March 20, 2009

The last time Tennessee took 10 losses into the NCAA tournament, it won a national championship.

Coach Pat Summitt plans to use that run from 12 years ago to motivate the two-time defending champion and fifth-seeded Volunteers as they open play Sunday against No. 12 seed Ball State in Bowling Green, Ky.

Playing with its worst seed ever, Tennessee (22-10) won't have an easy time trying to become the first school since the Connecticut teams of 2002-2004 to win three straight national titles.

The Lady Vols are in the Berkeley, Calif., regional that features Duke, Stanford and Ohio State - all top 10 teams. Tennessee lost 62-54 to the then-No. 7 Blue Devils on Feb. 16 and beat the then-No. 3 Cardinal 79-69 in overtime on Dec. 21.

Inconsistency has plagued the young Lady Vols this season and could jeopardize their streak of reaching the regional semifinals in every NCAA tournament. Tennessee is the only team to play in every NCAA tournament and last won three straight titles from 1996-1998.

Summitt's program, however, has defied the odds before. In 1997, Tennessee was 23-10 and seeded third, but beat No. 1 seeds UConn and Old Dominion to win the title.

"I keep thinking about that. Ten losses, and now we're going to win it all," said Summitt, who plans on showing a highlight video of that season on their 155-mile bus ride to Bowling Green.

About the only similarity between this group and last season's 36-2 squad that won the program's eighth national championship is Summitt, who won her 1,000th career game on Feb. 5.

Tennessee graduated five seniors, and star Candace Parker left early to the WNBA, forcing Summitt to replace them with seven freshmen.

Paced by first-year players Shekinna Stricklen (13.1 ppg) and forward Glory Johnson (10.3 ppg, 7.2 rpg), Tennessee won four of its last six and are ranked 18th in the most recent AP poll.

Angie Bjorklund, who started 30 games as a freshman last season, was named to the SEC All-tournament team after combining for 42 points in the Lady Vols' last two games of the event.

Tennessee lost 78-58 to then-No. 6 Auburn in the tournament semifinals on March 7.

Summitt hopes facing another grueling regular-season schedule will pay off. The Lady Vols went 11-9 this season against 16 teams who are in the NCAA tournament field.

"They've been in the trenches," said Summitt, as she prepares for the program's first meeting with Ball State. "I think right now it's one of the best things that happened to this team.

"We'll find out."

The Cardinals (25-8) are making their first NCAA tournament appearance after setting a school record for wins and upsetting Bowling Green 55-51 to win the Mid-American Conference tournament.

"It's been a complete joy to watch the building of something very special," first-year Ball State coach Kelly Packard told the school's official Web site. "The basketball has been special."

Paced by Emily Maggert, who averages a team-leading 13.7 points, and MAC defensive player of the year Porchia Green, the Cardinals have won 11 consecutive games heading into the tournament.

Green is averaging 12.3 points, 6.9 rebounds, while posting a team-leading 60 steals.

The winner of this contest faces either Iowa State or East Tennessee State in Tuesday's second round.