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Tennessee returns to sweet spot

CLEVELAND -- For the past 25 years, the NCAA has sponsored a women's basketball championship.

For all 25 of those, Pat Summitt has taken her Tennessee Lady Vols to the Sweet 16.

So Summitt is in very familiar territory today as second-seeded Tennessee plays No. 3 Rutgers at noon in the Cleveland regional semifinal in Quicken Loans Arena.

When the Lady Vols defeated George Washington in the second round last weekend to advance to their 25th straight Sweet 16, the Hall of Fame coach took a few minutes for nostalgia.

"It's a time to reflect and think about the great players and think about the University of Tennessee, which has supported women's basketball and probably gave us a jump-start," Summitt said. "I can tell you it never gets old. I was as anxious last weekend as for any tournament in previous years.

"But it is expected. It will always be expected."

Reaching the Sweet 16 isn't just a goal for the Lady Vols. It's a given. To speak of Tennessee and Summitt is to speak of the modern history of women's basketball. In her 32 years as the Lady Vols' coach, she has gone to 31 postseason tournaments, going back to the Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women days. The program has been to 16 Final Fours with six titles, although its last one was in 1998 when it beat Louisiana Tech.

"You work hard to get this far and now we're here. . . . And [we're] getting ready to play the mighty Tennessee," Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer said. "You know they are steeped in tradition."

Becoming traditional, too, is the NCAA matchup between between Tennessee and Rutgers. The Lady Vols hold a 4-0 mark over Rutgers in tournament play after defeating the Scarlet Knights last year to advance to the Final Four.

These meetings have special meaning for Summitt and Stringer. They have been friends for 25 years, dating to when they were coaching in that very first NCAA Final Four -- Summitt with Tennessee and Stringer with Cheyney State.

The two talk frequently during the season, calling to talk about problems with their teams and also about life off the court.

"I think it's a mutual respect for this game and in helping young women to grow, not just on the basketball court but to see them become confident and successful in career opportunities beyond basketball," Summitt said. "Like myself, she's extremely competitive, but we have been able to become good enough friends that we can compete knowing that when you play, there is a winner and a loser.

"But the friendship goes beyond basketball. We have had some personal difficulties in our lives, like when she lost her husband and I lost my father. I knew I would be there for her, and she was there for me. That's more than just basketball. That's having a friend in this profession, which is not always easy."

Is there any conflict now that they're playing in the NCAA Tournament? Has discussing their team problems, shortcomings and disappointments during the regular season given way to unfair advantages for either side?

"She and I are personal friends, but as it relates to the game itself, she can see like I can see," Stringer said. "She can tell what our strengths and weaknesses are just like I can with them, but I'm not necessarily worried about that. We just have to go out and play."

And they have to go out and play in one of the toughest and most controversial brackets in the NCAA's history. Called a "mini Final Four" by some, the controversy stems largely from putting North Carolina and Tennessee in the same bracket.

The Tar Heels are the overall No. 1 seed while Tennessee, ranked second in the season-ending RPI and winner of the Southeastern Conference Tournament, earned not just a No. 2 seed (perceived as a slap in the face by the Lady Vols), but the lowest No. 2 seed to end up in North Carolina's bracket.

While Summitt has toned down her earlier criticism of the bracket, Stringer and North Carolina coach Sylvia Hatchell voiced their concerns about the process and feel that the Women's Basketball Coaches Association is the best medium for addressing and correcting the problem.

"I don't know what anyone was thinking about when they decided to do this," Stringer said. "I thought we were trying to spread the talent so the four best teams could arrive at the one spot."

But not everyone in Cleveland has the critics' hat on.

"I think we lost sight here," Purdue coach Kristy Curry said. "The committee has done a great job in my mind. . . . Quit criticizing and complaining because there's a good time going on here."

e-mail: amoritz@buffnews.com

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