OKLAHOMA CITY, Okla. – When Iowa State's season ended in the second round, coach Bill Fennelly told his team not to cry because it's over but smile because it happened.
A wonderful philosophy that can be difficult to embrace in the stark atmosphere of a season-ending loss.
"When you love your kids, that's something you can embrace," Oklahoma coach Sherri Coale. "Wow, what a ride these kids gave us. I got to be a part of it."
The roller coaster stopped Sunday. No. 6 seed Oklahoma, which got this far with eight scholarship players, couldn't overcome playing the last 30 minutes without another player. Second-seeded Tennessee rode a hot-shooting first half en route to a 74-59 semifinal victory in the Oklahoma City Region.
The Lady Vols (26-7) will face No. 5 seed Louisville. The Cardinals recorded a stunning upset for the ages, taking down defending champion and top-seeded Baylor, 83-82, in the second semifinal.
Oklahoma junior point guard Morgan Hook fell to the floor on the defensive end with 10:49. She was woozy as she walked off the court with help. Hook was diagnosed with concussion symptoms and didn't play the rest of the game leaving Coale with seven scholarship players.
"Really. Really? Seriously? This is gonna happen in the Sweet 16?" Coale said. "When she hit the floor, I thought it might be a concussion."
Five minutes into the game, it was tied at 11-all. And soon after Hook went out, Joanna McFarland's 3-pointer pulled OU within 26-16 with 9:19 left in the half. The 11 points the Sooners scored over the rest of the half did little to put a dent in the Tennessee lead.
"I think at first they had a couple quick transition baskets, and I think it kind of shocked us a little bit," said McFarland, who finished with 14 points, 16 rebounds in 40 minutes. "We got a little uptight, wound up, and I think that's what really affected our offense."
The first half was a case of not enough against too much. Oklahoma made 11 of 39 shots in the first half with leading scorer Aaryn Ellenberg missing 10 of her 11 attempts. Meanwhile, the Lady Vols were playing with swagger. Tennessee had little trouble getting the shots it wanted and making those shots. Making 18-of-34 for 52.9 percent easily translated into a 44-27 lead.
Oklahoma cut the lead to 44-31 early in the second half as its zone kept Tennessee scoreless on its first nine possessions. That was as good as it got. Even with the Lady Vols cooling off to shoot just 33.3 percent in the second half, the Sooners were out matched. The biggest lead was 63-35 with 7:21 remaining.
"I am incredibly proud of our basketball team," Coale said. "I thought the final five minutes of the game they just fought with a passion and spirit that defines our program. These guys have done amazing things this season against really unbelievable odds."
The narrative for this season began at the 2012 Final Four. Coale attended a charity auction and purchased a corporate-sponsored pink ladder used to cut down the nets. Her plan was to use the ladder as an icon to inspire this season's team.
That plan changed when Coale's long-time friend and OU assistant coach Jan Ross was diagnosed with breast cancer. Coale had assigned her players to write six-word messages on the ladder. On the steps, they wrote: Playing. For. Our. Rock. Coach. Ross.
That was before injuries reduced the roster from 12 to eight scholarship players. Lyndsey Cloman's body wore out. Freshman Maddie Manning (ACL) and sophomore Kaylon Williams (torn Achilles) were sidelined before the season started. Then senior Whitney Hand, the team captain and emotional leader, went down in early December with the second season-ending ACL injury of her career.
Eight was enough during a season where the Sooners went 24-11 and 11-7 in the unforgiving Big 12. A No. 6 seed, OU wasn't expected to survive the first weekend and play here the second weekend. The best news, though, came earlier this season when Ross was declared cancer-free after undergoing chemotherapy treatment.
The season ended short of every team's goal. But coming up four victories shy of a national championship hardly defined the 2012-2013 Oklahoma Sooners.
They climbed every step of their ladder.
"Did we climb up the ladder? Yeah, I think we did," Coale said. "I've loved coaching them and I'm so sad I don't get to coach them tomorrow."