OKLAHOMA CITY — They say tradition never goes on vacation, so maybe the Oklahoma women can’t count on being overlooked today.
Tennessee is the Yankees, Steelers and Manchester United of women’s college basketball, only better.
One year removed from the legendary reign of coach Pat Summitt and her 1,098 victories and nine national championships, longtime assistant and first-year head coach Holly Warlick has every reason to believe the Lady Vols can hang another title banner in the rafters of Thompson-Boling Arena or, at least, corral the program’s record 19th trip to the Final Four.
The Sooners have a little history of their own. Comparatively, very little.
Six days ago they played far and away their best game of the season to stop UCLA 85-72 and advance to the program’s 10th Sweet 16 and ninth since 2000. And, 50 months ago, on the same court in the same building, the Sooners stopped the Lady Vols 80-70.
It’s not much, but you take what you can get.
“That’s the beautiful thing about sports,” OU coach Sherri Coale said. “If you look hard enough, you can draw a correlation to make it feel like it’s all in your favor, no matter what.”
Mostly what the Sooners have going for them is themselves. It hasn’t been enough to create a dominant season or to challenge for a conference or conference tourney crown. The regular season, it may be hard to remember now, was a bumpy ride.
Still, it was only bumpy on the outside, on the court where they watched so many teammates suffer season-ending injuries and, also on the court, where they’d get a good thing going before being dropped by 21 points at Iowa State, by 19 at West Virginia, by 10 at Kansas, 21 at Oklahoma State and 19 again, to Iowa State at the Big 12 tournament.
What was happening inside made overcoming what was happening on the outside possible.
Coale is very clear.
This team is special.
“We go great for a while, then all of a sudden a really tall mountain, we can’t get over it; we find ourselves in a swamp, in the middle of quicksand,” she said. “In the midst of all that, these guys continued to respect one another and care for one another. There’s just an absence of pretense that grows from that. When people are real with one another, that allows you to continue in the face of difficult circumstances.”
The Sooners learned to relish the opportunity still in front of them.
“I remember being in the film room after Whitney went down. I can’t remember now (what coach said), I lost it, but something like, ‘How great of a story is it going to be? We’ve been through all this adversity. How great of a story is it going to be when we do something special.’”
Really, the Sooners are already there. They passed special and went straight to fabulous when their best 40 minutes of the season gave UCLA nowhere to go six days ago inside St. John Arena.
Now it becomes a question of sustaining whatever it is they’ve built for one, two, three or four more games, all the while hoping it’s enough should they sustain it.
Tennessee, with all of its history, has every reason to look itself in the mirror and believe there’s no way it won’t be facing Baylor (or, miracle of miracles, Louisville) Monday night back inside Chesapeake Energy Arena.
The Lady Vols say they’re too smart for that. Saturday, during a pregame press conference, they referred to OU as “a great team.”
The Sooners have earned many raves, but “greatness” had not yet been thrust upon them.
“Collectively, we haven’t watched a ton of film on them from the entire season,” Tennessee forward Taber Spani said, “but what they’re doing right now, that’s what’s making them great.”
It’s Tennessee’s job to be ready for OU’s very best game and the Sooners put it out there against the Bruins.
Tennessee has been great forever. OU was great against Tennessee four years ago in the same building and was better six days ago in Columbus, Ohio.
It might not be enough.
But you never know.
Follow me @clayhorning