DAYTON, Ohio - In case you haven't hopped on the Marist bandwagon yet, there's still room.
"A lot of people have jumped on it and hopefully there's a lot more," coach Brian Giorgis said Saturday during his team's preparations for taking on top-seeded and heavily favored Tennessee in a regional semifinal on Sunday afternoon at the University of Dayton Arena.
"Our country's always been one that likes the underdog. I don't think there's probably a bigger one than us right now in either tournament."
Marist's Red Foxes (29-5) find themselves as the fans' favorite because there have been so few major NCAA upsets this season. They are only the third No. 13 seed to ever get this far in the women's tournament.
The 4,000-student college in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., shocked fourth-seeded Ohio State in the first round, 67-63, then turned around and upended fifth-seeded Middle Tennessee State 73-59, ending the Blue Raiders' nation's-best 27-game winning streak.
"We are aware of the fact that there are a lot of people rooting for Marist," Tennessee's Nicky Anosike said. "There are always people who want us to lose because of our winning tradition, but it's nothing we haven't seen before. We've played in hostile environments before where the whole gym is against us. We're prepared for anything and prepared for people who want us to lose."
Think the Vols might have a little bit of a chip on their shoulder? A paragraph in their postseason media guide - which is thicker than the Knoxville phone book - bears the headline, "Love us, hate us ... gotta respect us."
Giorgis doesn't get the feeling that his team is ready to rest just yet.
"That's the great thing about this program," he said. "It doesn't look at numbers or names on the front of uniforms. They just like to go out and play. They say, ‘Coach, what's the game plan?' and then they go out and try to execute it."
Tennessee (30-3) is used to the rarified air of the regionals. While Marist is there for the first time, the Volunteers have made it a rite of spring. They've advanced to the round of 16 all 26 years the NCAA has had a tournament, winning 21 of those 25 games.
Coach Pat Summitt, who is just 57 wins away from a thousand in her career, said every surprise in the tournament serves as a cautionary tale to the big-name programs.
"When you're a coach, you see the upsets and then go to the gym and say, ‘We can't let this happen,'" she said. "It's a great warning sign."
The Volunteers have all the ingredients to stave off a shocker. Candace Parker, perhaps the premier player in the college game, averages 19.8 points and 9.7 rebounds. Sidney Spencer adds 11.5 points and Alexis Hornbuckle another 10.7.
They haven't truly been upset this season, with their losses coming to No. 2 North Carolina, No. 1 Duke and No. 11 LSU.
There's no way Tennessee will look past the Red Foxes, Parker said.
"This is the NCAA tourney. This is what you dream of since you were a little kid," she said. "So I feel it's my responsibility to bring energy to the floor and be a defensive presence."
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