By Clay Horning
CNHI News Service
NORMAN — The Tennessee women are a good basketball story, but maybe not a classic Lady Vol basketball story.
When Oklahoma and Tennessee meet at 3:35 p.m. Sunday inside Chesapeake Energy Arena in the semifinal round of the Oklahoma City Regional, it will be a matchup of two tradition-rich programs accustomed to still be playing this time of year, but it will not be the horribly-against-all-odds matchup Tennessee has presented so many challengers over the past 25 years.
“What they don’t have is that menacing center that they’ve had,” OU coach Sherri Coale said, “(that’s going) to bury you in the post.”
What they also don’t have is an absolute superstar like Candace Parker or Chamique Holdsclaw from years past, though OU coach Sherri Coale said freshman Bashaara Graves “is going to be one of those.”
Tennessee’s biggest star is point guard Meighan Simmons, the co-SEC player of the year, who’s averaging 17.3 points and 2.2 assists per game.
So the Lady Vols may not be as scary as years past. At the same time, there’s no question they’ve overachieved their way into a tremendous season under first-year head coach Holly Warlick, the longtime top assistant to legendary coach Pat Summitt.
Coming off an Elite Eight appearance last season, the Lady Vols were nonetheless chosen to finish fifth in the SEC this season by conference coaches.
It didn’t turn out that way.
The Lady Vols dropped their opener on the road at UT-Chattanooga, yet the rest of their pre-conference losses were to No. 1 Baylor, No. 4 Stanford and No. 2 Notre Dame, all of which are No. 1 seeds in the NCAA tournament.
Tennessee’s last loss, to Texas A&M, came at the SEC tournament, where the Aggies rolled through South Carolina, Tennesee and Kentucky to claim the postseason conference crown.
If Tennessee’s not as dominant as years past, it is still plenty good and plenty dangerous.
“They’re very athletic, very fast,” Coale said. “In the open floor, they can score bunches of points in a short period of time.”
The catalyst is Simmons, who Coale said “is like a crazed maniac, she’s so fast.”
While Tennessee, its history and the season it has enjoyed, has OU’s attention, the Sooners also have the Lady Vols’ attention.
“They’ve got a strong outside guard in (Aaryn) Ellenberg, and (Joanna) McFarland inside is playing really well …,” Warlock said. “They’re just a well-coached team that’s going to try to take advantage of situations.”
Simmons, also speaking during a final hometown media session before leaving for Oklahoma City, centered her thoughts on Ellenberg, OU’s leading scorer who finished with 27 points in the Sooners’ victory over UCLA.
“She’s the head of the snake,” Simmons said. “If we take her down, we should be fine.”
As Central Michigan and UCLA found out, that’s easier said than done.
Tennessee’s a day away from getting its chance to try.