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NCAA women's tournament advance

Tennessee fueled by ailing Summitt

PAT SUMMITT Last year as coach?

Pat Summitt isn’t sure she’ll coach Tennessee beyond this season. So if the Lady Volunteers are looking for some extra motivation, there it is.

Not that they really need it.

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They’ve missed the Final Four the past three years and will try to break that streak starting Saturday in the NCAA Tournament.

Tennessee (24-8) drew the second seed in the Des Moines regional and a first-round matchup with 15th-seeded Tennessee-Martin, where Summitt played from 1970-74. Beat the Skyhawks (23-8) and the Lady Vols meet seventh-seeded DePaul (22-10) or 10th-seeded Brigham Young (26-6) Monday.

“We’re fortunate to play for such a legendary coach and one of the best coaches - the best coach - in the nation,’’ fifth-year senior center Vicki Baugh said. “We definitely want that for her. All it takes is pride, and all she asks for us is to play 40 minutes and not have to coach effort. That’s one thing, we’ve had to mature and grow up and learn, and I think we’ve done that just in time.’’

Tennessee has played in every NCAA Tournament and won eight national championships, but a Final Four run is no sure thing for the Lady Vols. They’ve come up short the past three years after winning the 2008 national championship.

That alone would be enough motivation. Summitt’s health just gives them another incentive.

“When we came here, we wanted to play for her and we wanted to win games for her. It’s her program,’’ said senior Glory Johnson, averaging 14.1 points and 9.4 rebounds. “Now that she’s dealing with this, it’s just more motivation for us.’’

An icon with the most victories in NCAA history, Summitt announced in August that she has early onset dementia. She said this week she’s not sure if she’ll coach beyond this season. On Saturday, there’s a chance - however slim - that her career could end against the school where her college basketball career began.

“Not only has she coached - and been a great coach - but she’s been quietly leading a cause for women in sport, and that’s the bigger picture,’’ DePaul coach Doug Bruno said.

It’s a picture that Tennessee-Martin coach Kevin McMillan sees up close. Many of his players grew up dreaming of playing for Summitt, including his top scorer, Heather Butler.

“I’ve watched them since I was in middle school,’’ she said. “I’ve always wanted to play against Tennessee. I really have.’’

Now, they have a chance to accomplish something unexpected and knock off the mighty Lady Vols. Tennessee is 13-2 all-time against Tennessee-Martin, and the only losses were in 1971 and 1972, during Summitt’s playing career there.

This hasn’t been the easiest season for the Lady Vols.

Summitt has delegated more responsibilities to her assistants, with associate head coach Holly Warlick handling interviews, and there have been plenty of ups and downs on the court. But they seem to be hitting their stride just in time for the NCAAs, with four straight wins after falling in overtime to Arkansas.

“Tennessee girls, basketball means something to them,’’ McMillian said. “It’s meant something to them since they were real little. And the reason it means something in the state is because of Pat and the UT Lady Vols.’’

Geno Auriemma and the Connecticut Huskies are raring to go after being off for 10 days.

The top-seeded Huskies open up their NCAA Tournament Saturday against No. 16 Prairie View A&M.

After struggling through the latter part of the regular season with losses in their final two home games, UConn rallied to win the Big East tournament. The Huskies topped Notre Dame in the championship game, earning Auriemma his 800th career victory. The Hall of Fame coach became the fastest in history to reach that milestone.

“Ideally it would have been great if we could have played a week ago on Saturday,’’ Auriemma said. “That would have been better for us. I think any time you have a little momentum going and feel good about your team and they feel good about themselves and they like to capitalize on it.

“To wait 10 days, it’s hard to sustain that.’’

The time off allowed senior guard Tiffany Hayes to rest a stress reaction in her right foot. She wasn’t able to practice the first few days, but returned Thursday.

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