By PATRICK MACCOON
Spokane, WA -- For the second straight year the Lady Vols will take on Maryland in the NCAA Tournament, this time with a Final Four trip to Tampa, Fla. on the line.
Since the first preseason basketball practice, the goal for seniors Ariel Massengale, Cierra Burdick, and Isabelle Harrison was made clear. In their last go-around the trio wanted to make it back to the same location where Pat Summitt won her last national championship over Stanford in 2008.
After a thrilling 17-point comeback victory in a tough atmosphere against Gonzaga on Saturday night, they stand 40 minutes away from possibly making their dream come true.
"We have a great opportunity in front of us and this is what we have been working for all season, since we met up together in August," Lady Vol forward Cierra Burdick said. "It's exciting. And what a better way to do it than to go back to Tampa where we last won it all."
While Tennessee leads women's basketball with 18 Final Four appearances since 1982, the first year the tournament was held under the NCAA, they have been six years without reaching the location of the national championship game.
Massengale, who ranks second on her team in the tournament with 16.3 points per game and has yet to score below 15 in the first three rounds, will be looked to for continued leadership as they take on No. 1 seeded Maryland in what will be a less hostile Spokane Arena.
"We are very excited to play Maryland and for us seniors to try and get the team back to Tampa," starting Tennessee guard Ariel Massengale said. "We want to end the drought that this program has had. We are thankful and we're pleased for this opportunity and we look to take advantage of it."
Big Ten coach of the year Brenda Frese will not have Alyssa Thomas to deploy, who scored 33 points as a senior in the Terrapins 73-62 win over Tennessee last season in the Sweet 16, but she still brings back an experienced and talented group that had a taste of what the Final Four was like as season ago.
"I know this matchup means something to our kids because they put us out last year and that's natural and I love their fight in them," third-year Lady Vols head coach Holly Warlick said. "They lost their All-American (Thomas) last year, but I don't think they have missed a beat."
A quarter of scorers leads the way for the Terrapins (32-2), with senior Laurin Mincy (13.9 ppg), sophomore guard Lexie Brown (13.7 ppg), sophomore guard Shatori Walker-Kimbrough (13.2 ppg), and sophomore center Brionna Jones (12.4 ppg).
With its only two losses coming back-to-back early in the season in the San Juan shootout to unranked Washington State and on the road to at then No. 1 Notre Dame, Frese's team has since won 26 straight.
Mincy has led the tournament in 3-point shooting, as she has connected on 12-of-16 shots from long range and averaged 21.7 points per game.
"Mincy has come back strong for them this season," Warlick said. "They got a lot of great experience last year. I think they are spreading the ball out more and more people are involved."
Maryland ranks in the Top 20 in the country this season in scoring (79.8-7th), field goal percentage (.474-6th), rebound margin (+11.3-6th), and assists (16.5-16th).
After pulling away from Gonzaga late with its press defense, second-seeded Tennessee (30-5) will look to try and slow down and fluster the Terrapins offense Monday night to continue its postseason run.
"I believe we can hunker down and be more consistent on the defensive end," UT sophomore guard Jordan Reynolds said, who had a steal and a block in the second half 73-69 win. "Those last six minutes of the game and the five minutes of overtime, we really did a great job of playing team defense, helping one another, keeping them in front, boxing out and getting them to go one and done."
The Final Four is within Tennessee's sights, as they take on Maryland at 9 p.m. ET on ESPN Monday night.