3-22-08 -- A very enticing opportunity could await Oklahoma in this NCAA tournament, though it seems very unlikely the team will look ahead.
The fourth-seeded Sooners try to snap a three-game losing streak when they open against 13th seed Illinois State in the Oklahoma City Regional on Sunday in West Lafayette, Ind.
For a perennial power, Oklahoma (21-8) finds itself in an unusual position heading into this season’s tournament—it’s been quite a while since the team has won. The Sooners are winless this month, having lost their final two regular season games before falling 70-64 in overtime to 10-21 Missouri in the first round of the Big 12 tournament on March 11.
The finish was a major departure after the Sooners won eight straight heading into the 2007 NCAA tournament and 17 in row prior to the 2006 event.
“I don’t think there will be a challenge to remind our team how important it is to get a win right now,” said coach Sherri Coale, whose team has reached the regional semifinals the last two seasons and was the national runner-up in 2002. “We are hungering and thirsting to get on the floor again and try to right the ship and really restore pride in the way we play and the way we compete.”
If Oklahoma improves to 3-0 all-time versus Illinois State (26-6) and beats either fifth-seeded Notre Dame or SMU in the second round, it would head to Oklahoma City for a possible regional semifinal matchup against No. 1 seed Tennessee. A likely partisan Sooners crowd would be on hand with the game being played a short drive from the Oklahoma campus.
“You always have to take it one step at a time, one game at a time, one possession at a time,” Sooners forward Amanda Thompson said. “We’re not rushing, we’re not looking forward. Just taking our time and, I think, if we do that, we’ll be perfectly fine.”
The Sooners have had plenty of time to prepare for Illinois State, which shared the Missouri Valley Conference regular-season title and won the league tournament.
Even with two-time All-American junior Courtney Paris on her game, the Sooners’ lack of offensive production has been a major reason for their recent skid.
The 6-foot-4 Paris is averaging 18.7 points and 15.1 rebounds on the season and 24.7 points and 15.3 boards in her last three games - including 30 points and 20 rebounds versus Missouri.
The Sooners, however, are shooting 34.3 percent and averaging 57.7 points in their last three contests - well below their season averages of 45.3 percent and 72.9 points.
“New season, new start,” said Paris, who has averaged 25.2 points and 13.8 rebounds in six NCAA tournament games. “We’re just ready to go.”
Paris’ twin sister, Ashley, is averaging 11.4 points and 8.1 rebounds this season and is coming off a 12-point, 23-rebound effort against Missouri.
Oklahoma will face Illinois State for the first time since posting a 69-56 win over the Redbirds on Dec. 3, 1993.
Led by junior guard Kristi Cirone, Illinois State is making its fifth trip to the NCAA tournament and first since 2005.
“We are really excited to be a part of this tournament and to be able to play so close to home,” Redbirds coach Robin Pingeton said.
Cirone, who averages 16.6 points, scored 20 in Illinois State’s 70-62 win over Drake in the MVC tournament title game on Sunday.
The Redbirds’ only NCAA tournament victory came against Northwestern State in 1989.