COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Tennessee's perfect NCAA Tournament run is intact.
The Lady Vols have made all 39 tournaments since the NCAA added the women's event in 1982. It was a mark that looked in jeopardy a season ago until the coronavirus canceled the tournament.
The time, 13th-ranked Tennessee is a three seed and will open play Sunday against No. 14 seed Middle Tennessee. It's also the first time under coach Kellie Harper, the former Lady Vols point guard who won three national championships in college.
Getting there as coach? “That’s a big deal,” she said. “It’s pretty cool.”
Harper and her team would love to end a less-flattering run in NCAA play — not making a Final Four since 2008.
Tennessee was the sport's juggernaut from the start, winning eight NCAA Tournaments and reaching 18 Final Fours between 1982-2008. Things have slowed dramatically since with the Lady Vols missing the round of 16 in their past three appearances.
Harper, whose team was beaten by South Carolina in the SEC Tournament semifinals last time it played, held a workout session outdoors during their down time. She hoped the change of venue and some fresh air would clear their heads in preparation of the NCAAs.
The Lady Vols become the fourth team Harper has led to the NCAA Tournament (Western Carolina, North Carolina State, Missouri State are the others), just the second women's coach to do that.
“It t means I’ve had really good players wherever I’ve been," she said. “There are a lot of talented players out there that never get to play in the NCAA Tournament, so I don’t take that for granted.”
DEFENDING CHAMPS: Baylor was the last team to walk off the court in celebration after winning the 2019 NCAA Tournament. Bears coach Kim Mulkey and her team are busing the 180 miles or so from Waco to San Antonio, what she said is one less interaction for players and coaches on the way to the NCAA bubble that could last several weeks.
“I get a headache thinking about we’re getting ready to be in a bubble for I don’t know how many days. You don’t know how long you’re going to be there,” Mulkey said. “nd when you’re there, you’re not coming home to regroup and go back. You’re there until you lose out.”
Baylor, seeded second in its region, opens against No. 15 seed Jackson State on Sunday.
WELCOME TO THE NCAA TOURNAMENT: It won't only be this year's freshman class that gets its first taste of NCAA Tournament play. Several super sophomores, like South Carolina forward Aliyah Boston, will join first-year phenoms like Paige Bueckers of UConn in playing for the first time in the NCAAs.
Boston, the 6-foot6-5 force down low, said she anticipates a few butterflies taking the court next weekend. She was nervous enough Monday night waiting to see the Gamecocks name called. “I had my phone ready” to record everything.
Bueckers helped the Huskies finish No. 1 in the AP Top 25 for the 16th time this season.
INJURED GAMECOCK: No. 1 seed South Carolina will be without its only senior in LeLe Grissett, the 6-foot-2 guard who has been a key part of the Gamecocks bench this season. Grissett was hurt in the team's SEC Tournament title game victory over Georgia on March 7. The crutches and walking boot, though, didn't stop Grissett — with a little help — from climbing up a ladder to snip a piece of the championship net. South Carolina coach
Dawn Staley said Grissett had a lower leg injury and would miss the tournament. The Gamecocks had a similar situation in 2017 when starter Alaina Coates was ruled out of action with an injury before the NCAAs. The team responded with a run to its first national championship.
South Carolina starts play Sunday against Mercer.
IN AND OUT: Notre Dame saw its run of 24 consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances end this season as the Fighting Irish went 10-10 in coach Niele Ivey's first year in charge. ... There were several schools who hadn't heard their names called for the tournament in some time. Wake Forest's only other NCAA appearance came in 1988 and Washington State hasn't been in since 1991. Alabama's 11th appearance came 22 years after its last in 1999. ... The field includes four first-timers in Bradley, High Point, Stony Brook and Utah Valley.
AP Sports Writer Stephen Hawkins from Dallas contributed to this report.
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