- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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DAYTON, Ohio -- Business or pleasure?
After dispatching Marist in brutally efficient fashion in a 65-46 win Sunday afternoon, there's little doubt which box Tennessee checked before departing for Dayton.
Tennessee hasn't won a national championship since beating Louisiana Tech in 1998 and hasn't played for the title since losing to Connecticut three years ago. That's a drought of Dust Bowl proportions for a program with arguably the richest history in the sport, and perhaps it explains why the Lady Volunteers seem to be treating this weekend's regional a little like an unwanted layover on the way to Cleveland.
It's a team focused only on its own craft. Even if that means being the bully who takes the feel-good story of the NCAA Tournament and clinically reduces it to a few ineffective verbs, adjectives and prepositions.
A little less than an hour before Sunday's game, a sharp whistle from a trainer sent Tennessee's players, aligned in rows on their half of the court like a football team going through pregame stretching, slide-stepping to their right. And in Shannon Bobbitt's case, sliding directly into the path of a couple of Marist players making their way back to the team's locker room. Bobbitt didn't hesitate for a second, finishing her slide and forcing the players in red to sidestep around her.
It was the first sign that the Lady Vols were more concerned with taking care of their own business than with whoever happened to be wearing the dark jerseys on this day.
It wasn't the last sign.
When Marist's Julianne Viani fired an air ball over the rim on her first 3-point attempt and Candace Parker then rose up to a place no Marist defender could go to score an up-and-under layup that made it 4-0, you got the sense the Red Foxes were in trouble.
When the Lady Vols ran off 12 unanswered after the first television timeout, pushing their lead to 22-5, you knew the Red Foxes were in trouble.
And when Cait McMahan, with her team up 32-12 late in the first half, delivered a hard foul on Viani that nimbly tap-danced on the line between stopping a break and simply clocking someone, you knew the Vols weren't going to let the Red Foxes off the ropes.
Despite a brief second-half flurry from Marist, which never stopped playing with the energy that got it to the Sweet 16 even as its execution faltered, and some sloppy play from the Lady Vols that left Summitt with plenty to pick over, the game was never in doubt because of the way Tennessee took care of business in the first 20 minutes.
And that trait, especially on the defensive end, is where this team might be most different from the group that lost to North Carolina in a regional final last year.
"I do think this team has a little bit of a different swagger," Sidney Spencer said. "Because something we've been focusing on, something our team has done well this year is on the defensive end. I can't say that for our team last year, so I do think we can dictate what teams do. And that's what previous Tennessee teams have been about. I think we do play with a chip on our shoulder."
Their coach has showed off a softer side off the court this season (she still showed all her traditional bark in throwing a dry-erase board to the ground in one huddle and getting in the face of more than one player during Sunday's game -- all with her team up by double digits). She famously donned a cheerleader's uniform during a men's game in Knoxville and related on Saturday how experience has granted her an aura of discipline that allows her to loosen up around her players without worrying they'll take advantage of it.
But even as Summitt's public visage has mellowed, her players have taken on a harder, almost professional attitude this season. In fact, both Nicky Anosike and Alexis Hornbuckle talked about taking motivation from the warriors of ancient Sparta, back in the limelight thanks to a Hollywood movie and a group that were perhaps history's all-time professionals.
"We definitely have a chip on our shoulder this year," Anosike said. "Especially after we saw the movie '300' last night as a team; that was really motivational."
Sitting in the locker room after the game, a place reflecting an air of a job accomplished more than any sort of celebration, Spencer had to stop and correct herself after saying it's not about having fun. It is fun for the team on the court, she clarified, but the rest of the experience is the path that must be traveled to accomplish something greater.
"I think we learned a very important lesson last year in Cleveland in the Elite Eight," Spencer said. "So we do want to take care of business, that's why we're here. We're not here to have fun -- I mean, have fun while we're playing basketball but we're here to take care of business."
The Lady Vols certainly weren't without emotion during the game, whether it's Parker loudly feigning disbelief from the bench in celebration of a particularly smooth move from Hornbuckle or Spencer erasing Parker's stony countenance during player introductions with a whispered joke.
They just don't exude any sense that they're happy to be here -- mostly because they're not. And until they have their tickets to Cleveland in hand, they're less concerned with everyone from the media to opponents than they are with making sure their house is in order.
"Going out, facing whoever we do face we don't want to play their kind of basketball," Spencer said before the day's second game. "We want to play Tennessee basketball, which is defensive intensity, getting out and running in transition and getting on the boards."
The Lady Vols aren't necessarily a team that's easy to warm up to if you don't already know the words to "Rocky Top" by heart or possess a closet full of orange. But they're an easy team to respect as they pursue a goal with single-minded fervor.
"I think we have a different type of focus," Hornbuckle said. "We want to win. We've been there, we've fallen short two years in a row since I've been here. So we have a different mind-set. We've been there, we've done that. We haven't completed the task. Now we come in here with the mind-set that nobody is going to get in our way. And if they do, we're going to fight to the death. That's how we look at it."
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.