Meighan Simmons on the Lady Vols' win
OKLAHOMA CITY — First, Tennessee took the pro-Oklahoma crowd out of the game.
Then, the Lady Vols ushered the Sooners out of the NCAA women’s basketball tournament.
The Oklahoma City regional’s No. 2 seed parlayed a strong start into a 74-59 semifinal victory Sunday.
Kamiko Williams scored 15 points to lead Tennessee (27-7), which never trailed and led by as many as 28 points in advancing to the regional final at 9 p.m. Tuesday.
UT will play No. 5 seed Louisville (27-8), which used an NCAA tournament record-tying 16 3-pointers and two late free throws by Monique Reid to upset top-seed Baylor 82-81 in the other semifinal.
“I keep saying this,” UT coach Holly Warlick said, “but this team, they play in the moment. They play each possession like it’s their last.”
While Sharane Campbell led No. 6 Oklahoma (24-11) with 22 points, the Sooners shot a chilly 30.7 percent from the floor. Leading scorer Aaryn Ellenberg scored 13 points, shooting 5 for 21 from the floor.
The 59 points were a season low for Oklahoma.
“I mean you can’t stop shooting because the ball’s not going in,” Campbell said. “You got to keep trying. I mean, you just got to keep trying.”
While Tennessee’s first order of business didn’t guarantee the outcome, the crowd control of 9,162 at Chesapeake Energy Arena certainly didn’t hurt.
“I remember saying to Izzy (Harrison) ‘Now I know how other teams feel’ ” UT forward Cierra Burdick said, “because we usually enjoy the hostile environment with other teams coming to play in our house.”
During a timeout midway through the first half, the only audible voices were emanating from the UT fans sitting behind the team bench. By then, the Lady Vols were making their own noise.
Their field goal accuracy never dipped below 50 percent as they built their lead into double figures. A nice passing combination ended with a layup by Burdick and a 38-18 lead with 3:26 left in the first half.
“Looking at the faces of our players on the court, they were very, very secure in what they were doing,” UT assistant coach Dean Lockwood said. “Even when shots weren’t falling, there was no sign of being rattled. We felt they were very confident.”
Speaking of shots not falling, guard Meighan Simmons — UT’s leading scorer — was 1 for 15 from the floor.
To make matters worse, Simmons said that she tweaked her right ankle in a second-half collision with Oklahoma forward Joanna McFarland. Simmons plunged her foot into a bucket of ice in the locker room afterward.
“I got frustrated at one point,” she said. “But after a while (I thought) — my team was winning, my teammates are doing an amazing job — I realized I couldn’t hold on to that.”
Tennessee collectively missed its first nine shots to start the second half. Its lead never dipped below 13 points, however. Oklahoma, which lost point guard Morgan Hook in the first half with a concussion, couldn’t find the range against the Lady Vols’ defense.
“I don’t think they took a lot of shots out of character, necessarily,” Lockwood said. “But I do think our pressure bothered them and they didn’t get many comfortable looks for the most part.”
With the victory, Tennessee reached the Elite Eight for the third consecutive season. This journey was made essentially with five new starters and a new head coach in Warlick.
“It’s awesome,” Burdick said. “It speaks a lot for this program, for this coaching staff and for this team.”