By TERESA M. WALKER
The Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Vanderbilt is the last Southeastern Conference team left in the women’s NCAA tournament, leaving the Commodores to carry on the storied SEC tradition all by themselves.
For the first time in the 28-year history of the tournament, the SEC is down to one team after the opening weekend.
It’s a disheartening low for a conference that had seven teams in the field and has a proud tradition in women’s basketball. Eight national titles. Seven of its 12 schools have played in the Final Four at least once. Two reached the Final Four each of the past two seasons (Tennessee and LSU).
There hasn’t been a Final Four without an SEC team since 2001, and the SEC has been absent from the event only three times – ever.
“We deserved everything we got in,” Vanderbilt coach Melanie Balcomb said Wednesday. “It does surprise me this is the first that this has ever happened to the SEC. I think we’re deeper, not as top-heavy.”
Balcomb sees an SEC that remains as strong from top to bottom as ever but missing its traditional powerhouses, especially with Tennessee and LSU rebuilding with young rosters after losing Candace Parker and Sylvia Fowles.
But Tennessee – the two-time defending national champion – was ousted by a No. 12 seed in the first round. Pat Summitt’s Lady Vols had never lost in the opening weekend.
LSU had reached the past five Final Fours, but a home-floor advantage couldn’t help a young, rebuilding team get out of the second round in a 10-point loss Tuesday night to Louisville.
Georgia barely got in and a Peach State site couldn’t help the Lady Bulldogs win even one game.
Regular season champ and No. 2 seed Auburn (30-4) was embarrassed in a blow-out loss to Rutgers on Monday night, while Florida lost to Connecticut in Storrs on Tuesday night.
Auburn coach Nell Fortner says the upsets and losses are proof that the women’s game is getting stronger overall.
“We’re reaping benefits from kids playing basketball for a longer period of time, starting at a younger age. There’s more athletes to go around,” Fortner said. “We follow what the men do. The men’s game has tremendous parity. I think that we’re doing the same thing.”
On the road again
Parity aside, Fortner wasn’t happy having to play a road game and SEC coaches agree that location was a factor in the conference’s NCAA showing.
“We lost on UConn’s floor, Auburn lost on Rutgers’ floor, Mississippi State lost on Ohio State’s floor,” Florida coach Amanda Butler said.
“Homecourt advantage is very strong and these are the factors that we’re dealing with that are out of our control, but it’s what we think is best for the game right now so the game continues to grow.”
For example, Chattanooga hosted NCAA games this past weekend two hours away from Vanderbilt and Tennessee. Yet, Vanderbilt was forced to fly to Albuquerque, N.M., for a second straight year.
Balcomb’s Commodores have played in Spokane, Seattle and Oklahoma in recent years and have turned Albuquerque into a home away from home. She can’t wait for the fan support Saturday in the Raleigh Regional semifinal against No. 1 seed Maryland (30-4) – the team that knocked the Dores out of the NCAA tournament a year ago.
“Now our Vanderbilt fans and our kids … can go to the games,” Balcomb said.
The Commodores (26-8) are in the regional semifinals for a second straight year and 14th overall. They are trying to reach its first regional final since 2002 and first Final Four since 1993.
The SEC is uniting behind Vanderbilt, this year’s tournament champ.
“I’m proud for Vanderbilt, I’m happy for them. I’m hoping they can represent our conference strongly,” Fortner said. “You want your conference to do well, there’s no question.”
Especially when down to one last team.