Lady Vols look to salvage disappointing season in desert
TEMPE, Ariz. (AP) Tennessee is used to playing at home in the first round of the NCAA women's basketball tournament.
This year, the Lady Vols are a long way from Knoxville. At No. 7, Tennessee has its lowest seed in the program's storied history. By contrast, host Arizona State has its highest seed ever at No. 2.
The Lady Vols and Sun Devils could square off in Tempe, but they have to take care of some opening-round business first.
Tennessee (19-13) faces 10th seed Wisconsin-Green Bay (28-4) and Pac-12 regular-season co-champion Arizona State (25-6) plays No. 15 seed New Mexico State (26-4) in first-round games Friday.
The Lady Vols were just 8-8 in an SEC they used to dominate, tied with Missouri and Auburn for seventh place. In February, Tennessee fell out of the Top 25 for the first time in 31 years.
It's been that kind of season for the Lady Vols.
''There's always expectations when you play at the University of Tennessee,'' Lady Vols standout guard Diamond DeShields said, ''but we knew that, and granted we might not have lived up, but we're still here. We're still fighting.''
And they are playing perhaps the best they have all season.
Tennessee has won four of its last five including a win over then-No. 15 Texas A&M in the SEC tournament before losing to Mississippi State in the tournament semifinals.
''This year has been a lot of firsts for us, and it probably hasn't been good firsts,'' Lady Vols coach Holly Warlick said. ''But we have great kids and great talent, and it's up to me to get them in the right direction. I think that we've turned the corner.''
Green Bay, the Horizon League champion, is in the tournament for the 16th time, the last 10 under coach Kevin Borseth. He said his team carries a healthy respect for the Lady Vols' pedigree, which includes eight national championships.
''This is women's basketball,'' he said. ''That's where it started, with Tennessee obviously. I think it's really neat that we get to play them. I don't know if we'll like it after the fact.''
It will be a contrast in styles between the long, athletic Lady Vols and the scrappy Phoenix.
''They like to spread the floor and hit those 3s,'' Tennessee's Bashaara Graves said.
Arizona State's No. 2 seed was something of a surprise, considering how the Sun Devils' fortunes went south lately. Arizona State blew a chance to win the Pac-12 regular-season championship outright with a loss at UCLA in the finale, then the Sun Devils were upset by California in their opening game of the conference tournament.
Coach Charli Turner Thorne said her team, which relies on high energy, simply wore out. The Sun Devils played four of their last six weeks on the road.
''We were just spent I thought'' she said, ''and we tried to fake it but that was it.''
The Sun Devils haven't played in two weeks, and they've needed the time.
''We just got back to doing what we know how to do,'' Arizona State's Sophie Brunner said, ''and working hard and just getting that edge back and growing more as a team and doing things we needed to do.''
New Mexico State, two-time WAC regular-season and tournament champion, is coached by Mark Trakh, who knows Arizona State well from his days at USC.
''When I coached at `SC and we played against Arizona State we always had to prepare for how hard they played,'' he said. ''I was just amazed at how hard they play. … It's really just an amazing thing to watch to see how much Charli gets out of her team.''
In 2000, Tennessee played Arizona State in an outdoor game at Chase Field, home of baseball's Arizona Diamondbacks. … Tennessee is one of nine SEC teams in the tournament. … A win would give the Lady Vols their 40th 20-win season. … Tennessee is 28-1 in first-round games. … Green Bay has won at least 20 games in 17 straight seasons. … The Phoenix ranked 10th in NCAA Division I in scoring defense at 52 points per game. … The Sun Devils substitute freely and Brunner is the only player on the team who averages in double figures (10.8 per game). … Arizona State has won at least one game in eight of its last nine tournament appearances. … Sun Devils have advanced to the Elite Eight twice (2007 and 2009). … New Mexico State tied the school records for wins in a season.