Vols chase lucky No. 9
Tennessee wants ninth title and to end Final Four drought
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Tennessee has a golden opportunity to make a little history of its own.
Much has been made of Connecticut chasing history with a chance to win its ninth national championship and break a tie with the Lady Vols.
Well, Tennessee would like to be the one to break that tie and end its Final Four drought while reclaiming its status as one of the nation's elite teams.
The Lady Vols (27-5) open NCAA tournament play Saturday against Northwestern State (21-12) as a No. 1 seed for the first time since 2011. They've won seven consecutive games and 13 of their last 14. Their scheduled first- and second-round games are on their home floor. If they reach the Final Four, they'd get a chance to play for a national title in their home state.
Tennessee is the only school to reach the tournament every year since the NCAA started running the event in 1982, but the Lady Vols haven't been to the Final Four since their 2008 national title.
''We're living in the present,'' Tennessee coach Holly Warlick said. ''We just know what we've tried to accomplish this year. It's about this team and what we're doing now.''
Tennessee has lost in the regional final each of the past three seasons. During Tennessee's five-year absence from the Final Four, Connecticut has won three national championships to match the Lady Vols' record of eight titles. The way the brackets are set up, the Lady Vols conceivably could meet Connecticut in a championship game at Nashville, a three-hour drive from Tennessee's campus.
The Lady Vols haven't been shy about discussing their Final Four hopes.
The cover of the Lady Vols' media guide has Warlick holding a plated steel object in the shape of the state of Tennessee with the slogan ''Grind for 9'' inside the borders, a reference to Tennessee's bid for a ninth championship.
''It would be great for the program,'' Tennessee center Isabelle Harrison said, who was born and raised in Nashville. ''We haven't been there in a while, and that's something we look forward to and we work toward every year. I just think it's time that we really focus our mind game by game and get to where we need to be.''
The Lady Vols don't have an easy road to Nashville.
Tennessee is the No. 1 seed in a Louisville Regional that also features West Virginia (29-4), Louisville (30-4) and Maryland (24-6). Tennessee was third, Louisville fourth, West Virginia seventh and Maryland 11th in the top 25 that was released Monday. Louisville, which beat Tennessee 86-78 in a regional final last year, could end up hosting the Lady Vols in a regional championship this time.
Tennessee also isn't quite at full strength. Warlick said Monday she doesn't anticipate point guard Ariel Massengale being available for at least the first two rounds of the tournament. Massengale hasn't played since inadvertently getting hit in the face Jan. 23 during a victory against Florida.
But the Lady Vols still have plenty of reason for optimism.
Tennessee has gone 12-1 with redshirt freshman Andraya Carter starting at point guard in Massengale's absence. Freshman Jordan Reynolds has backed up Carter capably and delivered a breakthrough performance in helping Tennessee win the SEC tournament.
''Just from the SEC tournament, we have some confidence,'' Tennessee guard Meighan Simmons said. ''We're not overconfident. It's just that extra oomph of where we want to be at by the end of the season. It's an amazing feeling, to have that much confidence.''
Tennessee's mission in the early rounds will be to get off to better starts. The Lady Vols erased double-digit deficits in each of their three SEC tournament games.
''We've got to stop coming out so dry and digging ourselves in a hole because in the long run, that's going to hurt us,'' Tennessee forward Cierra Burdick said. ''I'm proud of the way we fight back and are able to get the wins despite the adversity, but it would be nice to go up early and keep the lead.''