No. 4-seeded Oklahoma (24-8) will play No. 13-seeded Indiana University-Purdue University-Indianapolis in the first round of the NCAA Tournament at 9 p.m. on Saturday in Norman (ESPNU). It’s the first time the Sooners have hosted tournament games at the Lloyd Noble Center since 2010.
Apart from senior guard Ana Llanusa, who suffered a season-ending leg injury against BYU on Dec. 10, every Sooners player will participate in their first tournament game. Senior forward Madi Williams, who achieved her first career postseason win against Kansas in the Big 12 Tournament, is looking forward to playing on the biggest stage.
(In the past), I would’ve been making plans to go on vacation,” Williams said Friday. “Now, I’m grateful for this opportunity. This is the time of the year when we have to turn it up a notch. Our focus has to be pinpoint. It has to be sharp. It has to be more than what it was over conference play and even before that.”
Senior guard Taylor Robertson echoed her teammate’s feelings.
“It's March Madness, and we finally get to play in it instead of watching it on TV,” she said. “It's really exciting to just be able to be a part of it and to show what we can do on this stage. We have to be really focused and do the little things a lot better than we have over the past few games.”
Unlike her players, head coach Jennie Baranczyk has plenty of tournament experience, having been to six combined as a player at Iowa and coach at Drake, though she is still looking for her first victory as a coach. This week, she made an effort to give her players a picture of what the tournament is all about.
“(I told them) sometimes there’s beauty in the unknown,” Baranczyk said. “There’s a really fun element to that. We get to play a team that doesn't know us, and we don’t know them. That's the NCAA Tournament.”
Here are three additional things to know ahead of OU’s contest with the Jaguars:
Vann progressing from injury
Sophomore guard Skylar Vann suffered a knee injury during OU’s loss to Baylor in the semifinals of the Big 12 Tournament. The injury came late in the fourth quarter after she was fouled while driving for a layup.
However, Vann participated in Friday’s practice and looks to be a game-time decision on Saturday.
“We still are not 100 percent sure, but it looks promising,” Baranczyk said. “We're very hopeful today will be the first day that she'll be able to kind of try some things. We’ll have more of an answer tomorrow on that.”
Vann, the Big 12 Sixth Player of the Year, has averaged 11.8 points and 5.7 rebounds per game during the regular season. She also averages 20.4 minutes per game off the bench and has shot 45 percent from the field.
Baranczyk wants to set tone early
Baranczyk’s up-tempo style of play has paid dividends for the Sooners, ranking third nationally with 83.3 points per game. Williams and Robertson both finished top-five in the Big 12 in scoring, with Williams finishing fourth with 18.2 points per game and Robertson finishing fifth with 17 points per game.
Baranczyk also relies on role players to create a spark off the bench. Alongside Vann, freshman guard Kelbie Washington serves a key bench role, leading OU with 112 assists.
Those players, combined with OU’s 66.1 shots per game, forms Baranczyk’s primary goal of playing fast. Heading into the tournament, she isn’t changing anything about the way her team plays.
“We still want to be able to play the pace we want to play,” Baranczyk said. “That's Oklahoma basketball. We go into every game thinking we want to play at that same pace, and we try to do that as much as we possibly can. I'm excited for us to continue to just play and to be able to step on the floor.
“It's our home floor, and we play at the pace that we want.”
OU to face strong interior foe
The Horizon League champions are led by center Macee Williams, who leads the Jaguars with 18.7 points and 10.6 rebounds per game. IUPUI’s 39 rebounds per game ranked second in the Horizon League.
OU has struggled to defend interior players this season. The Sooners allowed Kansas State’s Ayoka Lee to score an NCAA-record 61 points on Jan. 23 and have allowed 40 or more points in the paint 14 times this season.
IUPUI can also score well, leading its conference with 70.4 points per game and shooting 37 percent from 3-point range. Heading into its contest with the Jaguars, OU knows it must be stout on defense and inside.
“I think Macee Williams is a smart player,” Robertson said. “She's patient with the ball. Her teammates kind of feed off of her energy and the things that she does for them. I'm interested to see how she compares to other bigs that we've played against.
“It'll probably be a high-scoring game because we like to push the tempo and get a lot of possessions. It should be a very fun and entertaining game.”