NORMAN, Okla. (AP) — Jennie Baranczyk initially was a bit hesitant last year while looking into the Oklahoma women’s basketball coaching vacancy.
After all, she was successful and happy at Drake. And at Oklahoma, she’d have to replace Sherri Coale, who led the Sooners to three Final Fours and a national championship game appearance during a decorated 25-year career.
Baranczyk said Oklahoma’s administration won her over, so she took on the challenge, inserted her high-octane offense, and got the Sooners off to the races.
No. 4 seed Oklahoma (24-8) will try to keep a surprisingly good season going when it hosts No. 13 seed IUPUI (24-6) in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Saturday night.
Baranczyk deflected credit for keeping the program stable, giving it instead to veteran players Madi Williams, Taylor Robertson and Ana Llanusa.
“You talk about team and culture — this team is special,” Baranczyk said. “Look what they have done this year already. It’s incredible.”
Baranczyk didn’t just step in, she won the team over quickly.
“She’s just somebody that you want to be around all the time,” Robertson said. “She’s high energy, very competitive and passionate and loves what she does, and it’s just whenever you’re around her, you just feel it with her. It’s just really fun to be able to have that.”
The Sooners notched three Top 20 wins, beating Baylor twice and BYU and Texas once along the way. And the Sooners are running and gunning, just as Baranczyk had hoped. Oklahoma ranks third nationally with 83.3 points per game.
Williams averages 18.2 points and 7.8 rebounds. Robertson averages 17.0 points and 4.8 assists. Llanusa averaged 17.3 points before suffering a season-ending leg injury in December.
While Oklahoma has a long, storied NCAA Tournament history, it is IUPUI’s first trip. But the Jaguars are not new to top competition: They lost their season opener at then-No. 11 Michigan 67-62 in overtime and defeated then-No. 15 Iowa 74-73 on Dec. 21.
They believe they can put up a similar performance Saturday.
“I would say confidence isn’t like something our team has ever lacked,” IUPUI guard/forward Rachel McLimore said. “Not in an arrogant way or anything, but we all know what we’re capable of and believe in each other. We’re just not afraid to play anybody.”
In Saturday’s other first-round matchup in Norman, No. 5 seed Notre Dame (22-8) faces No. 12 seed Massachusetts (26-6).
Massachusetts is seeking its first NCAA Tournament victory. The Minutewomen have only played two NCAA Tournament games — losing to Michigan State in 1996 and Iowa in 1998.
Notre Dame is back after a one-season blip. Last year’s squad went 10-10 and missed the NCAA Tournament after the program had made 24 straight appearances. This season’s team didn’t face the high expectations of some previous Fighting Irish teams, but rose to its usual standard with freshman guard Olivia Miles, who averages 13.7 points and 7.2 assists per game, leading the way.
Notre Dame coach Niele Ivey said the success comes from slogging through last year’s uncertainty.
“I embraced it, being uncomfortable last year, because I knew it was part of my journey,” Ivey said. “I knew it was part of the process.”
Ivey has found yet another way to leave her mark at Notre Dame.
She was a starting guard for the Fighting Irish squad that won the national title in 2001 and was an assistant coach when the Irish won another national title in 2018.
Notre Dame was the national runner-up in 2019, also with Ivey as an assistant. She was an assistant with the Memphis Grizzlies in 2019-20 before stepping in for Muffet McGraw and getting the Fighting Irish back to the NCAA Tournament her second year.
Notre Dame is focused on slowing Massachusetts forward Sam Breen. She averages 16.9 points and 10.3 rebounds per game and was named the Atlantic 10 Player of the Year.
“From what I’ve seen, she is extremely versatile, she’s tough, leading them in scoring,” Ivey said. “She can score at will, score at all three levels. You can tell that she’s a leader. She plays with fire and passion, and she really gets their team going.”
IUPUI has six losses this season, but two came because the Horizon League forced teams to forfeit if they couldn’t play due to COVID-19 issues. The extra losses forced the Jaguars to elevate their play, and they have won 19 of 20 heading into the NCAA Tournament.
“It really caused our players to have to focus in game to game,” IUPUI coach Austin Parkinson said. “There was no room for error in trying to get the one seed in our tournament. They did a great job of kind of focusing.”
Before Friday’s NCAA action, Robertson led the nation with 117 3-pointers and was fifth in percentage (45.2%). She’s the Big 12’s all-time leader in 3-pointers. She has made a 3-pointer in 47 straight games and 94 of her last 95.
Parkinson compared her to Golden State Warriors star Klay Thompson.
“Doesn’t need a lot of dribbles, but is tall and has such a high release,” he said. “You can be there and it doesn’t matter sometimes.”
STRENGTH vs. WEAKNESS
IUPUI’s Macee Williams — the four-time Horizon League Player of the Year — leads the Jaguars with 18.7 points and 10.6 rebounds per game. Oklahoma has struggled to defend good post players this season; Kansas State’s Ayoka Lee scored an NCAA women’s record 61 points against the Sooners on Jan. 23.
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