For the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga women's basketball team, the road to the Final Four begins less than two hours away by car.
The 17th-ranked Mocs were awarded a 7 seed in the Spokane Regional on Monday night -- the highest NCAA tournament seed in school history -- and will play an opening-round game against No. 10 seed Pittsburgh on Saturday at 11 a.m. at Thompson-Boling Arena in Knoxville. A win over the Panthers could set up a rematch with second-seeded Tennessee, which lost to the Mocs 67-63 on Nov. 26 in Chattanooga.
"I love it," UTC coach Jim Foster said. "It's great for our fans and our players; it's just up the street. It's a great opportunity for us.
"I see a lot of our fans having the opportunity to go up there, and it will be a good contrast to the colors that are in the gym."
With a No. 20 RPI and the highest national ranking in program history, the Mocs were virtually assured of a good seed in the tournament. But they had to wait until the very end of the selection show on ESPN to find out whom they were playing, which played with the nerves of the players and the large group of fans who joined them at Jefferson's restaurant near campus to see the brackets revealed.
"It was nerve-racking," sophomore guard Chelsey Shumpert said. "Every time the screen popped up, our stomachs turned. My hands were sweating, and I was real nervous."
On a conference call following the selection show, NCAA Division I Women's Basketball Committee chair Dru Hancock said UTC had impressed the committee after posting a 29-3 record with high-quality wins on their resume.
"I have to tell you the committee likes Chattanooga a lot," Hancock said. "We've all known Jim Foster for a long time, and he's done a great job.They had some good wins earlier in the year against Tennessee and Stanford.
"A couple of losses might have hurt them against South Florida and Arkansas State, and that might have dropped them a little bit."
As with seemingly every coach in women's basketball, Foster is familiar with Pittsburgh coach Suzie McConnell-Serio, and he likes the chance it gives his team to start the tournament. Pitt finished with an overall record of 19-11 and was seventh in the Atlantic Coast Conference with a league mark of 9-7.
"Pitt's a good team, and Suzie is a good coach," he said. "I've known her since she played at Penn State and coached her on the Olympic team in '92 in Barcelona, so we go way back.
"Just looking forward to that opportunity to play against them."
UTC post player Jasmine Joyner said she and her teammates are excited to have a chance to play in front of their fans again so close to home, and a potential rematch with the Lady Vols adds to the excitement for both players and fans.
"At first, we wanted to go somewhere far, but as we look around and how are fans are," she said. "Now they're going to be able to travel with us, so that's going to make us feel even more comfortable.
"So even though we are playing in Knoxville and if we do play against Tennessee (it will be) in a really tight atmosphere. But now that we'll have our fans there, we should be good to go."
While an argument could me made for the Mocs to have a higher seed, Foster was generally pleased with where the Mocs are and not surprised by being sent to Knoxville.
"They have a tough job and they did their job," he said of the selection committee. "Now it's up to us to do our job. I thought it was pretty much as expected. You figure out who the 1s are going to be, then who the 2s are going to be; then you have to figure out where you fit in.
"As it started to unfold, I started to think in the back of my head that we were going to Knoxville. Just the geography of it and how they're wanting to be regionally friendly."
Now the Mocs will get back to work in practice preparing for Pittsburgh after practicing for the past several days without knowing the opponent.
"Practice has been good," Joyner said. "We've just been doing fundamental things. No matter what team we were playing we had to tighten some things up. Now that we know who we're playing we're just going to get ready for them. Coach Foster is going to adjust our offense and defense to how they play.
"I know that we're ready for this tournament. We've got a really good feeling about this tournament, so we've just got to get to work and prepare for this team, and I know we're going to do that in the next couple of days."
Foster and the Mocs will stay focused on the Panthers from now until Saturday morning, but the possibility of a rematch between UTC and the Lady Vols likely will be the talk of Tennessee and the rest of the women's college basketball world in the coming days.
Hancock said that's exactly the kind of buzz the selection committee was hoping to generate with its bracket this season to build interest in the women's tournament.
"Why wouldn't the committee want to have Chattanooga play Tennessee again?" she asked. "It's a great matchup and should provide some great drama, and that's one of the things we're trying to create is compelling matchups. And that certainly should be one."
Contact Jim Tanner at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6478. Follow him at twitter.com/JFTanner.