Ariel Massengale talks about playing Oklahoma in the Sweet 16
OKLAHOMA CITY — Tennessee began practice Thursday in typical fashion. The players and coaches gathered in a circle, and a thought for the day was shared.
In this case, the thought took the form of a question: “Does your game travel?”
Since then, the Lady Vols have left the comforts of home, where they scored two victories to open the NCAA women’s basketball tournament. They have traveled 850 miles and put the finishing touches on an answer for Sunday’s semifinals of the Oklahoma City regional.
No. 2 seed Tennessee (26-7) will face No. 6 Oklahoma (24-10) at 4:30 p.m. at Chesapeake Energy Arena (TV: ESPN2). Top seed Baylor (34-1) will play No. 5 Louisville (26-8) in the other semifinal.
The winners meet at 9 p.m. Tuesday for a trip to the Final Four.
Sunday’s setting qualifies as a neutral site. The arena’s trappings don’t suggest otherwise. The sounds likely will convey a different feeling, however. The game will play out deep in Sooner territory.
“I think our guys do have a great, great feeling about Oklahoma playing in this building,” Oklahoma coach Sherri Coale said. “I think we obviously have a great feeling about playing in front of Oklahoma fans.”
Thursday’s thought for the day was intended to set the tone for the days to come for Tennessee.
“One of the things we’ve discussed with them is the value of consistency,” UT assistant coach Dean Lockwood said, “about how great teams find that consistency and are able to sustain great effort, no matter what the setting, no matter what the circumstances.”
Consistency has been elusive for the Lady Vols away from Knoxville. In some cases, any semblance of regularity has been unwanted in nature.
For example, they opened the regular season in jittery fashion, suffering an 80-71 loss at Chattanooga. They closed the regular season much the same way, committing 31 turnovers and coming unhinged in a 78-65 loss at Kentucky.
In between, they have experienced highs and lows.
The Lady Vols ended the 41-game home winning streak of Miami (Fla.) with a 79-67 victory on Nov. 18.
They were a picture of poise and determination in rallying for a 64-62 victory at LSU on Feb. 7. Four days earlier was an 80-63 loss at Missouri that featured a lackluster effort and defensive indifference.
“If we stick to our game plan, that’s the difference,” forward Cierra Burdick said. “If you look back at UTC, which was one of the two huge road (losses), we played terrible basketball.
“It wasn’t so much the setting. It wasn’t so much that they had their fans or we didn’t have ours. It was a matter of we didn’t stick to our game plan and we didn’t play defense the way we were supposed to play.”
Tennessee’s attention to detail began when it arrived here. The players’ curfew Friday night was 10:30 p.m., a half-hour earlier than normal.
“We were like “Why is curfew at 10:30 when it’s usually 11?’ ” point guard Ariel Massengale said.
The answer was that they had traveled to the central time zone. The new curfew was intended to minimize the difference in the time change.
On Sunday, the Lady Vols intend to proceed literally from possession to possession, mindful of maintaining the lines of communication, along with their focus.
“If you mess up a play,” freshman forward Jasmine Jones said, “you can’t let it go over to the next play. You don’t have time for that now.”
It doesn’t suit their travel plans.