Two balanced, athletic teams. Two senior point guards to lead. Two teams that expected to be where they are. And two teams trying not to focus on No. 2 seed Connecticut.
To get past seventh-seeded Virginia Tech at 6 tonight in the first round of the NCAA tournament at the Bryce Jordan Center in State College, Pa., the 10th- seeded Missouri women’s basketball team (21-9) has tried not to think about how anxious or excited it is to take the floor for the first time in over a week in the biggest game of its season.
“I personally am a little bit nervous, but I think it’s more excitement than anything,” forward Carlynn Savant said. “I just want to get out there and play.”
Dealing with the distractions and hoopla that accompany an NCAA tournament game might be the most challenging thing about the tournament. Every detail is magnified. It’s one of the few games in which the team gets to play in front of a national audience. After a nerve-wracking selection show on Monday, where some analysts projected the Tigers out of the tournament, keeping focus on the Hokies (20-9) instantly became the team’s first priority at practice this week.
On top of that, the security concerns that caused a 90-minute delay at Cox Arena in San Diego at the men’s tournament gives everyone just one more thing to think about. Players interviewed only hours after the delay were unaware of what had happened, but said they weren’t concerned about security in State College.
Savant said the potential second-round matchup with five-time national champion Connecticut is in the back of the team’s mind, and it’s a matchup coach Cindy Stein did not want to talk about.
“How do you spell UConn?” Stein joked.
Although no one is challenging Stein to a spelling bee, she reiterated that her team can’t get caught thinking about what could happen on Tuesday night.
“I don’t even think that you can look ahead,” Stein said. “We’re going to prepare for Virginia Tech, and we’ll worry about the rest when it happens.”
This is the second-straight appearance in the tournament for the Hokies. As a 13 seed last year, the Hokies were down by 20 points early in their first-round game against DePaul and came back to take the lead late in the game before ultimately losing by one point.
Carrie Mason, the Hokies’ senior point guard and leader, scored nine points in that game, and coach Beth Dunkenberger said Mason has improved even more since going up against the tough point guards in the Atlantic Coast Conference, widely considered to be one of the toughest conferences in women’s college basketball this season.
“She started for us for four years in two tough leagues,” Dunkenberger said, referring to the two years the Hokies were in the Big East prior to joining the ACC. “Her mom’s a coach, and she understands the game well. She’s a true coach on the court.”
On paper, the two teams look about as evenly matched as any in the tournament, which could provide some late game dramatics. The two teams start all upperclassmen and focus on using a balanced attack.
“We’re both athletic, and we like to run the floor,” senior guard LaToya Bond said. “I think it helps because we go up against the same things in practice every day. ”