published Saturday, March 24th, 2012

Lady Vols respect Kansas

DES MOINES, Iowa -- Pat Summitt and her Tennessee Lady Vols' NCAA tournament history is staggering. For Kansas, it's spotty at best.

Yet don't think the Jayhawks will be the least bit affected by those suggesting they're in for a short stay in Des Moines.

Powerhouse Tennessee (26-8) will meet unheralded Kansas (21-12) in the Des Moines regional semifinals today in what looks like a classic mismatch.

The 11th-seeded Jayhawks are in the third round for the first time in 14 years despite losing leading scorer Carolyn Davis to a knee injury in February. The second-seeded Lady Vols have made it at least this far every year but one since the tournament's inception in 1982 and have advanced to regional finals 24 times.

But Kansas has looked nothing like the team that finished under .500 in the Big 12's regular season during the NCAA tournament. The resurgent Jayhawks rolled through Nebraska and third-seeded Delaware to earn an unlikely trip to the tournament's second weekend.

"Nobody expected us to win and go this far," Kansas guard CeCe Harper said. "It's good to come out and prove people wrong."

If Kansas can prove folks wrong again this afternoon, it will face either top-seeded Baylor or fourth-seeded Georgia Tech on Monday night for a berth in the Final Four in Denver.

"I just think they're playing with a lot of energy, a lot of heart and a lot of confidence," Tennessee associate head coach Holly Warlick said of the Jayhawks. "They don't appear to be scared or worried. They're just playing the game."

Still, few expect the Lady Vols' season to end at the hands of Kansas.

They vowed at the beginning of the season to play for the national championship this year, both in an effort to change their legacy from one that marks them as underachievers and to honor Summitt, who announced in August she'd been diagnosed with early-onset dementia, Alzheimer's type. The team has been inconsistent at times this season.

The Lady Vols still earned a No. 2 seed in part because they played the nation's toughest schedule, and they've seemingly found themselves after a shocking home loss to Arkansas last month. Tennessee has won six straight since then, locking up its 16th SEC tournament title before dispatching of UT-Martin and DePaul with ease last weekend.

Forward Glory Johnson and her fellow seniors have led the way. Johnson had 33 rebounds in the first two games of the NCAA tournament. She and the other four seniors are looking to avoid becoming the first four-year class to leave UT's program without a trip to the Final Four.

Vicki Baugh, the only player left from Tennessee's 2008 national championship team, said she's talked often about what it takes to get back to the Final Four -- and it usually revolves around defense.

"One thing we had to come together and learn was that defense wins championships," she said. "It's not about offense. Tennessee has always built off of defense and rebounding."

Kansas is playing in a regional semifinal for just the third time and lost the first two of those.

The biggest reason the Jayhawks have a shot is tiny point guard Angel Goodrich, who's been as good as anyone in the tournament so far.

The 5-foot-4 Goodrich is the nation's leader in assists at 7.4 per game. But she's taken on a much more active scoring role of late, putting up 27 points in Tuesday's 70-64 upset of the Blue Hens.

"She's got the heart of a lion. She just plays, and plays like that every day. She competes. She holds herself to the highest level," Kansas coach Bonnie Henrickson said. "She came to Kansas to be a difference maker, to elevate a program. It's been fun for me to watch her be able to do that."

The one inescapable fact about the Des Moines regional is that many folks have been expecting -- and hoping -- it will come down to a showdown between the iconic Lady Vols and the seemingly unstoppable Baylor Bears.

But Tennessee insists it isn't overlooking the Jayhawks.

"With an 11 seed, I think a lot of people underestimate Kansas. You can't underestimate any team, especially tournament time," Johnson said. "Most of the time, any team that is going to play against Tennessee brings their 'A' game, so we just have to be ready to bring our 'A' game in return."

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