- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 25, 2015

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - After playing in front of thousands of supporters on its home court in the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament, Tennessee heads across the country to prepare for a much different reception.

The second-seeded Lady Vols (29-5) play No. 11 seed Gonzaga (26-7) in a Spokane Region semifinal Saturday at the Spokane Arena, located less than 2 miles from Gonzaga’s campus.

“Whether we’re playing here or outside on the street, we’re just glad to still be playing in the tournament,” Tennessee guard Ariel Massengale said Wednesday afternoon before the team headed to Spokane.

Both teams realize that playing at home doesn’t guarantee success.

Gonzaga got this far by stunning No. 3 seed Oregon State 76-64 on the Beavers’ home floor. Two years ago, Tennessee won a regional semifinal game with Oklahoma in Oklahoma City, about 20 miles from Oklahoma’s campus.

Tennessee overcame the road environment in the Oklahoma game by going on a 25-5 run in the first half. A similarly fast start could prove beneficial Saturday, though the Lady Vols say they haven’t talked much about the Oklahoma experience this week as they chase their first Final Four appearance since 2008.

“We haven’t really brought up the last two years because that’s not where we wanted to go,” said Tennessee guard Andraya Carter, referring to the fact that Tennessee fell short of the Final Four both seasons. “Any talk about the past two seasons has not been in a positive light. It’s been because we want to do better than that.”

Tennessee’s formula for getting that elusive Final Four bid likely involves maintaining its rebounding supremacy and improving its defense from the first two rounds. The Lady Vols have a plus-17 ½ rebound margin through their first two tournament games, but they haven’t delivered a complete performance on defense.

That could prove troublesome against Gonzaga, which beat George Washington 82-69 in the first round despite being outrebounded 51-39 and attempting 23 fewer shots than the Colonials.

“They are a difficult team for us to (defend) because they don’t so much post up,” Tennessee coach Holly Warlick said after her team’s second-round victory. “Everyone can shoot the 3. Everyone can handle the basketball. So for us, it is not a traditional basketball team. They all can play all positions. We are going to have to play a lot better one-on-one defense than we did tonight.”

They’re also going to have to deal with a road environment. The Lady Vols believe playing at Notre Dame, South Carolina and Kentucky during the regular season should prepare them for whatever they might encounter at Spokane.

The Lady Vols expect to see at least a few friendly faces in the crowd, thanks in part to the three Oregonians on Tennessee’s roster. Guard Jordan Reynolds and guard/forward Jaime Nared are both from Portland, Oregon, about 360 miles southwest of Spokane. Center Mercedes Russell, who is redshirting this season, also is from Oregon. They’ve been seeking extra tickets all week for friends and relatives.

“It’s kind of like a home game for (Gonzaga) and so it’s going to be loud with a lot of people there, but we’re excited,” Massengale said. “We’re up for the challenge. We know the road to (the Final Four) in Tampa is not an easy one, and a lot of people can’t travel it. But we’re willing to do whatever it takes to get there.”


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