In one direction, downtown Knoxville spread out before them. In the other, Neyland Stadium consumed the horizon.
These panoramas — no matter how compelling — weren’t distracting the Tennessee Lady Vols from the view directly before them.
The NCAA women’s basketball tournament field was unfolding on a large sectional television screen Monday night at the stadium’s East Club. The process yielded an all-too-familiar sight. The Lady Vols (24-7) were awarded a No. 2 seed and placed in the same Oklahoma City (Okla.) Regional as top-seed Baylor, the prohibitive tournament favorite.
“It’s interesting, three out of four years, it’s very interesting,” UT assistant coach Dean Lockwood said. “One thing I learned a long time ago is to not spend a lot of mental energy on things you don’t control and that’s beyond our control.”
The two teams were given the same seedings last season and placed in the same regional (Des Moines, Iowa). The Lady Bears beat the Lady Vols in the regional final, 77-58, and eventually won the national championship. The other tournament meeting to which Lockwood referred was a 77-62 Baylor victory in the 2010 Sweet 16 in Memphis.
Tennessee’s tournament path begins at Thompson-Boling Arena against No. 15 seed Oral Roberts (18-12) at approximately 1:30 p.m. Saturday (TV: ESPN2). No. 7 Syracuse (24-7) and No. 10 Creighton (24-7) play at 11:20 a.m. in the opener of a first-round doubleheader.
Saturday’s winners play at 7 p.m. Monday.
“Everyone knows Baylor and knows they’re a great team,” UT forward Taber Spani said. “But we have to believe in who we are and what we can do.”
The consensus opinion was to focus first on the task at hand. Tennessee’s seeding was a reward for winning the SEC regular-season championship and going 9-5 against the 64-team NCAA field. On the other hand, it was achieved in spite of a stunning 80-63 loss to Missouri last month as well as two losses in its last three games.
“Right now, we want to focus on the next game,” forward Cierra Burdick said. “You can’t
look at six games, you have to look at one. I think that’s the big thing right now. We just have to take it day by day and game by game.”
Oral Roberts won the Southland Conference tournament championship Saturday with a 72-66 victory over Sam Houston State. Kevi Luper led the Golden Eagles with 26 points and was named the tournament most valuable player.
Luper, a 5-foot-10 senior guard, was the conference player of the year. She won the same honor with ORU in the Summit League the previous three seasons.
Tennessee and Oral Roberts opened the 2008 tournament with Tennessee winning 94-55 in West Lafayette, Ind.
Tennessee’s tournament prospects have been buoyed by the return of Isabelle Harrison. The sophomore center has participated in the last two practices, wearing a brace to protect her right knee. She missed the past three games after suffering an injury to the medial collateral ligament in her right knee.
“She doesn’t look like she’s had any problems,” UT coach Holly Warlick said. “It’s huge for us. She hasn’t played in many of our big games.”
Lady Vols head coach emeritus Pat Summitt was unable to attend Monday’s event. Warlick said Summitt was doing a book signing in Nashville and wasn’t able to return in time.