KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP)The 12th-seeded Toledo Rockets know they’re on the verge of program history – a win away from the first Sweet 16 for the Mid-American Conference Tournament champ.
Toledo junior guard Khera Goss said she’s dreamed of this opportunity since she was a little girl.
“Growing up in a basketball family, this is something that I’ve been surrounded by, so the fact that it’s our turn to be able to experience it and live it out is something that I can’t even put into words,” Goss said Sunday.
Thanks to a crash course in women’s basketball history this week, they also fully understand the challenge Monday night when they play No. 4 seed Tennessee. They’ll be on the court named for the late coach Pat Summitt, under rafters filled with her eight national championship banners.
Toledo coach Tricia Cullop, who during a recruiting trip accidentally took Summitt’s rental car keys before realizing the BMW was not hers, called the Lady Vols a formidable opponent.
But the Rockets (29-4) want their own history by reaching the Sweet 16 in the Seattle 3 Region, and also want to extend their record streak to 18 straight wins.
“We’re not just here to be here,” Cullop said. “We’re looking forward to the challenge. We’re going to give it our best shot, you know, and see what happens.”
Tennessee coach Kellie Harper, who helped win three of the Lady Vols’ title banners between 1996 and 1998, has played and coached enough in March to know that every team still in it deserves to be here.
She also sees Toledo as a team deserving a much better seed, having knocked off then-No. 14 Michigan in December before beating No. 5 seed Iowa State 80-73 in the first round. Harper called Toledo disciplined, tough and very smart on defense.
“Where they might not … have the size of some opponents, they’re able to make up for that with how they play,” Harper said. “So we know this is a very good basketball team. We’re in for a big battle.”
Her Lady Vols (24-11) want to add a new chapter to their vaunted tradition after routing Saint Louis 95-50 on Saturday.
This program ended its Sweet 16 drought a year ago by edging a No. 12 seed in Belmont with a late 3. Winning Monday night would mean Tennessee’s first back-to-back trips to the Sweet 16 since 2015-16 and the 36th overall for the only program to play in all 41 NCAA Tournaments.
Tennessee junior Tess Darby said that would be really special.
“You come to the University of Tennessee, and you’re supposed to be in those games,” Darby said.
Tennessee lost center Tamari Key to blood clots in December. Marta Suarez stepped away from this season for personal reasons. Jessie Rennie tore an ACL last summer. The Lady Vols also played the nation’s toughest schedule, losing eight to ranked teams – twice to No. 1 South Carolina.
Darby said this is a far different team than the one that started the season.
They also have guard Jordan Horston, who missed this tournament a year ago with an elbow injury, and Mississippi State transfer Rickea Jackson playing in the first NCAA Tournament of her career.
“We’re just really prepared I feel like, and it’s just given us that boost of confidence that we can compete with anyone,” Darby said.
Toledo’s biggest challenge will be dealing with Tennessee’s decided height disadvantage. Forward Jessica Cook (6-foot-2) is one three Rockets who are 6 feet or taller. Tennessee’s only starter under 6 feet? Point guard Jordan Walker, at 5-8.
“If we went out and played one-on-one they would win every time,” Cullop said. “But the good thing is we get to play five-on-five.”
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