PITTSBURGH - Twenty-six NCAA women's basketball tournaments, 26 appearances by Tennessee under coach Pat Summitt in the round of 16. The old adage that nobody's perfect apparently doesn't apply to the Lady Vols come tournament time.
Only this time, the team from the Rocky Top state may find the road to next weekend's regional in Dayton slightly more hazardous and less predictable than those in past seasons.
The Vols' reward for a 29-3 record, a No. 3 national ranking and an unrivaled history? A second-round road game tonight at Pitt, an opponent with a punishing 257-pound center, Marcedes Walker, who rarely gets pushed around even by the best of teams.
This would never happen in the NCAA men's tournament, a top-seeded team being forced to play an eighth-seeded team like Pittsburgh (24-8) on its home court. But the women's tournament is expanding to venues never previously visited, and the Panthers were rewarded for building a $110 million-plus basketball palace that is one of the best in the sport.
No doubt Summitt wishes that prize for Pitt hadn't been a showcase game in the Petersen Events Center against her team.
"In 112 NCAA games, this is only the third time, prior to a Final Four, that we have played on an opponent's home court," Summitt said Monday. "But I do think our basketball team has been terrific on the road and has played a lot of tough competition. Life on the road is where you had better pack your defense and your board play."
The men's tournament also wouldn't send two top-seeded teams to the same early round venue, yet both Tennessee and North Carolina must win tonight in Pittsburgh to move on. The Tar Heels (31-3) play another Big East team, Notre Dame (20-11), in a Dallas Regional game.
It's also unusual to have a doubleheader so early in the tournament with all four teams coming from power conferences, yet that also will occur. That's why Summitt and North Carolina coach Sylvia Hatchell might be more nervous than usual only one game into the tournament.
Pitt can't match Tennessee in size, experience or ability, yet Walker presents a difficult matchup problem for any team. Walker proved way too much for James Madison to handle as she had 20 points and 15 rebounds in Pitt's 71-61 victory Sunday.
Nicky Anosike, a strong inside defender who owns a one-inch height advantage over Walker, is all but certain to draw the one player Tennessee must control to advance. The Vols are 12-1 on the road this season.
"I'm ready to do it," said Anosike, an excellent rebounder and shot blocker who had nine points, five rebounds and two blocks in a 76-37 first-round rout of Drake. "I'm just going to have to take one for the team."
While Pitt coach Agnus Berenato is all but pleading for a sellout crowd - something that never occurred all season for her team at home - the Vols are confident their traditionally large traveling party will negate any home-court advantage. There appeared to be more Vols rooters than Pitt supporters in the stands Sunday.
"We're going into the game with no fear, and we're looking to attack," Berenato said.
Pitt has exactly one NCAA tournament victory in its history to Tennessee's 93, yet Walker said she's not intimidated going against one of the sport's marquee programs.
"We have no fear of them," she said. "It's going to be a big challenge going against Tennessee, knowing they have a history. Pittsburgh doesn't really have a history, so I take it as we have nothing to lose but have so much to gain."
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