COLLEGE PARK -- After a season of pressure and heightened expectations, Southwest Missouri State women's basketball coach Cheryl Burnett figures tonight's second-round NCAA tournament game with Maryland is fun time.
And who can argue with her logic? After all, the pressure of advancing to next weekend's Midwest Regional semifinals is clearly on the 11th-ranked and second-seeded Terps, who play in a bigger conference, have bigger players and have a bigger reputation.
"We played the entire conference schedule as the team to beat. There's a lot of pressure in that," Burnett said yesterday. "I'm just really excited to come in as the underdog. Then, all you have to do is play."
The Bears (22-8), who beat Oklahoma State, 86-71, Wednesday night in the first round of the tournament, feed off the underdog role.
Last season, as the eighth seed, Southwest Missouri pulled off ++ the biggest upset in the NCAA tournament, knocking off Iowa, the No. 1 seed in the Midwest, 61-60, in overtime on the road in a second-round game.
From there, the Bears, who finished 31-3, blew out UCLA and Mississippi, the region's second seed, to earn a berth in the Final Four, making them the lowest seeded team ever to reach the national semifinals.
The Bears lost to Western Kentucky in the semifinals, but for a team that only three years before had won just seven of 27 games, the transformation was startling.
Said senior swingman Secelia Winkfield, the Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Year: "I always use that [the 7-20 season] to tell people, 'Look, it can happen to us. We can lose . . . or we can continue to win.' It [losing] was a while back, but it's still fresh."
The Bears, who moved from the Gateway Conference to the MVC this year, were ranked as high as 13th in the preseason, but started the season slowly, losing five of their first eight games because of injuries to starting guard Tina Robbins and center Tonya Baucom.
When Robbins and Baucom, who had 32 points in the Oklahoma State game, returned in early January, Southwest Missouri quickly righted itself in time for conference play, going 14-2 in the league and winning the MVC tournament to earn an automatic bid to the NCAAs.
The Bears will be at a height disadvantage with Maryland, with Baucom, a 6-1 senior, their tallest player.
But they counter their lack of size with shooting accuracy, particularly on the perimeter. Their overall 49.6 shooting percentage is the fifth-best in the NCAA, while their 39.7 percent success from three-point range is eighth best nationally.
"Their shooting percentage from the floor is extraordinary. They're going to extend us," said Maryland coach Chris Weller. "This will be a tremendous defensive challenge for us."
And on defense, while Burnett cagily says she "doesn't know what a zone is," Southwest Missouri plays a man-to-man that is designed to force turnovers by keeping pressure on the guards and limiting their opportunities to get the ball inside.
Said Weller: "They've never heard the word 'zone,' but the way they play man is the way you're supposed to play it. If you play a great man defense, you have a lot of zone concepts in it."
Although it will be played 1,100 miles to the east, tonight's gam will be keenly watched in Springfield, the Missouri city of 133,000 where the school is located.
School officials began arranging a local telecast of the gam Monday, two days before the Bears had even played their first-round game.
The school was fourth in women's basketball in averag attendance last season, drawing about 4,900 per game to the 8,800-seat Hammonds Student Center.
This season, the Bears led the NCAA in attendance, attractin an average of 7,421 at home.
They have drawn at least 4,800 in each of their last 21 hom games and their average attendance is 200 higher than the crowd Maryland drew for its biggest home game of the year against Virginia.
Five planeloads of fans and a scattered number of spectators coming by car are expected to make the trip here tonight.
"Every time we look up and there's 9,000 people, it's unique," said Burnett. "Every time you look up, it's like a dream come true, when the house is full."
Maryland (22-7) vs. SW Missouri State (22-8)
What: Midwest Regional second-round game
Seedings: Maryland, No. 2; Southwest Missouri State, No. 7
Site: Cole Field House, College Park
Radio: WINX (1600 AM)
Outlook: Maryland coach Chris Weller's usual inflation of her opponents may be justified in this case, as the Bears, a Final Four participant, could give the Terps fits. Junior G Melody Howard, the leading scorer (18.6), is shooting 42 percent from three-point range and the team is shooting 49 percent from the field. Defensively, their pressure on the guards could make it difficult for Maryland to get the ball into C Jessie Hicks, who will be one of four seniors playing their final home game.