March 19, 2009

(AP) - Last season, Vanderbilt came into Albuquerque as a fourth seed and exited with a pair of blowout victories. However, its NCAA tournament ride ended abruptly in the next round.

The 14th-ranked Commodores return to The Pit as a No. 4 seed and will look for another trip through New Mexico to launch a longer run, beginning with Saturday's game against 13th-seeded Western Carolina in the Raleigh Regional.

"We had a good experience there, a positive experience. ... We're going to be familiar with the altitude, the court and the gym and have positive feelings about it," Vanderbilt coach Melanie Balcomb said. "I think once you get on a court that you feel good about and you've had success on, you're going to feel that and think that."

Last year in Albuquerque, the Commodores beat Montana by 28 and West Virginia by 18, but in Spokane, Wash., they fell behind by double digits midway through the first half in an 80-66 defeat to top seed Maryland.

In another coincidence, the Terrapins are the No. 1 seed in this region and could again be the Commodores' opponent in the regional semifinals.

One difference this year is Vanderbilt (24-8) will enter Saturday's game after taking its fourth SEC tournament title in eight years. Despite playing without leading rebounder Hannah Tuomi, the Commodores won three straight, capped by a 61-54 title victory over sixth-ranked Auburn as tournament MVP Christina Wirth scored 20 points.

Tuomi, who averaged 5.9 rebounds and 11.4 points, suffered a stress fracture in her left ankle in a Feb. 22 loss at Mississippi - the first of two defeats to end the regular season. It appears unlikely the sophomore forward will be ready to play Saturday.

Without Tuomi, Wirth was Vanderbilt's only starting forward in the SEC tournament. For a second straight season, Wirth led the Commodores in scoring (15.8 points per game) while earning first team All-SEC honors. The senior needs 17 points to move into 10th place on the school's all-time scoring list.

Vanderbilt's Jennifer Risper was the SEC defensive player of the year, earning second team all-conference honors along with teammate Merideth Marsh (11.1 ppg).

In the school's 22nd NCAA appearance and 10th in a row, the Commodores will try to extend a nine-game win streak in the first round. They've advanced to regional play 13 times but haven't reached the round of eight since 2002 and haven't made the Final Four since 1993.

While Western Carolina doesn't have a lengthy tournament history, the Catamounts coach does. Kellie Harper was a point guard on three national championship squads at Tennessee, and after a thrilling Southern Conference tournament run, the school is making its second all-time NCAA tourney appearance in her five seasons.

The Catamounts (21-11) entered the SoCon postseason with a No. 4 seed but reeled off three straight wins, including a 101-87 triple-overtime victory over Charleston in the championship game. After splitting their first 22 games, they have won 10 in a row to post the longest win streak in Harper's tenure.

"I am so excited," freshman guard Kaila'Shea Menendez said. "It's been a long season, and we have come a long way."

After missing all of last season with a knee injury, senior center Brooke Johnson is averaging a team-best 11.0 points and 7.4 rebounds. She scored more than 20 points in each of the last two games.

Senior guard Lauren Powell is the only other Western Carolina player averaging in double figures at 10.5.

This is the first meeting between the schools. The winner of Saturday's game will face either fifth-seeded Kansas State or No. 12 seed Drexel on Monday.