Oral Roberts-Tennessee Preview

Tennessee will need to produce at least one more surprise in

order to earn the program’s first Final Four appearance since its

2008 national championship.

The second-seeded Lady Vols (24-7) open the NCAA tournament

Saturday on their home floor against No. 15 seed Oral Roberts

(18-12). Tennessee is in the Oklahoma City regional that includes

defending national champion and No. 1 overall seed Baylor, which

beat the Lady Vols in two of the last three NCAA tournaments.

“Of course, I don’t know of too many people who would say,

‘Gosh, I’d love to be in Baylor’s bracket,'” Tennessee coach Holly

Warlick said. “I think everybody in Baylor’s bracket would want to

be in the others, but it is what it is.”

That puts Tennessee in a position where it has to beat the odds

again.

Although Tennessee is the only team that has reached the

tournament ever since the NCAA started running it in 1982, this

marks the first year Pat Summitt isn’t on the bench. Tennessee

traditionally has watched the unveiling of the NCAA brackets at

Summitt’s home, but she was out of town Monday and the Lady Vols

instead viewed Monday’s selection show from a Neyland Stadium club

overlooking the 50-yard line on one side and downtown Knoxville on

the other.

“I think this team enjoys the underdog role,” Warlick said.

That role isn’t typical for Tennessee, but this season has been

anything but typical.

Summitt announced in 2011 that she had early-onset dementia,

Alzheimer’s type, and she ended her 38-year coaching tenure last

April with 1,098 wins, eight national titles and 18 Final Four

appearances. Summitt remains on staff as head coach emeritus,

attends most practices and was in the stands for nearly every home

game this season.

Not much was expected of these Lady Vols – at least not by

Tennessee standards.

Tennessee didn’t return a single player who started an NCAA

tournament game last year during its run to a regional final. The

Lady Vols were ranked 20th in the preseason Top 25. After getting

stunned by Chattanooga in their season opener, they dropped to

24th, their lowest ranking since 1985.

Tennessee was picked to end up fifth in the SEC by the league’s

coaches, while the SEC media had the Lady Vols finishing fourth.

Tennessee instead won its 17th regular-season conference title, but

lost in the SEC tournament.

“We take it as motivation,” sophomore forward Cierra Burdick

said. “People have been calling us underdogs all year. They picked

us fifth in the SEC. … We’ve just proved all these people wrong.

It would just make a statement for the season that we’ve had if we

could make a lot of noise in the tournament and make a deep run. It

would just be the ultimate conclusion to our season.”

Tennessee also has had to overcome injuries to get to this

point.

Freshman guard Andraya Carter underwent season-ending shoulder

surgery after starting five of Tennessee’s first seven games.

Burdick missed eight games with a broken right hand. Sophomore

center Isabelle Harrison has sat out nine of Tennessee’s last 11

games with an injured left knee that required surgery, though she

has returned to practice and hopes to play this weekend.

“This team has surprised a lot of people,” Warlick said.

“Nothing really fazes us.”

Oral Roberts and first-year coach Misti Cussen finished their

first season in the Southland with the school’s sixth conference

tournament championship.

Led by senior guard Kevi Luper, who ranks 15th in NCAA Division

I history with 2,847 career points and is scoring 19.0 per game

this season, the Golden Eagles won 10 of their last 12 after an

8-10 start.

Tennessee beat Oral Roberts 94-55 in the first round in 2008,

the last time the Golden Eagles reached the NCAA tournament.