VOTF: UT, Vandy clash for Final Four berth

Some of you residents of Ames, Iowa may have a difficult time deciding whom to root for in tonight's Midwest Regional women's final between Vanderbilt and Tennessee (8:30 CST, ESPN) at Hilton Coliseum. Allow me to help you folks out a little.

Call it the "Altercation in Ames," if you like.  Call it the "Confrontation in the Cornfields," the "Row in the Cornrows," or the "Fray in the Hay."

Call it anything you like-- just don't call it "girls' basketball."

What a strange place for these two old rivals to get it on.  Tonight at the Hilton Coliseum in Ames, Iowa, Vanderbilt and Tennessee clash for a trip to San Antonio and the Women's Final Four (8:30 CST, ESPN)-- not to mention braggin' rights in the Volunteer State.

It's doubtful that the Midwesterners in Ames, good folks though they are, will be able to properly appreciate the magnitude of the battle they're likely to see tonight.  Let down the previous weekend by their hometown Iowa State Lady Cyclones, these fans in America's heartland will no doubt dutifully show up in good numbers in support of great women's basketball.

But ironically, they're likely to be blaise about it all.  Sadly, what the Ames natives will experience tonight is a matchup for which hundreds of women's hoops fans from the state of Tennessee would have gladly paid good sums to witness in person. 

The shame of it all is that it couldn't have happened in the Final Four.  Both Vanderbilt and Tennessee have demonstrated themselves worthy thus far of a spot among the nation's finest four teams.  But (thanks to Maryalyce Jeremiah and something called the "pod system") the two heavyweights will duke it out in the regional final, and only one can advance.

Iowans are great folks, and great fans.  They passionately support their Hawkeyes and Cyclones, but some of these folks from Big XII Country may have a little trouble picking a favorite in Monday night's Elite Eight fracas.  So for those Iowa residents who might be a bit confused about which dog to root for, allow me to delineate things for you:

In this corner... the challenger, the Vanderbilt Commodores (30-6).  The Southeastern Conference Tournament champions.  As the No. 1 seed in the Midwest Region, they'll be wearing the white uniforms tonight.

Seldom, if ever, will you come across a more congenial, down-to-earth bunch of young women, even if we Commodore fans do say so ourselves.  Coached by Jim Foster, these Dores have represented Vanderbilt with great class and dignity.  (Not only do they play basketball well, they actually find time to be good students, model citizens, and genuinely nice people.)

Vanderbilt is led by Ashley McElhiney, a pint-sized spark-plug of a point guard; Chantelle Anderson, a 6-foot-6 center who's practically unstoppable in the paint; and forward Zuzana "Zuzi" Klimesova, a Czech import whom we all feel is the nation's most underrated player.

Vanderbilt has been to the Final Four only once, in 1993.  Yes, the Commodores made it to the Elite Eight last year, and yes, the Commodores are happy to have made the Elite Eight for a second straight year.  It's just that this year they lust for an opportunity to take things at least one step further.

In the opposite corner... wearing orange... The University of Tennessee (28-4).  The SEC regular-season champions.  The "Big" Orange.  (Heck, sometimes we just refer to them as "The Evil Empire.")

Unlike Vanderbilt's Commodores, Tennessee's "Lady Vols" don't mind being referred to as "Lady" Vols.  (Although, the way they throw elbows around, the term must be interpreted very loosely.  Let alone the fact that no self-respecting "lady" would ever voluntarily wear that bilious shade of orange.)

The Lady Vols are coached by Pat Summitt-- just think Vince Lombardi in a pantsuit, and you've pretty much got the picture.  She's guided her teams to six national championships, 12 Final Four appearances, ten SEC titles, blah blah blah.  You name it, she's won it.  It's somewhat sickening.

Summit is generally miffed about something, but the last two weeks she's been even more miffed than usual.  Seems that the Lady Vols were not summarily awarded their obligatory No. 1 seed in the region.  (Never mind that the Lady Vols stumbled in the SEC Tournament against LSU.)

To make matters worse, the top seed went to those darn, uppity Commodores from across the state.  She's miffed that her Lady Vols would be forced to play the Commodores again this early (as though it's an insult that the Selection Committee would dare bracket another good team in the same Regional with the hallowed Lady Vols).

She hopes to be able to vent that anger on the Commodores tonight.  Summitt, whose troops have lost two of their last three meetings against Vanderbilt, view tonight's game as a chance to set the world aright once again.  For Vanderbilt and Jim Foster, it's a chance for a landmark win that could have a ripple effect on the program for years to come.

Off the court, the two teams know each other well and sometimes even fraternize (sororize?) with each other.  But tonight, all affability and cordiality will be set aside for 40 minutes.  This, my fine Iowans, is war.

So you see, in this bitterly contested, white-hot rivalry, there are no shades of gray.  There can be no neutrality.  It's either Orange and White, or it's Black and Gold.  It's either Women's Basketball Corporation of America, or the young upstarts.  In this prime-time showdown for a trip to San Antonio, it's practically a case of Evil vs. Good.

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