Toledo seeks 1st Sweet 16 in March Madness against Lady Vols


KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — The 12th-seeded Toledo Rockets know they’re on the verge of program history — one win away from the first Sweet 16 for the Mid-American Conference Tournament champion.

Toledo junior guard Khera Goss said she has dreamed of this opportunity since she was a little girl.

“Growing up in a basketball family, this is something I’ve been surrounded by, so the fact that it’s our turn to be able to experience it and live it out is something I can’t even put into words,” Goss said Sunday.

Thanks to a crash course in women’s basketball history this week, they also understand the challenge on Monday night when they play No. 4 seed Tennessee. They will be on the field named for the late coach Pat Summitt, under the rafters filled with her eight national championship banners.

Toledo coach Tricia Cullop, who during a recruiting trip accidentally took Summitt’s rental car keys before realizing the BMW wasn’t hers, called the Lady Vols a formidable opponent.

But the Rockets (29-4) want to make their own story by reaching the Sweet 16 in the Seattle 3 Region, and are also looking to extend their streak to 18 straight wins.

“We’re not just here to be here,” Cullop said. “We are looking forward to the challenge. We’ll do our best, you know, and see what happens.”

Tennessee coach Kellie Harper, who helped win three of the Lady Vols’ title banners between 1996 and 1998, has played and coached enough in March to know that every team still in it deserves to be here.

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She also sees Toledo as a team that deserves a much better seed, after knocking off then-No. 14 Michigan in December before beating No. 5 seed Iowa State 80-73 in the first round. Harper called Toledo disciplined, tough and very smart on defense.

“Where they may not … have the size of some opponents, they’re able to make up for it with how they play,” Harper said. “So we know this is a very good basketball team. We’re facing a big game.”

Her Lady Vols (24-11) are looking to add another chapter to their storied tradition after routing Saint Louis 95-50 on Saturday.

This program ended its Sweet 16 drought a year ago by earning a No. 12 seed in the Belmont with a late 3. Winning Monday night would mark Tennessee’s first back-to-back trips to the Sweet 16 since 2015-16 and the 36th overall for the only program to play in all 41 NCAA tournaments.

Tennessee junior Tess Darby said it would be very special.

“You come to the University of Tennessee and you’re going to be in these games,” Darby said.

Tennessee lost center Tamari Key to a blood clot in December. Marta Suarez stepped down this season for personal reasons. Jessie Rennie tore an ACL last summer. The Lady Vols also played the nation’s toughest schedule, losing eight to ranked teams — twice to No. 1 South Carolina.

Darby said this is a far different team than the one that started the season.

They also have guard Jordan Horston, who missed this tournament a year ago with an elbow injury, and Mississippi State transfer Rickea Jackson, who played in the first NCAA tournament of her career.

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“We’re just very prepared I feel and it’s just given us that boost of confidence that we can compete with anybody,” Darby said.

Toledo’s biggest challenge will be dealing with Tennessee’s definite height disadvantage. Forward Jessica Cook (6-foot-2) is a three rocket who is 6 feet or taller. Tennessee’s only starter under 6 feet? Point guard Jordan Walker, at 5-8.

“If we went out and played one-on-one, they would win every time,” Cullop said. “But the good thing is that we get to play five against five.”

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