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Sunday, March 29, 2009
Sooners ready for sweet experience

By Mechelle Voepel
Special to ESPN.com

A year ago, the truest women's hoops fans and most dutifully civic-minded citizens of greater Oklahoma City trudged into the Ford Center for games they didn't really want to watch.

Such is the peril of having a regional site in the backyard of a team favored to get there. If it doesn't happen, the locals might skip the games. Not just because they aren't as interested in them, but also because they're kind of painful to watch.

That was the case for Oklahoma coach Sherri Coale last year, but she showed up nonetheless to see Notre Dame, which had knocked her Sooners, Tennessee, Texas A&M and Duke out of the NCAA tournament.

That was then; this is now. On Sunday, Coale's Sooners will be the last of the No. 1 seeds to play in the Sweet 16 (ESPN2HD, 9:30 p.m. ET). They'll face a Pitt team that is in its second consecutive Sweet 16 after never previously making it that far.

And Sunday will be a big day in the state of Oklahoma even before that tipoff. The OU men will face North Carolina earlier for a spot in the Final Four in Detroit.

Whether the Sooners men win or lose, the crowd that will fill the Ford Center will be loud and boisterous, giving OU's women a bigger advantage in that respect than any of the other top seeds in each region.

The last time OU had that advantage, though, it really didn't take advantage of it. The Sooners fell in the Big 12 tournament semifinals at the building across the street, the Cox Convention Center, to Texas A&M.  The Aggies played so well that the OU fans never really got into that game and crowd impact was more or less neutralized.

Pitt coach Agnus Berenato, ever the optimist, isn't griping about having to play the Sooners 20 minutes from their campus. Admittedly, though, it hasn't been great fun going from Pittsburgh to Seattle (where the Panthers won their first- and second-round games), back to Pittsburgh for classes and then to Oklahoma.

"I missed geography in school, and I thought it was an hour flight; it was almost three hours," Berenato said.  "We had a charter, it was three hours, and it was like, 'Are you kidding me?'  It has been rough. 

"Honestly, it's all part of the NCAA [tournament], but it makes it exciting and special.  We handle whatever we're given, and I think that's what you do in life."

Considering all that's on the line now, you can be sure the Sooners faithful will give it all it has to try to disrupt the Panthers.  The Sooners' players have to do the same.

Oklahoma has looked terrific when things have clicked, which has been much of the time. On a few other occasions, though, the Sooners have shown worrisome flaws.

OU will answer two big questions early on: How will the Sooners attempt to limit Panthers guard Shavonte Zellous, and will injured forward Amanda Thompson be able to play? The answer to the latter will factor into the answer to the former.

Coale said Thompson was day-to-day. As for Zellous, she said, "Shavonte is as good as any guard in the country. The greatest player comparison would be Andrea Riley."

The Oklahoma State guard Riley has done damage to the Sooners in the past, but they also understand how to deal with someone who's that quick with the ball. It's one of the many areas in which Sooners guard Danielle Robinson's defensive speed should be a big factor.

Before the "main event" -- at least in terms of most of the Oklahoma City fans -- gets under way, the lowest seed still in the tournament will take the court. No. 7 seed Rutgers will meet No. 6 Purdue (ESPN2HD, 7:30 p.m. ET), and in some of the ways Boilermakers coach Sharon Versyp describes her team, she just as well could be describing Rutgers.

"I know it will be a defensive battle," Versyp said, adding that it's in the point guards' "hands to control [tempo]."

Neither Rutgers nor Purdue will need to worry about the crowd, though. That will be Pitt's concern. It also will be something the Sooners will need to make work for them.

"I watched the games on television this morning, and I felt sad for those teams to have to compete in an environment where it doesn't feel like the NCAA tournament," Coale said of the Raleigh Regional, which drew 2,915 fans Saturday. "Hopefully, the people of Oklahoma will fill up the Ford Center Sunday and Tuesday.  And for all of the student-athletes competing at this site, they will have the ultracompetitive experience."  

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com/.