published Sunday, March 22nd, 2009

Lady Vols embracing rare underdog role

By Will Graves

BOWLING GREEN, Ky. — Pat Summitt couldn’t help but laugh. Neither could her players.

In an effort to get her young Tennessee team ready for the opening round of the NCAA women’s basketball tournament, the Hall of Fame coach dusted off a copy of “A Cinderella Season,” a film documenting the Lady Volunteers’ run to the 1997 national title.

That team, like Summitt’s current group, lost 10 games. Then it figured things out in March and won the program’s fifth NCAA championship.

A dozen years later, the message — and the mission — hasn’t changed. That much was obvious while watching former stars Chamique Holdsclaw and Kellie Jolley cut down the nets in Cincinnati.

“We were kind of laughing because a lot of comments coach was making (in the film) was the same, just different names on the back of the uniform,” guard Angie Bjorklund said. “There were a lot of similarities. Hopefully history repeats itself.”

It always does for the Lady Vols, at least in the opening two rounds of the NCAAs.

The fifth-seeded Lady Vols (22-10) are a perfect 42-0 all-time on the tournament’s first weekend heading into tonight’s matchup with 12th-seeded Ball State (25-8) at E.A. Diddle Arena. The winner will play fourth-seeded Iowa State (24-8) or East Tennessee State (20-10) for the right to advance to next week’s regional final in Berkeley, Calif.

It’s a trip the Lady Vols have booked with ease over the years, but this season has been among the toughest in Summitt’s record-setting career. The only college basketball coach to win 1,000 games has found her patience tested by an inexperienced team that features seven freshmen and just one senior.

The learning curve has been steep against the nation’s toughest schedule. Eight of Tennessee’s 10 losses have come against ranked opponents, and the team has struggled to play with the kind of consistency Summitt knows they’ll need to make a run at a third straight championship.

How far have the Lady Vols fallen? The No. 5 seed is the lowest in the program’s 28 NCAA appearances.

“It is quite different than it’s been the last couple seasons when we had such a veteran team,” Summitt said. “I have been in situations many, many times where we were the underdog as we are here. ... They know what they have to do and that they have to bring it.”

While Tennessee was getting a history lesson trying to stir up the echoes, Ball State popped in a couple of episodes of the TV show “Prison Break” during the bus trip to Bowling Green.

There’s no DVD highlighting one of Ball State’s NCAA tournament runs; the Cardinals have never been here before.

The Mid-American Conference champions are making their tournament debut, and the players brushed off any similarities between the inmates on “Prison Break” and their own impending challenge.

“I don’t think any of us have in mind of escaping Tennessee,” said Ball State guard Kiley Jarrett. “We have to keep in mind that it’s just another game.”

Even if Tennessee is hardly just another opponent. Ball State coach Kelly Packard admitted there was a little bit of an “awe factor” while talking to Summitt during an administrative meeting early Saturday afternoon.

“How can there not be?” Packard said. “You look at what she’s accomplished in the women’s game and the fact that she’s done it for the length of time that she’s done it and how she’s remained passionate about it. ... Hopefully I got my ’wow’ in this morning.”

Tennessee’s struggles have Iowa State in an unfamiliar position as the slight favorite to make it to California. Not that the Cyclones are looking ahead. Coach Bill Fennelly knows his team isn’t talented enough to take anybody — particularly high-octane ETSU — for granted.

“To our kids’ credit, everything is about the next 40 minutes that you play,” he said. “We’ve given our kids lists of all the men’s games, the teams that got beat. The chance to play Tennessee would be great, but the only way that happens is if you win on Sunday night. Our kids are very, very good at that.”

They’ll have to be if they want to slow down the Atlantic Sun champions. ETSU’s frantic style of play is in stark contrast to Iowa State’s methodical approach. The Buccaneers average more than 12 steals per game and try to turn each game into a track meet. Fennelly, however, isn’t worried about his team suddenly forgetting its identity.

“You can’t change a lot; you are who you are,” Fennelly said. “We won 24 games playing a certain way, and that’s the way we’re going to play tomorrow night. I have a lot of confidence the players understand that.”

Although Tennessee and Ball State were glued to the TV on the bus trip, the Buccaneers were fixated on the Internet. They followed the 16th-seeded ETSU men’s gritty 62-52 loss to top-seeded Pittsburgh on Friday, drawing inspiration from the way the men hung around until the final minutes.

“It was great to just see how they didn’t back down,” forward Siarre Evans said. “They make jokes about No. 1s and No. 16 seeds, about them getting killed, but they played with confidence and handled their business.”

The women’s task appears to be more manageable. The Buccaneers are making their second straight NCAA appearance and were hardly overwhelmed last year against Oklahoma State in an 85-73 loss.

And the Buccaneers don’t expect to be wide-eyed while playing on the NCAA’s biggest stage.

“We’ve got that experience so now our focus is turning towards winning basketball games,” said ETSU coach Karen Kemp, a former Murray County (Ga.) High School star and UT-Chattanooga assistant coach. “Last year we were a little happy to be there. ... This year our focus is going out and playing hard and coming out on top.”

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