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Associated Press

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Vanderbilt just can't escape the towering shadow of its instate rival -- six-time national champion Tennessee.

The Commodores are busy preparing for their Midwest Regional semifinal against Stanford on Sunday, but everyone keeps asking about the Lady Vols.

The reason: A win over Stanford could set up a third game this season between Tennessee and Vanderbilt, and the second in three years with a trip to the Final Four on the line. Top-seeded Tennessee plays Baylor in the other game.

"We're surrounded by orange people all the time around our campus,'' senior forward Jenni Benningfield said.

"I'm still bitter about my sophomore year when they beat us in the Elite Eight to go to the Final Four. That's still in the back of my mind.''

Tennessee beat Vanderbilt 68-63 in that Midwest Regional final in 2002 in Ames, Iowa, in their only NCAA Tournament meeting.

But it usually does not matter where they play because the Lady Vols lead the series 42-6, even though Vandy has a tradition almost as strong as Tennessee. This is the Commodores' 17th NCAA berth -- behind only Tennessee (23) and Georgia (21) in the SEC -- and their 11th time in the final 16 in the past 15 seasons.

These rivals, separated by 194 miles, have played three games in a season six times since 1994, and the possibility of a seventh is the biggest question facing the Commodores before leaving for Norman, Okla., on Friday.

Coach Melanie Balcomb, whose Xavier squad beat Tennessee in the 2001 regional semifinal, said she doesn't have to remind her players to concentrate on sixth-seeded Stanford (26-6).

"I have great senior leadership. We're excited to play Stanford and play in the Sweet 16. We're focused on this game and this game only,'' she said.

The prospect of defending All-American Nicole Powell keeps Vandy focused, along with knowing that Stanford is why the Commodores will not be playing Oklahoma on its home court.

"We're taking this tournament one game at a time because that's what you have to do, or you're going to end up going home,'' senior guard Hillary Hager said.

The Commodores (26-7) are one of the hottest teams in the NCAA Tournament, having won 10 straight games. The streak nearly started Feb. 15 against Tennessee, but Tasha Butts scored a career-high 37 points to give the Lady Vols a 94-88 victory.

After that loss, Balcomb thought her Commodores might miss out on the postseason completely. They dropped to 16-7 overall, 4-6 in the Southeastern Conference.

It has been a tough season with junior guard Abi Ramsey suspended for nine games after being arrested for drunken driving and Benningfield missing most of January with a stress fracture in her right foot.

The six freshmen struggled with bouts of homesickness, and then came a four-game SEC losing skid that caused Balcomb to throw open competition for the starting lineup. She also skipped one practice to take her team to see the movie "Miracle.''

They haven't lost since.

Hager said the Commodores are playing their style of basketball now with freshmen Carla Thomas and Dee Davis in the starting lineup. With tenacious defense, Vandy is a perfect 19-0 when holding opponents below 40 percent shooting.

Vandy's only Final Four came in 1993, one of eight the Lady Vols have missed. Benningfield said the best thing about this rivalry is that the Commodores know what will be waiting for them if they beat Stanford.

"But we've got to get there first,'' she said.

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