HAMPTON — Shortly before they took the court in Albuquerque, N.M., to face Kentucky in the 2011 NCAA tournament, Hampton University coach David Six sensed that his players were uncharacteristically quiet and edgy.

Six tried to snap them out of it.

"I can see y'all aren't like me," he said to them.

What do you mean, several of them asked.

"I know I'm the best coach here," Six told them.

They laughed.

"I said, no, I'm dead serious," he said. "I said, they have more resources than me, but I tell you what: If you listen to me, I'm going to level the playing field for you. But you've got to do what I tell you to do."

The Lady Pirates loosened up a bit. They came to the bench for the second media timeout of the first half, tied 8-8 with the Wildcats of the Southeastern Conference.

Six went down the bench and tapped players on the leg, looked at the group and said, "Still think we can't play with Kentucky?"

Six has spent five years molding and building HU's women's program into not just the best in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, but one capable of competing regionally and even nationally.

The Lady Pirates' next test comes Sunday when, as a No. 12 seed, they face fifth-seeded Michigan State in an NCAA first-round matchup at Chapel Hill, N.C.

The Spartans tied for the Big Ten Conference regular-season title and have made 11 of the past 12 NCAA tournaments. They are big, deep and talented.

Hampton will attempt to do what it always does, what Six has drilled into his players since he took over. One of the nation's statistically best defensive teams will attempt to limit Michigan State.

"Everybody likes to win," Six said. "I would say the biggest thing in five years that these kids have learned is that's the way we can win. If we can play good defense, we just might beat them. If we slow them down, we just might beat them. If we disrupt what they're doing, we just might beat them."

The program has come a long way from Six's first season, when the Lady Pirates won the first of an unprecedented five straight MEAC tournament titles, and he tried to instill the belief that they could compete nationally.

It's been a process. In 2010, the 15th-seeded Lady Pirates traveled to No. 2 seed and sixth-ranked Duke. The Blue Devils rolled to a 40-14 halftime lead and cruised 72-37.

"The first year, we were in awe of the NCAA tournament because it was unexpected to win the (MEAC) tournament," Six said. "As soon as they said 'Duke' I thought that the kids were intimidated. I could tell during the week that the kids were intimidated by that. Any time you're in awe of somebody, your ability to be able to compete is going to be hindered a little bit."

The following year, Hampton was given a No. 13 seed and faced fourth-seeded Kentucky, on a neutral floor at the Pit in Albuquerque.

The Lady Pirates took Six's message to heart and battled the Wildcats, eventually falling 66-62 in overtime. HU led 52-51 on a Jericka Jenkins jump shot with 6:22 left, and Quanneisha Perry's two free throws with 1:04 to play tied the game at 56.

Kentucky scored the first seven points of overtime and held off HU.