality minutes. We'll need all nine players during the tournament. I'm proud of our basketball team. It was a good indicator that we shot as well as we did."
Zolman had 28 points in the game against Western Carolina that positioned Tennessee for its second-round victory and 15 against the Boilermakers. She and Ely pace the team this year in scoring.