The Lady Vols will practice Friday afternoon and then leave by charter flight for Ohio, where Tennessee
, 30-3, will face Marist, 29-5, in the first regional semifinal at noon Sunday at Dayton Arena. Oklahoma, 28-4, and Ole Miss, 23-10, square off in the second semifinal 30 minutes after the conclusion of the first game.
The four teams will hold 50-minute open practices Saturday at the arena. Doors open to the public at 11 a.m., and Tennessee's session is scheduled for 1 p.m.
The region is the poster child for parity with a one seed in Tennessee facing a 13 seed in Marist and a three seed in Oklahoma taking on a seven seed in Ole Miss. Purdue is the sole No. 2 seed left in the tourney, and the higher seeds have had their hands full, such as Tennessee against Pitt and LSU against West Virginia.
The other numbers one seeds had their challenges as well: North Carolina had to come back against Notre Dame, Temple stayed well within reach of Duke and Wisconsin-Green Bay actually led at halftime before UConn put the game well away in the second half.
"It does speak to the potential for there to be upsets now," Coach Pat Summitt said. "The word parity we talk about it a lot, but it looks like in this tournament that we've seen more of it than we've seen in previous tournaments."
Tennessee senior forward Sidney Spencer, from the vantage point of a top seed still alive in the postseason, is an enthusiastic supporter of how the tournament has unfolded.
"I'm loving the parity right now," Spencer said. "I think it's great that Ole Miss advances. That's great for the SEC."
Ole Miss took out the defending champions in Maryland to get to Dayton. If both SEC teams win Sunday they would face each other Tuesday for the right to go to Cleveland for the Final Four.
The Rebels play a trapping and pressing defense so the format of the NCAA Tournament – a day between games – allows them to rest, unlike the SEC tourney. Ross noted that setup was helpful for Ole Miss in the first two rounds.
"This is a much better format for our style of play than the conference tournament where you play back-to-back," Ole Miss Coach Carol Ross said Thursday during her media teleconference. "We are an energy-based team. We play physical, we play quick and any day that we can have off or simply a day we can step back and manage with a practice situation it gives us a better opportunity to be competitive on game day compared to a tournament where we have to gear up quickly with not much recovery time. This is better, and hopefully we have used our time wisely.
The SEC got five teams in the tourney and four – Tennessee, Ole Miss, LSU and Georgia – made it to the Sweet 16 to make up 25 percent of the teams still playing.
"Going into the tournament, as a league we are a prideful bunch, and we like to think we are the best league in the country," Ross said. "My mantra is ‘talk is cheap, actions speak.' We get bids, but then it's our job to be successful when we get the opportunity.
"Our league certainly prepares us in a lot of different ways. We certainly, in preparation for the Maryland game, specifically used our experiences versus LSU and Vanderbilt to help prepare us. The league has prepared us in different ways. We use every edge we can get. It's a great league and I am happy that we are all moving forward. I am hoping that, until we run into each other, we all keep moving on."
Tennessee guard Alexis Hornbuckle noted on the night the brackets were announced that the tournament could unfold in surprising ways and the Lady Vols needed to zero in on the next opponent and not obsess over any other teams in their bracket until they faced them.
"In 2007 the game of women's basketball has changed so much," Hornbuckle said of the upsets in the first two rounds. "It's changed tremendously. Any team on any given night – and I said that when the Selection Show happened – anything could happen in the tournament.
"When you have a team like Marist and Ole Miss, they wanted this as bad as anyone does, and there're the underdogs and I always say the underdogs have the edge because they know they have everything to gain and nothing to lose like Nicky (Anosike) said before. I think that they're doing a great job of playing with a lot of heart and a lot of enthusiasm every game, and some teams are taking this for granted. We just made it a point coming in (Tuesday), especially playing Pitt at home, to say, ‘Look, we don't want to be upset.' We want to come here with the mindset like we're the underdogs."
The players were talking in their locker room right after the 68-54 win over Pitt to advance to the Sweet 16.
"It's for sure we can't look ahead, and that's what we're doing – we're taking it one game at a time," Candace Parker said.
"This is March Madness," Shannon Bobbitt said. "People will hit half-court shots to win the game. It's exciting, and you can't take no one for granted."
Spencer said Tennessee's team was fully aware of the upsets of higher seeds going into the Pitt game, and the players don't want to end their season anytime soon.
"We have to be truly focused," Spencer said. "These teams in the Sweet 16 are very dangerous and all these games are teaching us, ‘OK, we've got to learn a lesson from that.' Because if we can't learn our own lesson we're going home. We've got to be focused about what we've got to do, what Tennessee's going to do, and we're going to be fine. But if we get caught up in what they're doing to us it's not good. We can't focus on that."
Summitt lauded the players' focus after they practiced Wednesday. They had Thursday off to catch up academically before going back out on the road.
"I think they're a very focused team, and I think they want these next two games," Summitt said. "There's no doubt in my mind where they want to be. They want to be in Cleveland."
The Dayton Region may have lost some of its high seeds but Tennessee forward Candace Parker pointed out the obvious to anyone thinking otherwise: "It's still the region of doom. Those teams beat great teams." Good point.