At the beginning of the season, reaching the Sweet 16 seemed like a fairly easy achievement for this year's Oklahoma women's basketball team. However, a plethora of injuries throughout the year made that goal seem a little more unattainable than most originally thought.
Despite the adversity, the Sooners persevered and now find themselves in the Sweet 16 for the 10th time in program history. Oklahoma, the No. 6 seed in the Oklahoma City regional, will face No. 2 seed Tennessee at 3:30 p.m. Sunday afternoon at Chesapeake Energy Arena.
To earn basically a home game in the Sweet 16, the Sooners defeated a tough No. 11 seed in Central Michigan and then exacted revenge on No. 3 seed UCLA—which beat the Sooners in Norman back in November—in the second round.
Now the Sooners face a very tough Tennessee squad, which has not lost any momentum in the Volunteers' first season without legendary coach Pat Summitt prowling the sidelines. The Volunteers won the SEC regular season title before falling to Texas A&M in the SEC tournament semifinals.
The Volunteers are led by guard Meighan Simmons, who averages 17.3 points per game. Simmons is far and away the best offensive player for Tennessee, and after her, the scoring is very spread out amongst the other rotation players. Bashaara Graves averages 13.5 points per game and Taber Spani is third on the team with 10.8 points per game.
The biggest strength for the Volunteers is their size. Five players that average at least 16 minutes a game are 6-foot-1 or taller. That size allows Tennessee to be an excellent rebounding team, averaging 43.3 boards per game. Three players average at least seven rebounds per game, led by Graves' 8.1 boards per game.
The Sooners faced an aggressive and physical team in UCLA in the second round Monday night, and the OU players and coaching staff know if they approach Tennessee the same way, they'll have a good idea of what they're going up against.
It's pretty surprising the Sooners have made it this far in the tournament considering the circumstances they dealt with throughout the season, and if they hope to continue on to the Elite Eight, there are a couple of things they'll have to do against the Volunteers to give themselves a chance to win.
The Sooners gave up over 20 offensive rebounds to both Central Michigan and UCLA, but still managed to win both games. Oklahoma won't be able to do that against the Volunteers, a definitively better team than the two the Sooners have faced so far in the tournament. The Sooners need to limit Tennessee to one shot per possession and maybe steal a couple offensive rebounds of their own to help energize the partisan OU crowd.
2. Contain Meighan Simmons
Simmons has the ability to explode offensively. She scored 20+ points nine times this season, with a high of 33 points against North Carolina Dec. 2. She also leads the team in 3-point shooting percentage at 37.6 percent. As a 5-foot-9 guard, the defensive assignment will probably fall to Morgan Hook or Aaryn Ellenberg thanks to the size the rest of the Tennessee lineup boasts. That's a tall order for either Hook or Ellenberg, but they won't have to contain Simmons alone.
3. Play physical, but without fouling
This could make or break the game for the Sooners, even more so than the rebounding battle. Thanks to a plethora of tall players, the Volunteers will be able to pound the ball inside consistently against Joanna McFarland and Nicole Griffin, OU's only two post players. McFarland and Griffin will be forced to guard on nearly every possession and if they get in foul trouble, OU won't be able to counter with other post players to defend the Tennessee bigs. McFarland and Griffin can't just take plays off to avoid foul trouble, but they have to be smart when they play defense in the post.
Summitt built Tennessee into a national power, so there won't be any shortage of fans wearing orange at The Peake Sunday afternoon, but there will be a considerably greater amount of crimson-clad fans, waiting for any excuse to go crazy. If the Sooners can keep the game close, the crowd could possibly play a big factor in deciding the game.
However, the game is ultimately decided on the court and Oklahoma has to take care of business in a couple different areas if they hope to continue their surprising run through the NCAA tournament.