March 21, 2010
BY BETH RUCKER
KNOXVILLE -- When players check in at NCAA women's tournament sites, they receive pins that commemorate the round in which they're playing.
Tennessee guard Angie Bjorklund got six her freshmen year en route to the 2008 national championship. Last year she got only one, with the Lady Volunteers losing in the first round.
"I literally carried around that first-round pin this year," the junior said. "I put it somewhere where I saw it because that's all we won last year. Despite what I won freshman year this is whole new squad. I want all six."
The top-seeded Lady Vols (31-2) already have made it one round farther than last season by routing Austin Peay 75-42 in their opener Saturday. They'll collect their second-round pins Monday when they face No. 8 Dayton (25-7).
For many of coach Pat Summitt's players, this is their first appearance in the second round. Tennessee has appeared in 29 tournaments and had never lost a first- or second-round game until its 71-55 loss to Ball State last year.
"They're a very close-knit group," Summitt said. "They hold each other accountable. We have told them, 'It's not our team. It's your team. You have to want it more than anyone in the country.' They have responded."
As one of only three players who were around for Tennessee's 2008 national title, Bjorklund occasionally reminds her younger teammates that the teams that succeed in the NCAA tournament are the ones that elevate their play. It was the lesson players like Candace Parker and Nicky Anosike helped her learn as a freshman.
"It's almost like they just flipped on a light switch my freshman year, and it's like they pulled me through because I didn't know what it took," Bjorklund said. "It doesn't matter if you're up 10, 15. Any team can come back just like Dayton did the other day."
In their first-round game, the eighth-seeded Flyers trailed No. 9 TCU by 18 to with 13:07 left. The Lady Frogs went cold, and Brittany Wilson hit a layup with 1.1 seconds left to give Dayton the 67-66 win.
We knew Tennessee's assistants were there watching the game, and we wanted to kind of lull them into a false sense of security," Dayton coach Jim Jabir said.
Unlike the Lady Vols, who have appeared in every NCAA tournament, the Flyers are in their first tournament.
They gained experience through a tough schedule that included six games against teams that reached the tournament this season. They beat Georgetown, Temple and then-No. 10 Michigan State. The Flyers also credit Jabir, who twice made it to the NCAA tournament opening round as Marquette coach in 1994-95.
"Our coaches have done a great job all year of pushing us to our limits and making us work extremely hard," freshman guard Kari Daugherty said. "These practices have made us ready for this. We've been working hard all season, and this is what we came to do."
None of the players appears intimidated by playing on Tennessee's home court, named for Summitt, in front of 10,000 Lady Vols fans. The teams haven't met in 23 years, and the Lady Vols won that game at home, 66-40.
Jabir knows it takes this kind of experience to take his program to the next level -- in this case, a regional semifinals bid next weekend across the state of Tennessee in Memphis.
"If it doesn't break us, it will stretch us and make us stronger," he said. "We're going to try to be the best that we can be, and if it isn't good enough, it isn't good enough."