Despite its impressive record, Tennessee couldn't even call itself Southeastern Conference champions after the regular season.
It changed that by getting its name on the SEC tournament trophy. Now, the goal for Pat Summitt's team is to add a more significant piece of hardware it is accustomed to having at season's end.
The top-seeded Lady Vols (30-2) begin defense of their national championship on Sunday when they face 16th-seeded Oral Roberts in a first-round game in West Lafayette, Ind.
Summitt hasn't been completely pleased with her third-ranked team's effort the season after winning the school's seventh national title and first in nine years in 2007. But after Tennessee beat then-No. 7 LSU -- avenging one of its two defeats -- to earn the SEC tournament title, the legendary coach is growing decidedly more optimistic.
"I think winning the SEC was good for them," said Summitt, whose 976 career wins are the most in women's college history. "I think they needed to feel really good about themselves as they go in knowing they're the defending national champions."
The Lady Vols should be well-prepared to defend their title. They were 14-2 against ranked opponents, giving them five more wins against Top 25 programs than the closest team -- No. 1 Connecticut, which has nine.
"For a team coming off a championship, they had a hard time being motivated for 40 minutes game in and game out," Summitt said. "Unfortunately with the schedule we played, that made it very challenging in a lot of games."
Yet many analysts have picked UConn, LSU or North Carolina to keep the Lady Vols from becoming the first repeat champions since the Huskies won three straight from 2002-2004.
"It's motivation," All-American forward Candace Parker said. "I'm excited they didn't pick us. We're the defending champions. Obviously we still have more respect to earn. We're into doing extra credit I guess."
Parker, who will forgo her final year of eligibility to concentrate on the upcoming Beijing Olympics and a professional career, may have extra motivation. LSU's Sylvia Fowles was named the SEC player of the year despite Parker averaging more points, assists, steals and blocks.
Parker is the nation's ninth-leading scorer -- averaging 21.3 points -- and she was even better over the Lady Vols' last four games, scoring 27.3 per game.
Behind her, Tennessee features a quartet of balanced scorers - four players average between 8.9 and 10.1 points.
Shannon Bobbitt has averaged 14.0 points in her last four games, and she and freshman Angie Bjorklund give the Lady Vols a pair of excellent outside threats. Both were among the top five in the SEC in 3-point percentage.
Oral Roberts (19-13) finished the regular season sixth in the Summit League, but went on a three-game tear to win the conference tournament. It did so in convincing fashion, winning by an average of 12.7 points after going just 10-8 in league play during the season.
The Golden Eagles will have an uphill battle against Tennessee, however.
They're 0-4 in the tournament in program history, last making it in 2007 when, as a No. 15 seed, the lost 63-42 to second-seeded Purdue.
Tennessee is 40-0 all-time in first- and second-round games.
Four Golden Eagles average between 11.5 and 13.3 points, led by guard Marianna Camargo. Fellow guard Rachel Watman has been the team's best scorer at the end of the season, averaging 16.0 points in her last four games.
This is the first meeting between the schools, with the winner advancing to play eighth-seeded Utah or ninth-seeded Purdue on Tuesday.
Story Courtesy: UT Lady Vols Sports Information
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