NCAA women's tournament matches up Vanderbilt, Middle Tennessee State

Monday, March 12, 2012 at 10:54pm

Though only 38 miles separate Vanderbilt and Middle Tennessee State, their women’s basketball teams haven’t met on the court in 20 years.

On Monday night, the NCAA Tournament selection committee ended the drought.

Vanderbilt and MTSU will square off in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament at Vanderbilt’s Memorial Gymnasium on Sunday (4:10 p.m., ESPN2).

“I’m excited about the matchup,” Vanderbilt forward Tiffany Clarke said. “It is one of those I guarantee they’ve wanted for a long time, we’ve wanted for a long time.”

The Commodores (22-9) are in the tournament for the 13th straight year and earned the No. 7 seed in the Fresno Region. The Blue Raiders (26-6), the Sun Belt Conference regular-season champs, were tabbed as the No. 10 seed and are in the tournament for the fourth straight season.

The other first-round matchup at Memorial features No. 2 Duke and No. 15 Samford at 6:30 p.m. Sunday. The two winners will play at 8:30 p.m. on Tuesday for a trip to the Sweet 16.

Clarke said she and teammate Jordan Coleman played in pick-up games against former MTSU players a couple years ago and it is a matchup the Blue Raiders wanted badly. It is not shocking considering MTSU’s roster features 10 players from Tennessee. Vanderbilt doesn’t have any players from inside the state.

“I think it is good for the tournament,” MTSU coach Rick Insell said. “Vanderbilt’s got a great program. We’ve got a great program. Really it’ll be close enough for us we can consider it a home game too.’’

Vanderbilt has been close to unbeatable inside Memorial Gymnasium, where the Commodores are 17-1 this season. In Melanie Balcomb’s 10 years as head coach, they hold a 130-24 record for a winning percentage of 84.4 percent.

Therefore, the possibility of having blue-tinted fans overtaking the arena doesn’t concern Balcomb.

“It still is our home court and you’ve seen our record at home,” she said. “It is a good record and we're confident here. We're not going to be worried about who is in the stands. We're going to feel confident on our court.”

MTSU holds an 8-7 edge in the series but Vanderbilt has won the last three games. The Commodores are also 5-4 at home against the Blue Raiders, including winning the last four. The teams last played on Jan. 30, 1992, which ended a run of playing each other 11 times in 14 years.

Earlier this season, MTSU athletic director Chris Massaro said he wants to re-establish that rivalry. 

“We’d love to do a home and home. I think we are RPI-worthy,” Massaro said. “I think some of the fear [for Vanderbilt] is if you lose it is going to hurt your RPI. We are going to help their RPI. They would help our RPI. I think it would be great for both programs. I just wish that everybody saw it that way.”

Asked about getting MTSU on the schedule, Balcomb said, “Well we wouldn't be playing them now if we scheduled them then, would we?”

The Commodores’ 10th-year head coach said she didn’t have any idea about future plans to renew the regular-season rivalry and preferred to focus on the postseason matchup.

“A lot of people have tried to say things, do things as far as Vanderbilt and us are concerned,” Insell said. “It would be a good game. But Melanie and them set their schedule and we set our schedule so we just haven’t been able to play.”

MTSU has proven it is more than a formidable opponent.

Insell and the Blue Raiders knocked off then-No. 6 Kentucky, with Insell's son Matt on the staff, in December. They also rattled off 20 straight wins before a one-point loss to Arkansas-Little Rock in overtime of the championship game of the Sun Belt tournament last week.

On the cusp of jumping into the Top 25 rankings all year long, MTSU holds an RPI ranking of 37 while Vanderbilt sits at 28.

“I do know they are very well coached,” Balcomb said. “Matt Insell probably knows a lot about us, which helps his dad know about us. They are probably more familiar with us. I think they are a great team and a great program. He has done a great job down there. It will be a really good game. He'll have them ready.”

Ready, now that there's no more waiting.