Pat Summitt pupils making an impact in NCAA Tournament

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Kyra Elzy and Kellie Harper won a lot of NCAA Tournament games together while teammates at Tennessee

The former roommates, who celebrated championships together in 1997 and 1998, this week both advanced into the second round as head coaches in the River Walk regional.

The Wildcats 71-63 win over Idaho State, was Elzy’s first NCAA Tournament game as a head coach, a job she got in November after the sudden retirement of Matthew Mitchell. Her fourth-seeded Wildcats take on fifth-seed Iowa in the second round.

Harper, who also has a ring from the 1996 Tennessee team title team, took over at her alma mater last year. She is hoping to get to Lad Vols back to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2016 when they play Michigan on Tuesday.

Both say they have had their former coach, the late Tennessee legend Pat Summitt, on their minds this week.

“I know she’s looking down, so proud,” Elzy said. “I write on my card every game, `Left foot, right foot, breathe, repeat,’ and that was one of her mottos.”

Harper said that while she has been mostly focused on her own team during the tournament, she’s also following the job Elzy is doing.

“She’s coaching them with discipline and everyone knows that’s what Pat did,” she said. “I would love to step in and watch Kyra lead a practice, because I’m sure I could see some similarities.”

Elzy, who calls her relationship with Harper a sisterhood, said she’s also been thinking this week of Mitchell, who gave her the reigns after suffering a major concussion in the offseason that required brain surgery.

“I actually sent coach Mitchell a text message, telling him how much I miss him, couldn’t wait to catch up,” she said. “And he sent me a text message that said, `I look forward to catching up with you, but I hope it’s a long time from now. Enjoy Texas.”‘

Tennessee and Kentucky would only meet if both advance to the regional final.

Some other things to watch along the River Walk:

SHE’S BACK

Michigan’s Leigha Brown was averaging more than 20 points a game before a series of coronavirus-related pauses at the school, including her own bout with COVID-19, caused her to miss 35 days in the middle of the season.

“Being off for that long, it’s really hard to come back,” she said. “There’s going to be some rust that shows.

Brown shook off that rust Sunday, scoring 28 points to help the Wolverines beat Florida Gulf Coast 87-66 and advance to that second-round matchup with Tennessee. The Nebraska transfer needs just two points against on Tuesday to reach 1,000 for her career.

Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico said having Brown at full strength or near full strength will be important if the Wolverines are going to make a deep run in the tournament.

“It has kind of taken her a minute to get back where she was,” the coach said. “But she’s an incredible, incredible guard, an incredible wing. She has great length. She’s super fast in transition. She’s great in the open court. She can score the basketball. She can pass the basketball. She can rebound and she can defend.”

DEFENSE WINS CHAMPIONSHIPS

The top seeds in the region, UConn and Baylor, are also among the top teams in the country when it comes to defense.

UConn is ranked No. 3 in the nation, giving up just 50.5 points per game. The Huskies’ opponents are shooting just 33.1% from the floor.

Baylor heads into their second-round matchup with eighth-seed Virginia Tech holding teams to 31.8% shooting, tops in the country.

“I think we’re the best defensive team in the country, so whether that’s inside or outside, I think that we can do it all,” Baylor guard Moon Ursin said.

The Hokies said the key to upsetting the Lady Bears Tuesday will be taking the best shot possible each time down the floor.

“We have to value every possession and not waste any opportunities,” center Liz Kitly said. “We can’t afford to have turnovers. We need to get shots whenever we can and we need to hopefully get extra possessions on the rebounding end on offense.”

FAMILIARITY

UConn and Syracuse, which used to battle every year in the old Big East, meet Tuesday in what has been a one-sided rivalry.

The Huskies have won 25 straight against the Orange dating back to 1996, including an 82-51 blowout in the 2016 national championship game.

Syracuse women’s coach Quintin Hillsman said he won’t be using that underdog role as motivation for his team.

“We can’t use that anymore because we’re an underdog every game,” he said . “It is what it is. We just go out and play our game and let the critics be surprised when we win.”