- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
- 0 Shares
Oklahoma City Regional organizers were fairly sure that defending NCAA champion Baylor would be heading there this year. Baylor seemed likely to repeat as a No. 1 seed and make the trek up Interstate 35 from Waco, Texas.
The less-expected bonus was getting "home" team Oklahoma. The Sooners, plagued by injuries, still managed to finish tied for second in the Big 12. They got a No. 6 seed and were on a neutral court for the early rounds of the NCAA tournament. And with the chance to play again in Oklahoma City dangling in front of them, the Sooners couldn't be denied.
The two Big 12 teams will be joined by No. 2 seed Tennessee and fifth-seeded Louisville, which technically "upset" Purdue in the second round. Although with that game being held at Louisville and the Boilermakers having gotten a generous No. 4 seed, the result was no surprise.
What would be a shocker, though, is if one of the other three at this regional can beat Baylor. Oklahoma lost twice to the Lady Bears this season, and Tennessee lost in Waco in December.
Is there any stopping the Green Machine from making a trip to New Orleans?
Let's look at three X factors for each matchup.
2-seed Tennessee vs. 6-seed Oklahoma
ESPN2, 4:30 p.m. ET, Sunday
The crowd: Tennessee historically has the best group of traveling fans in women's basketball. Wherever the Lady Vols are playing, a lot of people in orange will be in the stands. But they'll still be outnumbered by those in crimson here in the heart of Sooners territory. Tennessee is used to hostile environments, but the crowd energy could be a big boost for Oklahoma, especially if it's a close game.
Post play: Tennessee has the most dynamic player inside with freshman Bashaara Graves, who is averaging 13.5 PPG and 8.1 RPG. Plus, Isabelle Harrison -- who was injured and missed the SEC tournament -- returned for the two NCAA games, playing double-digit minutes in both. And Harrison's fellow sophomore, Cierra Burdick, has played well, too, averaging 8.3 points and 6.8 rebounds a game.
But Oklahoma has gotten fantastic play of late from senior post Joanna McFarland, who had a combined 38 points and 33 rebounds in the Sooners' two NCAA wins. Junior center Nicole Griffin, who is 6-feet-6 but slightly built, will need to hold her own and help McFarland with rebounding. It will be critical for OU not to let Tennessee dominate the boards.
3-point shooting: The Sooners need to be on early from behind the arc to help establish their offense and get the crowd going. Tennessee has shown some vulnerability to a hot 3-point-shooting team (see the upset loss at Missouri), but the Lady Vols also have the ability to be a solid defensive team. They have not shown that consistently this season, though. Oklahoma had 11 3-pointers in its victory against No. 3 seed UCLA, after nine in the first round against Central Michigan; OU star guard Aaryn Ellenberg had 10 of the 3s in those two games.
1-seed Baylor vs. 5-seed Louisville
ESPN2, 6:30 p.m. ET, Sunday
Facing other top seeds: The Cardinals already have experience this season going against the power of No. 1-seeded teams; they lost both of their meetings with Notre Dame, plus their game against UConn in the Big East. So they at least know what it takes to try to knock off a team of that caliber. Strategically, coach Jeff Walz is as good as anyone at formulating a game plan to try to find whatever possible cracks he can in a defense as viselike as Baylor's. It helps when you have a naturally talented scorer such as guard Shoni Schimmel.
One word: Griner: Nobody has found a solution to stopping Brittney Griner this season. Or even slowing her down much. She has seen every defensive scheme anybody can think of, but she has so much comfort scoring in several ways that none of the schemes really bothers her. Plus, Griner has developed patience as a scorer. If she's surrounded, she will find the open teammate and deliver a good pass. Either she'll pile up the points herself, or she'll help others do it. Or both. And her confidence is very, very high, which gives even more of a boost to already capable fellow posts Brooklyn Pope and Destiny Williams.
One more word: Sims: Odyssey Sims has no shortage of admirers among coaching staffs and fellow guards she has played against. They know how much she can control a game. Her combination of aggressive defense and precision on offense makes her the single-most feared point guard in women's college basketball right now. And Sims and Griner have a great relationship; they know each other so well after three seasons playing together.
17dBonnie D. Ford