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Oklahoma City Region

Texas A&M guard A’Quonesia Franklin looks to pass with coach Gary Blair in the background during a region semi win over Duke.

Associated Press

Texas A&M guard A’Quonesia Franklin looks to pass with coach Gary Blair in the background during a region semi win over Duke.

OKLAHOMA CITY — If you can name more than one starter on the Texas A&M women's team, you're most likely an Aggies' alumnus or a resident of College Station, Texas.

Don't feel badly, you're not alone. Texas A&M may be the best team nobody outside of the Big 12 knows about.

But the players aren't insulted by that. For now, they completely understand.

No. 2 seed Texas A&M (29-7) plays No. 1 seed and defending national champion Tennessee (33-2) at 7 tonight for the right to advance to the Final Four. And if things go as the Aggies hope, maybe lots of people will know who they are by the time they arrive in Tampa this week.

"Right now, we're just excited to be here," senior forward Patrice Reado said. "Honestly, I can't tell you in the beginning of the season we thought we'd be up here, going against Tennessee. We're just a humble team. We don't get too cocky about winning. But we are trying to make a name for ourselves right now."

Five years after former Arkansas coach Gary Blair took over a struggling program, the Aggies are enjoying their best season in school history. He has done it with a mostly undersized, gritty group of players led by 5-foot-3 senior guard A'Quonesia Franklin, first-team Big 12 guard Takia Starks (5-8) and Big 12 sixth man of the year Danielle Gant (5-11).

"Coming out of high school, most of the Duke and Tennessee girls are Parade All-Americans, whereas here at A&M, there's no Parade All-Americans and we have one McDonald's All-American who's a freshman," Franklin said. "We just come out and play hard day in and day out. The other girls with the name, they have the chip on their shoulder simply because their names are out there. But we're making a name for ourselves, too."

To gain that name recognition and generate some national respect, they'll have to get past Tennessee. The Vols struggled in the first half against Notre Dame on Sunday night in the region semifinals, but rallied in the second half. That, along with experience, may give them an edge, coach Pat Summitt believes.

"I do feel like we have a veteran team," Summitt said. "I'll be disappointed if our seniors are not on top of their game and the leadership is not in place. I expect us to play a much better game, because I think we learned from our first half."

The Vols face a scrappy, unorthodox defense that's extremely aggressive and physical. Summitt has warned her team that Blair, a longtime friend, is the king of making his teams sound like they aren't very good. The Vols are listening.

"Obviously you can't overlook a No. 2 seed," UT junior forward/guard Candace Parker said. "They were a 2 seed for a reason. They finished up the regular season very well. We're not going to overlook them, and we know they play with a lot of energy and we have to match that."

Blair, who said he feels a little extra pressure to win tonight because it's his wife's birthday, defines his team's game as "all about effort." He expects nothing less when they meet the Vols.

"Our kids play for what's on our jersey," Blair said. "They don't play for the headlines or who they can be. In years to come, hopefully they'll remember our names. But right now, we're having the time our life. Right now our kids are not household names like (the Vols) are. There's not much you can do about that."

Defeating the storied Vols might change all that.

Antonya English can be reached at english@sptimes.com.

03/31/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 1, 2008 1:53pm]
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