Tennessee sent Oral Roberts packing from its last trip to the NCAA women’s basketball tournament.
Now, the Golden Eagles are back after a five-year absence and the Lady Vols await them as an opponent and host.
What are the odds?
Oral Roberts coach Misti Cussen hardly sounds burdened by any sense of deja vu. Likewise, the experience will be new for these players, as conveyed by the expressions Cussen sees on their faces.
“Some of them are still grinning from ear to ear,” Cussen said Wednesday.
No. 15 seed Oral Roberts (18-12) will face No. 2 seed Tennessee (24-7) at approximately 1:30 p.m. Saturday (TV: ESPN2) at Thompson-Boling Arena. No. 7 seed Syracuse (24-7) plays No. 10 Creighton (24-7) at 11:20 a.m. to open a first-round doubleheader of the Oklahoma City regional.
The winners play at 7 p.m. Monday.
“If you’re going to play Tennessee, go to Knoxville, go experience that,” Cussen said. “We’re going to the promised land of women’s basketball.”
No matter the outcome, the experience has to be better than a 2008 first-round encounter with Tennessee in West Lafayette, Ind. The Golden Eagles suffered a tough blow just moments after the opening tip.
Guard Mariana Camargo, who was trying to outrace then-Lady Vols point guard Shannon Bobbitt for the basketball, slipped on a UT cheerleader’s sign that was lying on the floor behind the baseline. Camargo, who was the team’s second-leading scorer, tumbled to the floor with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in her left knee.
Cussen, who’s in her first season as ORU’s coach, then was an assistant. She recalled coach Jerry Finkbeiner turning to the bench after Camargo’s injury and saying “Well, time to punt.” From that moment, the game plan was total improvisation.
“Offensively, everything went out the window,” Cussen said. “A strange thing.”
The Golden Eagles winged it in impressive fashion, hanging within 14 points of Tennessee at halftime and resisting the eventual 94-55 outcome until the final eight minutes.
In Oral Roberts’ other four NCAA appearances, the biggest margin of defeat was 21 points. Cussen, who’s been on ORU’s staff for all four games, said the real pressure is felt in surviving the conference tournament. Led by senior star Kevi Luper’s 26 points, Oral Roberts outlasted Sam Houston State 72-66 last Saturday to win the Southland Conference tournament.
“For 17 years, we’ve dealt with the pressure in our conference tournament, unlike BCS programs,” Cussen said. “All the pressure happened last week in Katy, Texas. If we don’t get the job done (there), we’re not going to the big dance. Our pressure-cooker moment is already over. It’s a joyful time for our program.”