NORFOLK, Va. -- Army's women's basketball team is becoming
quite the craze as the huge underdogs prepare to meet Tennessee in
the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
Not only at West Point, where the players and coach Maggie Dixon
were carried off the court by cadets after winning the Patriot
League tournament to earn their first NCAA berth, but seemingly
everywhere they go these days.
At a restaurant in Virginia on Friday night, fans yelled "Go
Army'' as the team shuffled in. Supporters honk, yell and wave from
cars when they see the team outside.
"It's been a whirlwind,'' Megan Vrabel said Saturday.
The fan interest has been building all season, at the academy
and beyond, as the Black Knights showed that Dixon's arrival meant
raised expectations, too.
"By the last game, we had the place packed. We even had
offensive linemen with their bodies painted. It was almost like a
regular college,'' Vrabel said.
The most moving moment, Dixon said, came the day after the
tournament victory when 4,000 cadets stood and cheered as the team
brought the trophy to the lunch mess hall.
"I'm getting goose bumps right now talking about it,'' the
But the Black Knights (20-10) know the odds are against them,
and they need think back only to 2002, when four of them played in
a 96-44 loss to the Lady Vols.
Garbage time came early in that game, Vrabel said, and Army used
"I was a freshman, wasn't getting many minutes and I got in and
scored a basket,'' the senior said, laughing. "It was like the
highlight of my year.''
This time won't be any easier.
The Lady Vols (28-4) are Southeastern Conference tournament
champions and feeling slighted after being relegated to a No. 2
seed. For a team with six national titles and the career victories
leader among coaches in Pat Summitt, that's a slap.
"We were real fired up after watching the brackets and we're
going to be able to channel that emotion we had after seeing where
we were seeded,'' Tye'sha Fluker said.
"We're just motivated to get back on the court and show
everyone what we can do.''
Tennessee has been a No. 1 seed 17 times, and has reached the
Final Four 16 times in Summitt's first 31 seasons.
The stacked Cleveland Regional also includes North Carolina and
perennial contender Rutgers, and the Lady Vols could have to face
Old Dominion on its home floor in the second round. Summitt sees
many of the biggest names in women's coaching in her bracket, and
calls it progress.
"We are seeing a parity at least among 12 to 16 teams,'' she
said. "You really are seeing something now that the men saw years
ago. I think it's good for the game.''
Sunday's quadrupleheader also features Duke, the top seed in the
Bridgeport, Conn., Regional, with a first round matchup against
Southern. The Southwestern Athletic Conference champions are
seeking the league's first victory in 12 NCAA tournaments.
But, in truth, the Jaguars really are happy to be here after a
season that saw them displaced by Hurricane Katrina and in a
constant state of flux thereafter.
"It's been tough for us, so this is a blessing,'' coach Sandy
The Baton Rouge, La.-based Jaguars have worked to improve the
quality of teams they play, hoping to escape their tendency to be
seeded 16th in the tournament.
This year, that brought them to LSU on the south side of the
city they share.
Final score? LSU 107, Southern 39.
Still, the chance to play the Blue Devils is special, Pugh said.
"It gives us an opportunity to showcase what we are capable of
doing,'' she said. "It's a wonderful opportunity for us, and we
are going to take full advantage.''
Sunday's games also will match 10th-seeded host Old Dominion
against No. 7 George Washington in the Cleveland Regional, and
Southern Cal against South Florida in the Bridgeport Regional. The
Trojans are seeded eighth, the Bulls ninth.