Maryland point guard Lexie Brown grew up in Florida and played high school basketball in Georgia, so as a youth in SEC country, the sophomore couldn't help but admire the tradition-rich Tennessee women's program. She even attended the last Final Four in which the Lady Vols appeared in 2008 in Tampa.
Seven years later, Tennessee is the last opponent between the top-seeded Terps and a second straight trip to the Final Four that, coincidentally, will be contested in the same arena where Brown witnessed the Lady Vols topple Stanford, 64-48, to win their then-NCAA record eighth national championship.
Maryland (33-2) advanced to Monday night's Spokane Region final with a, 65-55, victory over former Atlantic Coast Conference rival Duke Saturday afternoon. No. 2 seed Tennessee (30-5) erased a 17-point deficit with 6:34 left in regulation to force overtime and emerge with a 73-69 win against No. 11 seed Gonzaga — the hometown favorite with fervent support in these parts — at Spokane Arena.
"I definitely grew up a fan of Pat Summitt and her program," Brown said of college basketball's all time leader in coaching wins. "I've always been a fan of Tennessee. I've never really wanted to go there, but I've always been appreciative of what Pat Summitt brought to our sport. Last year, to be able to play a team like that, it was a lot of fun. It was really cool to be able to play against the legendary Tennessee Lady Vols."
Brown was referring to a 73-62 win against Tennessee in the Louisville Region semifinals in which she had 14 points, five steals and two rebounds on the way to being selected first-team all-region. Maryland was the No. 4 seed last season while the Lady Vols were the top seed, and the Terps relished their underdog status in reaching the Final Four in Nashville.
This time, Maryland is bracing for an emotionally-charged adversary not only supremely confident following one of the NCAA tournament's most improbable comebacks, but also playing with extra fire for an ailing Hall of Fame coach who no longer roams the sidelines.
Summitt coached Tennessee for 38 seasons and compiled 1,038 wins until her retirement in 2012 because of early onset dementia diagnosed four years ago.
During Saturday's region semifinal, Lady Vols supporters waved signs that read, "Win for Pat." The rest of the SEC was on board this season too, with all its women's basketball teams wearing "We Back Pat" t-shirts during the week of Jan. 18 through 26. Tennessee also hosts an annual "We Back Pat" game intended to heighten awareness of Alzheimer's and raise funds through the Pat Summitt Foundation.
Only a handful of Lady Vols recruited by Summitt remain, all of them seniors, including point guard Ariel Massengale and forward Cierra Burdick, who had 22 points and 15 rebounds in the region semifinals. Senior center Isabelle Harrison, a projected lottery pick in the WNBA draft, tore her ACL in February and is out for the rest of the season.
"When you lose a head coach that you want to play for the stature of Pat, they have been through a lot," Tennessee coach Holly Warlick, formerly Summitt's top assistant, said of her seniors. "Then they have been very accepting of me and positive, so I think that they have a had a lot of burden on shoulders, and I just think they have done an incredible job."
In contrast, those largely responsible for Maryland's school-record 27-game winning streak and Big Ten Conference regular season and tournament titles this season are sophomores. Shatori Walker-Kimbrough, a sophomore guard-forward, had 24 points on 10-for-15 shooting in the region semifinals, and sophomore center Brionna Jones added 10 points and 10 rebounds.
Brown, meanwhile, had her least productive game since becoming a starter four games into her freshman season. The first-team all-Big Ten selection managed one point in the region semifinals, missing all seven of her field goal attempts.
She played just 24 minutes, with coach Brenda Frese turning to reserves Brene Moseley, a redshirt junior, and freshman Kristen Confroy to handle the ball.
"Obviously at this point, you're only going to have elite-level teams, great teams that are left to play in the Elite Eight," Frese said. "So, I think that it will come down to both teams, their battle of wills, both teams being able to take away each other's strengths and who's able to do that."