Marist making most of first trip to Sweet 16

POUGHKEEPSIE, N.Y. -- The thing about fairy tales is they usually start once upon a time, finish happily ever after and never spend much time talking about the present.

So while Marist women's basketball coach Brian Giorgis has a real glass slipper, courtesy of a particularly creative fan, perched on a bookshelf in his office, it's a somewhat misplaced metaphor as his team prepares to travel to Dayton for a Sweet 16 encounter with the Tennessee Lady Vols.

This story didn't happen once upon a time or in a place far, far away (although Poughkeepsie, sitting along the Hudson River about an hour and a half north of Manhattan, feels a little like the end of the Earth). It's being written, pass by pass and point by point, in the here and now.

And although nobody, least of all Pat Summitt, will take the Red Foxes lightly after they outplayed fourth-seeded Ohio State and No. 5 Middle Tennessee in the first two rounds, the story might not continue past this weekend, let alone ever after.

Just the third team seeded 13th or lower to reach the tournament's second weekend, the Red Foxes are a long shot, and it's tempting to view them as more curiosity than contender. Tennessee has the nation's best player in Candace Parker; Marist has the MAAC's best player in Rachele Fitz. Tennessee has the winningest coach in the history of college basketball; Marist has the only man to take New York prep teams to state semifinals in four different sports.

"We go in as an underdog," Giorgis said matter of factly. "We're obviously not the biggest, strongest, most athletic team that you find, but like I say, we play with brains and heart. If they want to call us 'Cinderella' -- as long as they call us to Dayton, whatever label you want to give us, we'll take it. All we know is we're in the Sweet 16 and we have the opportunity to play the most storied program in women's basketball."

It's an opportunity, and an experience, that goes far beyond 40 minutes on the basketball court.

Marist has gone from sharing bracket anonymity with fellow No. 13 seeds East Carolina, Robert Morris and Texas-Arlington to claiming the national spotlight all to itself and earning new fans from Palo Alto to Poughkeepsie.

"It's been crazy," senior Alisa Kresge said. "It's so weird, because I look at us and we're such normal kids, college students -- and we're really girlie for a basketball team. It just seems so weird that all this hype is about us. To me, it's unbelievable. I'm enjoying it, I love every second of it, but it's weird."

The cameras turned off moments after the final buzzer against Middle Tennessee, but that was just the beginning of the fun. After all, having tested themselves against Duke (Nov. 17) and Maryland (Dec. 30) in early losses, the Red Foxes already knew they were good enough to compete on equal footing with teams like the Buckeyes and Blue Raiders after a season's worth of improvement.

Almost 3,000 miles from home after playing in Stanford's Maples Pavilion, the entire Marist traveling party began the celebration by sharing a dinner at a Mexican restaurant picked out by one of the team's local hosts -- a Stanford fan who called the athletic office this week to let the Red Foxes know he had booked a flight to come see his adopted team play in Dayton.

Said junior Nikki Flores, "Everyone was just so happy, talking nonstop -- [we were] exhausted, though, I'm not going to lie. But very happy. You could just tell nobody was sleeping that night. Because I know I didn't."

In fact, despite the fatigue and the prospect of early morning wake-up calls for the trip home, the hotel became the place to be as Marist and fellow guests Florida State celebrated stunning upsets, sleep be damned.

"Our hotel was definitely hopping that night," junior Meg Dahlman said. "Everyone was so excited, and it was just a really good atmosphere."

Following the long cross-country trek home, feeling generally "gross" and "smelly" in the words of Fitz, the team might have expected the same kind of quiet arrival that generally greets teams when their bus or van pulls back into the parking lot on campus. Instead, the players found themselves serenaded by the band and cheered on by hundreds of fans gathered in the darkness.

"We come home to our gym and our breezeway full of fans and our band playing for us, and we felt like celebrities," Fitz said. "It was just so nice; we have so much support from our community and our school."

And it wasn't just Poughkeepsie that was excited about Marist. After settling back on campus, the Red Foxes began to realize that their accomplishment was resonating with a far larger audience than the pack that had greeted them the night before. Freshman Lynzee Johnson, a native of central Ohio, reported that billboards had sprung up around Dayton in support of the soon-to-be surprise guests. And stories circulated of teams like Mississippi and Bowling Green looking to Marist as inspiration for their own upsets.

"That's insane," Dahlman said of the swell of support from peers. "I can't believe it. We're just such a small school, and three-quarters of the people you tell you go to Marist, they don't even know where it's at or how big it is or anything like that. Coach read us the article about the Ole Miss player saying she just loved us and we gave them inspiration to pull the upset against Maryland, and it just gave us all chills reading and listening to it."

For all the newfound celebrity, the team hasn't lost sight of how it was earned in the first place. Wednesday's practice, the first full session since the Red Foxes beat Middle Tennessee, saw Giorgis briefly raising the decibel level when he felt his players weren't setting strong enough screens. And as the staff ushered nosy writers off the floor following the open portion of practice, he got busy breaking down the opponent the team has already spent a sizable chunk of time scouting on video since returning to campus.

The whirlwind away from the court might leave a few dazed grins in its wake, but the court remains a refuge of focus. The attitude at practice was businesslike and efficient. The smiles and wide eyes so prevalent in players such as Kresge, Dahlman, Fitz and Flores gave way to steely resolve and attentive stares.

"I feel like what we did in California, we left in California," Fitz said. "And now we're back here in New York, and we're going to take care of business with practice and watching film. And when we get to Dayton, it's a whole new ballgame. Nothing else matters. Not what you did for those couple of days; it matters what you do that day and the next days."

It's a delicate balance for a team that believes it's going to Dayton with a chance to win, but also wants to savor the moment. Nothing sums that up more than Dahlman's admission that she's well-versed on the individual talents and tendencies of the Lady Vols, not because she has been spending extra time in the video room but because she's a lifelong Tennessee fan.

"You know, right now we need to enjoy this as much as possible," Giorgis said. "It's a once-in-a-lifetime thing. Sure, you'd like to make it into hopefully a perennial thing; I mean, for Pat and Tennessee it's an expectation -- 26 out of 26 [Sweet 16 appearances]. This is obviously our first, and I really wanted the kids to enjoy it. It's a moment that hopefully they'll never forget, so they should soak it up as much as possible. And still try to be a normal person, as far as doing their schoolwork and just being a normal college student."

By all appearances, they're doing just that.

"It's wild, I mean, Sweet 16, I still can't get over it," Flores said. "All of us, we still can't stop talking about it. Someone asked me the other day, 'Is this something you're going to remember?'

"I'm like, 'I will be telling my grandkids about this, are you kidding me?'"

And whether that's the end of the tale or just a prelude to the time grandma went to Cleveland for the Final Four, don't expect her to open with "Once upon a time …"

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.