Considering the injury adversity Oklahoma has faced, it can be said that the Sooners deserved to reach the Sweet 16 and play about half an hour from campus. But make no mistake: Oklahoma has earned the privilege.
When senior captain and emotional leader Whitney Hand suffered the second ACL injury of her career in early December, the Sooners were down to eight scholarship players. They played well enough to finish 11-7 in the unforgiving Big 12, earned a No. 6 seed in the NCAA Tournament and won two games to advance to the Oklahoma City Region semifinal.
"Coach (Sherri Coale) never let us be satisfied at just being OK after we lost so many people," said Sooners junior guard Aaryn Ellengberg, the team's top scorer. "We're still going to play hard and expect just as much."
Those expectations lead to Sunday's game (3:35 p.m., ESPN2) against No. 2 seed Tennessee in Chesapeake Energy Arena. The winner will face the winner of the Baylor-Louisville game in the regional final Tuesday for a spot in the women's Final Four.
"I think we have a great feeling about Oklahoma playing in this building and playing in front of Oklahoma fans," Coale said.
"I think it's great because we're here at home," Ellenberg said. "There's a lot of people who are gonna want to be there, and are gonna be there. That gives us an extra boost of energy to really play well for them."
Tennessee, in its first full season under coach Holly Warlick had a typical Lady Vols season. After dropping their season opener at Tennessee-Chattanooga, Tennessee's only other non-conference losses came to Baylor, Stanford and Notre Dame – three teams that are No. 1 seeds in the NCAA Tournament. The Lady Vols were 14-2 in the Southeastern Conference, which has four teams in the Sweet 16.
"We haven't watched much film on them, but we know them really well," OU junior point guard Morgan Hook said of Tennessee. "They're really similar to UCLA. They're big, athletic, strong, physical. We'll have to be just as physical and be able to contain them just like we did to UCLA."
In defeating No. 3 seed UCLA in the second round, the Sooners got 27 points from Ellenberg along with 20 points and 16 rebounds from senior forward Joanna McFarland.
"They've got a strong outside guard in (Aaryn) Ellenberg, and (Joanna) McFarland inside is playing really well" Warlick said. "They're just a well-coached team that's going to try to take advantage of situations."
The situation Oklahoma faced when Hand's season ended prematurely had several outcomes. Coale and her players have made sure the course chosen was the high road.
"We made a decision that we were going to find a way to do special things and to be extraordinary," Coale told the Tulsa World. "I think that's been the most rewarding part of this journey, has been the continuous correct decisions by a bunch of courageous young student-athletes who simply wake up every day and decide they want to be special. I don't use that word 'special' very often, but this group is special."
Oklahoma City Regional
No. 6 Oklahoma (24-10) vs. No. 2 Tennessee (26-7)
3:30 p.m. Sunday; Oklahoma City; ESPN2.
Coaches: Sherri Coale, Oklahoma; Holly Warlick, Tennessee.
Why they're here: Oklahoma was an at-large selection from the Big 12. The Sooners defeated No. 11 Central Michigan, 78-73, in the first round and No. 3 UCLA, 85-72, in the second round. Tennessee was an at-large selection from the Southeastern Conference. The Lady Vols defeated No. 15 Oral Roberts, 83-62, in the first round and No. 10 Creighton, 68-52, in the second round.
Scouting the Sooners: Oklahoma, with just eight scholarship players, has used emotion to its advantage for the last few months. With what figures to be a pseudo home court advantage, the Sooners will need to play with an edge. Senior forward Joanna McFarland has helped fuel OU's two NCAA victories, totaling 38 points and 33 rebounds. McFarland and 6-6 junior center Nicole Griffin will need to rebound aggressively and avoid foul trouble. The Sooners are at their best when the 3-pointer is falling. In two NCAA victories, they totaled 20 threes and junior Aaryn Ellenberg had 10 of those.
Scouting the Lady Vols: Tennessee is in its first full season without iconic coach Pat Summitt but the Lady Vols, as evidenced by their seeding, are still potent. Junior guard Meighan Simmons, the co-SEC player of the year, averages 17.3 points and 2.2 assists per game. Freshman post player Bashaara Graves is averaging 13.5 PPG and 8.1 RPG and Isabelle Harrison has returned after missing the Southeastern Conference tournament with injuries. Five of Tennessee's seven losses came teams seeded third or higher in the NCAA Tournament. The Lady Vols have limited their opponents to 29 percent shooting on 3-pointers.