The NCAA has dangled a great big carrot in front of the Oklahoma women’s basketball team.
But first comes the stick.
On Selection Monday, the Sooners received not only a lower-than-expected sixth seed, but marching orders to play in distant Seattle in the opening rounds of the NCAA Tournament.
“I was a little bit surprised,” OU coach Sherri Coale said after the bracket reveal, which pits her team against 11th-seeded Gonzaga in a first-round game on Saturday.
Win that and Oklahoma would probably face host and third-seeded Washington.
And the carrot? Two wins in Seattle would bring the Sooners return home for the Regionals in nearby Oklahoma City.
“Anytime you can win a couple games and potentially come back to Oklahoma City, 30 minutes up the road from us, it’s exciting,” senior guard Peyton Little said.
“It’ll be a big opportunity for us,” Little said.
And a big challenge, given their recent form. Blowout losses to second-ranked Baylor (103-64 on OU’s Senior Night) and West Virginia (82-58) in the Big 12 tournament.
That late-season swoon probably cost them a chance to host the first two rounds, but Oklahoma is a pedigreed program, with 18 straight NCAA appearances and trips to the Final Four in 2002, 2009 and 2010.
In 21 years at the helm, Coale is 442-217. This year the Sooners went 13-5 in the Big 12, which has six teams in the NCAAs.
“It never gets old having the opportunity to play in the NCAA tournament,” Coale said. “We have two potentially tough games ahead of us. Gonzaga is a very good team and we have some experience playing Washington during the last two seasons.”
OU fell 71-68 at Washington last season. Two years ago, the Sooners beat the Huskies 90-80 in Norman, Okla.
The Sooners also played Gonzaga three years ago, edging the Zags 82-78 in Norman, Okla. Rosters have changed, but GU guard Elle Tinkle recalls the Sooners as being “tough and physical.”
This year’s squad is deep, with 10 players averaging at least eight minutes of playing time and seven who score at least seven points a game.
“They have a balanced offense, with a lot of players who can score, so our team defense is going to be critical,” GU coach Lisa Fortier said.
“In Vegas (during the West Coast Conference tournament) we did a really good job of helping each other on defense, and not get caught one-on-one – we never want to do that,” Fortier said.
Guard Maddie Manning leads the Sooners with 12.7 points a game; Little weighs in a 12.2 and post Vionise Pierre-Louis averages 11.9.
Statistically, the Sooners don’t look impressive at first glance; they shoot 41.2 percent from the field and only 33.3 percent from long range. They’ve also been outrebounded slightly, a stat that Fortier ascribes to the size of the frontcourt players in the Big 12.
The Sooners do two things exceptionally well: block shots and get to the foul line. OU ranks 16th nationally in blocks, with 174. Pierre-Louis has 58, while 6-foot-9 freshman Nancy Mulkey has 61 while playing only 11 minutes.