Let's be clear, the Hatters are happy to be here. However, they are not just happy to be here.
That might have been the case two years ago when the Hatters were selected to play fourth-ranked Tennessee on the Lady Vols home floor.
This year, however, the Stetson women's basketball team has many reasons to be excited about their chances heading into Saturday's NCAA Tournament First Round game vs. third-seeded UCLA.
Given its highest seed in school history (14), playing on a true neutral court at a location within driving distance of several players' hometowns, and competing with veteran squad that has played together for two years or more, Stetson (24-8) feels like they have an opportunity to pull the first-round upset.
“Two years ago we were really just happy to be there," Stetson head coach Lynn Bria said. "It was tough to get a 16-seed and have to go against Tennessee. It was a great experience being there but this year’s team now knows the protocol. They are older now, more mature, and don’t make the same mistakes they did two years ago. So even though we aren’t as big, we are a much better team, we have more experience, and I think that makes our chances better.”
Stetson held an afternoon practice Friday at St. John Arena on Ohio State's campus, as they prepared for Saturday's contest against the Bruins (25-7).
"We haven’t played anybody like UCLA," senior Shanasa Sanders said during the practice day press conference. "They are a great team but we are prepared to play them (Saturday). They have great size and we are going to have to double-down and rebound."
The Hatters will indeed have to contend with a much larger Bruin squad. UCLA starts four players at 5-11 or taller, while Stetson starts three players listed at 5-7 or less.
"They are obviously bigger than us and present match‐up problems but I also think that we present match‐up problems because we can shoot the three and that’s not what they want to do," Bria said. "They want to pound it inside and their guards will post‐up as well, so we have to make sure to help and double‐down in the post. We also will have to hit some outside shots."
Stetson is also expecting a large turnout of supporters on Saturday. With Victoria McGowan from Michigan, Ashley Buis and Jama Sharp from Indiana, and Ashley Dennis basically playing in her hometown, the crowd may provide a big advantage for Stetson. Coach Bria, who hails from West Virginia, and President Libby are also expected to bring a large contigent of supporters to the game.
Although the crowd may be a nice bonus, if the Hatters are to win, they will still have to execute on the court.
“If we are close and hanging in there I think the pressure is on (UCLA) because they are supposed to win the game according to the seed," Bria said. "If we can rebound with them and limit their points in the paint we have a real shot to win this game.”
One thing is for sure - the Hatters believe that an upset is possible.
"We have a great opportunity (Saturday)," senior Victoria McGowan said. "We are just going to come out and play hard, do our best and leave everything out on the court because this may be the last time out there for some of us.”
The game will be broadcast on ESPN2, ESPN3, and the WatchESPN App for mobile devices. Tip-off is scheduled for shortly after 1:30 p.m.