March 18, 2012
ROSEMONT, Ill. (AP) - It's been four years since Pat Summitt led Tennessee to the Final Four and in Lady Volunteers' time, that might as well be four decades.
They cleared their first hurdle. The next obstacle is DePaul in the second round of the NCAA tournament on Monday.
"People expect us to make it to the Final Four," forward Glory Johnson said Sunday. "It's just really us focusing and knowing that we have to do the small things to get there - and even think about getting there. I think our coaches have held us to it and made sure that we're only focusing on one thing at a time."
Seeded second in the Des Moines regional, Tennessee pulled away in the second half Saturday for a lopsided win over Tennessee-Martin in a physical opener. Seventh-seeded DePaul (23-10) then squeezed out a 59-55 victory over Brigham Young, setting up a rematch between teams that met in December.
Tennessee (25-8) won that game easily, and a victory on Monday would put the Lady Vols back in the round of 16 - a spot they've missed just once while making all 31 NCAA tournaments. That happened in 2009, when they lost in the first round after winning it all the previous year, and they haven't been back to the Final Four since that championship run.
That's something the current group is trying to change, after three straight misses.
The only player remaining from the title team is Vicki Baugh, in her fifth year, and the other seniors who comprised a heralded class are trying to avoid becoming the first group to go four years at Tennessee without making the Final Four.
Baugh said there were times when the Lady Vols got caught looking too far ahead and not focusing on the task at hand, letting up on defense while leaning on the offense to carry them.
"We weren't committed to our philosophy, which is defense and rebounding," Baugh said. "We thought our offense would take us all the way. When shots aren't falling, you have to have your defense to fall back on. That's one thing I think we've struggled with in the past, and I think we learned before the SEC tournament, just in time."
Tennessee beat Florida by 16 and then cruised to its third straight conference tournament title with double-digit victories over Vanderbilt, South Carolina and LSU before knocking off Tennessee-Martin. The Lady Vols seem to be hitting their stride after enduring their share of ups and downs.
Summitt announced in early August that she has early onset dementia, Alzheimer's type, and she said last week that she might not return as coach, meaning there's a chance this could be her last game.
"I don't know if I'm in denial, maybe I am," DePaul coach Doug Bruno said. "I just refuse to accept (it). ... She's been in the game forever, and I just kind of believe she's going to be in the game forever."
The NCAA's all-time leader in wins, Summitt has delegated more responsibilities to her staff.
On the court, the Lady Vols were a bit inconsistent, getting blown out at Stanford and Notre Dame and falling 76-67 at home to Baylor, the top seed in the region, in a game they led for much of the second half. But they also blew out fellow second seed Kentucky last month and made that run in the conference tournament.
Now, they're looking again at DePaul, a program they're 19-0 against. They beat the Blue Demons in December, breaking open a close game in the second half on the way to an 84-61 rout at New York's Madison Square Garden. DePaul has since lost star Keisha Hampton to a season-ending knee injury and is using just a seven-player rotation. Teams tend to shorten it, anyway, in the postseason, but the Blue Demons' situation is a little different.
"We are short-handed in the sense that we don't have our main six or seven," Bruno said.