The coaches of three teams in the NCAA women's Mideast Regional in Knoxville, Tenn., this weekend have spent a lot of time expressing the requisite niceties about the region's top seed and host school, Tennessee.
And for good reason. After all, the third-ranked Lady Vols (31-2), who meet No. 9 Western Kentucky (28-3) tonight in a regional semifinal, have a lot going for them, including history, a tremendous home-court advantage and a desire -- bordering on obsession -- to return to the Final Four.
"We're pleased to be here in the Sweet 16. I don't know if three of us are pleased to be in Knoxville. We would have liked to have avoided that," said Texas Tech coach Marsha Sharp, whose second-seeded Red Raiders (32-3) meet third-seed Washington (25-8) in the other semifinal.
Even without the benefit of holding the regional at Thompson-Boling Arena, where they've won 62 straight games overall, the Lady Vols, who have never lost in 24 home NCAA tournament games, would be a formidable opponent for the Hilltoppers or anybody else.
"I told my team the way you win come tournament time is defense and rebounding. That will take you to the next level," Western Kentucky coach Paul Sanderford said. "Tennessee is one of the best rebounding teams, and to be successful you have to rebound with them. For us to have a chance, we have to keep them off the boards and stay out of foul trouble."
That may not be enough for the Tennessee seniors, who are 119-10 in their time in Knoxville, are the only class of Lady Vols never to get to the Final Four and have approached the entire season as a quest for the Holy Grail, which is now only two games away.
"I think they've responded very well," Tennessee coach Pat Summitt said. "They've been very coachable and played hard every game. And, I think right now, probably more than two weeks ago when we were preparing for the SEC tournament, they're very serious-minded."
The other semifinal is a rematch of the inaugural preseason women's National Invitation Tournament championship game in which No. 14 Washington beat the fifth-ranked Red Raiders, 79-75, on the road behind 38 points from senior center Rhonda Smith.
However, the Huskies, the Pac-10 runners-up, will play tonight without senior forward Laura Gonsalves, who is out for the rest of the season with a knee injury, which, combined with other factors, has sent Washington coach Chris Gobrecht searching for compassion.
"I'd very much like to tap into the resources of the Knoxville fans who will be wanting to cheer for someone [tonight] at 8:30," Gobrecht said.
"If we need a sympathy vote, I'm willing to play that role. If you consider how far we've come, and if you consider we have to play this team who loses once every leap year, and that my children are home without a mother, we'd really, really appreciate your support."