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UTM gets Lady Vols in opener

UTM gets Lady Vols in opener
Press Sports
Well, it was bound to happen at some point.
Perhaps seeing as many headlines and storylines as stat lines, the NCAA Women’s Tournament selection committee has matched up UT Martin with Tennessee in the opening round.
Likely to be dubbed as Pat’s Team vs. Pat’s Alma Mater, the two UT schools on opposite ends of the state map will face off 3:10 p.m. Saturday at Allstate Arena in Chicago.
UTM is the No. 15 seed and Tennessee is seeded second in the Des Moines Regional, where Baylor is the No. 1 seed.
“I think they put us together for a reason, and it’s because of Pat and what’s going on with her,” UTM head coach Kevin McMillan said. “So, for us to be a part of that game and that history means a lot. There will be a lot of media coverage of us and publicity for UT Martin. And, if you’re going to a 15 seed, then you might as well get Baylor, Connecticut, Tennessee, Stanford. Get one of those teams.”
UT Martin is 23-8 overall and is currently riding a 14-game winning steak. Tennessee, meanwhile, is 24-8 and has won seven of its last eight games, including the SEC Tournament.
While the Skyhawks are making their second consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance as champions of the Ohio Valley Conference tournament, Tennessee has played in every NCAA tourney, this marking the Lady Vols’ 31st trip.
The two schools have played each other 15 times, Tennessee owning a 13-2 lead in the series.
UTM’s only two wins in the series? Well, that would be the next storyline — 1971 and 1972, when Pat Head was a Lady Pacer.
For McMillan, perhaps the biggest challenge awaiting the coaching staff is to get their players, nine of them Tennessee natives, to focus on the Lady Vols as their next opponent and not as the ultimate giant in the women’s game.
“The problem with this one is that Tennessee will get you starry-eyed,” McMillan said. “Most of these kids are from Tennessee, and they grew up thinking that’s the place they want to play. Pat Summitt sitting down on the end of that bench. So, we have to get them focused on playing the game.
“We’re here for a reason. We have a chance to make a statement and prove something. But, we can’t do that if we going in saying, ‘Oh, wow, it’s Tennessee.’ We have to go out there and play.”
At least the tournament itself is a been-there, done-that for the Skyhawks.
“The kids know what’s going to happen the next three or four days,” McMillan said. “They know what we have to do to get ready, so they’re going to be more relaxed and comfortable.”
It’s a good thing that part of preparation has been handled. The Lady Vols occupy plenty of the UTM staff’s and players’ time between now and Saturday.
Tennessee boasts a lineup loaded with size and skill.
Shekinna Stricklen, a 6-2 senior, leads the team in scoring with 15.4 points a game and is third in rebounding at 6.4.
Glory Johnson, at 6-3, averages 14.1 points and a team-best 9.4 rebounds a game, while sophomore point guard Meighan Simmons is the third player in double figures with 10.6 points per outing.
“They’re a huge team that’s really athletic,” McMillan said. “They don’t have a lot of weaknesses. Trying to exploit those weaknesses is going to be a really big challenge. We don’t match up with anybody in our conference, so we’re not going to match up when we get ready to play Tennessee.”
The Skyhawks will counter with a smaller, guard-oriented lineup that leads the nation in scoring at 81.1 points per game.
Sophomore guards Heather Butler (5-6) and Jasmine Newsome (5-7) are scoring 24.1 and 19.9 points a game, respectively, with each owning an OVC Player of Year award for the 2011-12 season.
Classmate Jaclissa Haislip, at 6-0, is an outside-shooting forward averaging 10.2 points a game. Her 65 made 3-pointers rank third behind Butler (98) and senior guard Taylor Hall (71).
The two programs became connected once again this season when UTM held a “We Back Pat” Night on Feb. 4, when the Skyhawks hosted Murray State.
The event was organized to raise funds and awareness in light of Summitt’s announcement the previous August that she had been diagnosed with early onset dementia, Alzheimer’s type.
Now that UTM has reached the NCAA Tourn-ament two years in a row, going in as a No. 15 seed both times, McMillan says the next step for his program is improving the seeding and getting out of those 15th and 16th slots.
“We had hoped that we’d played our way into a 14 seed because you have to get out of that 16 or 15 game,” McMillan said. “We didn’t this year, and I think that’s something we have to talk about to move forward — how to get out of that game.
“There’s 10 teams in the country that are head and shoulders above everyone else. So, if you’re a 16 or 15 or halfway through the 14s, that means you have your work cut out for you.” Published in The Messenger 3.13.12