No. 6 seed Sooners steal spotlight
Oklahoma, not top-seeded Baylor, will have home-crowd advantage
OKLAHOMA CITY -- Defending NCAA champion Baylor -- the overall No. 1 seed with the superstar who tweets about "needing" to throw down a couple of dunks and then does just that -- is used to being the main attraction.
But while the Lady Bears certainly will not lack for attention here in the Sweet 16, they are kind of second-billed this weekend in Oklahoma's capital city.
Oklahoma, with its campus just 20 miles down Interstate 35, is the star attraction for the locals. The No. 6 seed Sooners will meet No. 2 Tennessee on Sunday at Chesapeake Energy Center (4:30 p.m. ET/ESPN2), followed by Baylor vs. No. 5 Louisville (6:30 p.m. ET/ESPN2).
"It is fun to be in front of a home crowd in Oklahoma City," Oklahoma senior Joanna McFarland said, "because it is a really good base for women's basketball."
The Sooners have done a great deal to make it that way. Coach Sherri Coale's team advanced to the Final Four the last time Oklahoma City hosted a regional in 2009. That year, though, the Sooners were the region's No. 1 seed and dominant team, led by then-senior Courtney Paris.
That same season, Louisville also made it to the Final Four, beating Baylor in the regional semifinals on the way in Raleigh, N.C. Four seasons later, though, Baylor and senior center Brittney Griner are the giants in this quarter of the bracket. And Oklahoma and Louisville are the scrappy underdogs. The Cardinals beat No. 4 seed Purdue in Louisville to get here and now take on a Baylor powerhouse that Cardinals coach Jeff Walz called, "As well balanced as any team I've tried to prepare for."
Which is saying something, considering his Cardinals had four games combined against the 2009 and 2010 Connecticut squads that had back-to-back perfect seasons.
"It's hard to compare," Walz said of those UConn teams versus Baylor. "I know I'll be fortunate enough to have played both. We'll see what we can do tomorrow night because we didn't have much success with UConn."
Meanwhile, in Sunday's first semifinal, the Sooners -- who beat No. 3 seed UCLA in the second round -- will try for another upset. Tennessee played well in its first two victories, and Isabelle Harrison has returned from injury. That gives the Lady Vols solid depth in the post, along with another sophomore, Cierra Burdick, and freshman sensation Bashaara Graves.
"We definitely struggled with injuries as a team, but we're finally getting healthy at the right time," Burdick said. "We've got Izzy back; we've got all 11 of us on the court.
"You've got to prepare for the atmosphere, and, obviously, they are going to have a lot of fans here on their side. We've got to make communication a key in our game plan. And we can build energy off of it; we can use it as motivation. To try to quiet their fans."
The Sooners will want just the opposite. They'll hope to be strong from behind the arc again -- they hit a combined 20 3-pointers in their early-round wins -- which will rev up the crowd and spark both their offense and defense.
"That's a big part of our identity; we're all really good shooters," Oklahoma leading scorer Aaryn Ellenberg said of hitting from long range. "For us to be able to knock down shots, it gives us a breath of fresh air for other things."
Including rebounding, which is usually a huge chore against Tennessee. Even though it's a new era under coach Holly Warlick, the Lady Vols have tried to hold onto their traditional strengths.
"I think that Holly is in a tremendous situation," Coale said, "in that, if you're going to sit next to somebody for a long, long time as an assistant coach, don't you want it to be Pat Summitt?
"Now it's her turn. I think she's done an amazing job. In many ways, it is vintage Tennessee. They have better athletes at every spot than we do. Their guards are big. They can all shoot it. They get after the basketball. They deny passing lanes. All that is Tennessee -- and has been Tennessee for decades. Yet there's a little something about them that's different & That's Holly Warlick. That's the stamp she's putting on this program."
Coale has done that kind of branding at Oklahoma, as have Walz at Louisville and Kim Mulkey at Baylor. Tennessee is the traditional power, with eight NCAA titles. But consider that just a dozen years ago, Oklahoma, Louisville and Baylor had never been to a Final Four. They'd never even been close. In fact, at this time in 2001 -- Mulkey's first season in Waco -- Baylor was making its first NCAA tournament appearance.
Now, they are consistently good programs that have resonated with the fans in their communities. Coale has taken Oklahoma to the Final Four three times. Mulkey's Lady Bears have gone three times and won two titles. Walz also has gotten Louisville to the Final Four; the Cardinals lost the national championship game to UConn in 2009.
That institutional strength is also part of how Tennessee, Louisville and Oklahoma have dealt with the multitude of injuries this season.
"We're fortunate to have a program and not just a team," Walz said. "If this was just a one-year thing, when you lose the amount of players that we lost, we wouldn't have had the success that we've had. We take great pride that we're building a program here, and our goal is to continue to raise the bar."
The Sooners have been to the NCAA tournament 14 straight years under Coale and have advanced to at least the Sweet 16 for the ninth time. Making it back "home" to this regional has been a motivation all season for Oklahoma; that goal helped sustain the Sooners in their worst times.
Especially when fifth-year senior and emotional leader Whitney Hand was lost to a knee injury in December. McFarland said Coale convinced the players soon afterward that they should somehow see the silver lining in that roiling mass of storm clouds.
"It was something like, 'How great of a story is it going to be?'" McFarland said. "'We've been through all this adversity, how great is it going to be when we do something special?' That really motivated me -- I think all of us."