Cincinnati homecoming for VU staff, players

Sixth-seeded Vanderbilt (22-10, 9-7 SEC) faces No. 11 seed DePaul (21-11, 9-7 Big East) on Xavier's home court in the NCAA Tournament's first round this Sunday at 11:11 CST on ESPN2. The Commodores will play the Big East's Blue Demons on the same hardwood where Vanderbilt Head Coach Melanie Balcomb guided action for seven seasons (1995-2002), 135 wins and three NCAA tournament appearances.

It is a homecoming of sorts for the head coach and for Vanderbilt, which battled Xavier on opening night at the brand new Cintas Center during the 2000-01 season. Xavier won and went to the Elite 8 later that season to finish with a 31-3 record.

"The following year we came down to Nashville in my last year with Xavier, and lost here. I've never taken a Vanderbilt team back up there," said the coach. "I have a lot of friends and people who have supported me up there and (Assistant Coach) Vicky Picott who spent some time there. We do a lot of recruiting in the area. We've been sent out West so much and it's nice that people can just get in their car and come up. I think we'll have a lot of support."

Vanderbilt has not played close to home in four years. In 2006, the first two rounds were played in Memorial Gym with Vandy falling to No. 1 seed North Carolina 89-70 in the second. More recently, fans have made consecutive successful treks to the Pit in Albuquerque, New Mexico for advances into the Sweet 16 in 2008 and 2009.

With this year's site a mere 4.5-hour drive from Nashville, Cincinnati may be awash in black and gold. Not only is the location central to many players' hometowns, it is home sweet home for senior Ashlee Bridge and freshman Gabby Smith. As senior Merideth Marsh told the pair – "you better have your whole town, your whole family, your whole school, your church, everybody there!"

Gabby, grinning widely, said, "I couldn't be more excited right now! My friend was here this weekend and she and her mom have already bought tickets. We should have good fan support from here. Ashlee and I have been told to bring our whole town. We're hoping a lot of people will be able to come out and support us."

Enjoying her third NCAA Tournament appearance, point guard Jence Rhoads said she's thrilled the venue is only five hours drive from Slippery Rock, Pa., "I'm excited, it's close to my home and it's the first time I haven't had to travel cross country. We've had some excellent practices, fine-tuning everything and staying in shape." She adds, "I'm sure DePaul's coaches will have their team ready to play."

The practices and nearly two weeks off have helped Vanderbilt prepare for the final stretch. Vanderbilt last played Memphis Region No. 1 seed and eventual SEC Champion Tennessee on March 6, losing 49-68 in the semifinal conference loss on March 6.

"We're just ready to play," said scoring leader Merideth Marsh. "In order for a team to be a step ahead, it's really important for a team to have fresh legs. We've had some really solid practices this week. We feel really good and that's important going into the final part of the season."

DePaul is led by 5-6 junior guard Sam Quigley (5.2 assists per game) and 6-2 sophomore forward Keisha Hampton (13.8 ppg). DePaul finished 9-7 in the Big East, losing 41-47 to West Virginia on March 7 in the conference tournament quarterfinals. This will be the seventh time since 1998 that the two teams have met; the ‘Dores lead the series 4-2.

Should Vandy advance to the second round on Tuesday, March 23, the team will play either No. 3 seed Xavier (27-3) in front of its home crowd or No. 14 seed East Tennessee State (23-8), the Atlantic Sun champions whom Vanderbilt defeated 96-83 earlier this season.

Eleven Vanderbilt opponents were invited to the NCAA Tournament this year. Winners from Sacramento subregionals in Tempe, Arizona and Seattle will advance to the Sweet 16 in Palo Alto, California where No. 1 seed Stanford (31-1) resides. The Cardinal begin action with previous Vanderbilt opponent and No. 16 seed UC-Riverside (17-15) on Saturday.

Players applaud the tournament selection.

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