"Great. Perfect," said the Rebel head coach to herself as she entered the arena earlier on Sunday. "We'll use that to our advantage. It will benefit us."
Indeed it did as the Ole Miss Rebels beat Oklahoma 90-82 to reach the Elite Eight of the NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament for the first time since 1992 and the fifth time in the history of the tourney, which began in 1982. This time they'll play Tennessee, which beat Marist 65-46 in the session's first game on Sunday. The Rebs and Vols play Tuesday night.
"I told the players to envision being back in their high school days in those hot, sticky gyms in Mississippi when some coach made them work and sweat in July, even when they didn't want to," she said after her team improved to 24-10. "I'm happy it was hot today."
It was a warm March day in southwest Ohio, with the temperature topping out at 80 degrees. UD officials said it was the hottest they could ever remember when an event was held in the air-conditioned-less facility, which is not used in the summer.
Oklahoma, led by physical all-star 6-foot-4 center Courtney Paris, is a team with more bulk than athleticism; Ole Miss just the opposite. The Rebels knew they could handle the heat - both from the conditions and because of their own conditioning.
"For every drop we sweated, we knew they were going to drop two," Ross said. "I just kept encouraging (the Rebels) to press on."
That encouragement has been going on ever since her team started this three-game win streak in the NCAA Tournament. First they outran TCU 88-74. Then there was the national headliner over defending national champion Maryland 89-78.
Then came an Oklahoma team that had lost just four times coming in and had only had trouble against teams like Ole Miss - teams that run and are quick and fast and athletic and pressure their opponents and cause turnovers.
The Sooners, who ended their season 28-5, said the heat and Ole Miss were too much to handle on this day.
"I've never coached a game at this level under these circumstances," said Oklahoma head coach Sherri Coale. "We talked about it a little bit, but I'm not sure any conversation about it would change the way we played. We just said let's go play."
"When the game started, we played at a super fast speed," said Paris, who led her team with 31 points and 20 rebounds, and with 39 minutes logged in this one, more minutes than anyone else in the game. "It took me a while to get into it with the heat. We knew how quick they were, but experiencing that was something else."
"They have such a quick team," said 6-1 OU forward Leah Rush. "We just didn't take care of the basketball. They're a quick team, and we didn't handle it well."
Oklahoma had six turnovers in the games' first five minutes and finished the contest with 26, compared to only 11 for Ole Miss. Much like the Maryland game, the Rebels jumped on their opponent early with relentless pressure, causing turnovers and errant passes and keeping the Sooners in disarray while building a sizable first-half lead.
"We had some unforced turnovers, and they force enough on their own without us helping out," Coale said. "Sometimes it was like we were trying to play faster than we're capable."
The Sooners actually led 8-5 when Armintie Price hit a three-point basket from the left corner to tie the game 8-8 just five minutes in. After Paris missed a shot, Price got the rebound for the Rebels and raced to the other end of the court for a layup to give her team a 10-8 lead with 14 minutes to go before halftime. The Rebels never trailed again in the contest.
The lead reached double-digits for the first time as a jumper at the free throw line by Shantell Black made it 28-17 with just over eight minutes to go before the break.
A drive and a layup by Price made it 32-21 Ole Miss with 6:14 to go before halftime, but that's when the Sooners made a run. Courtney's sister, 6-3 forward Ashley Paris, scored and was fouled, making a free throw to cut the UM lead to 35-32 with 3:21 to go. At intermission the Rebels led 41-36.
The second half Ole Miss withstood every OU run. After a Courtney Paris layup cut the Rebel lead to 44-40, Ole Miss rolled back out to its largest lead of the game, a 14-point edge at 58-44 on a three-point basket by Carla Bartee with 13:24 left.
The UM lead shrunk again later, all the way down to two points a couple of times, the last time at 68-66 with 6:40 left. But over the next four minutes the Rebels expanded the lead back out to what appeared to be a comfortable 12 points at 80-68.
But the Sooners kept battling and a layup by Britney Brown cut the UM lead to 84-79 with exactly a minute left. It was still anybody's ballgame - unless the Rebels could make free throws. And they did, sinking six of eight the rest of the way for the eight-point victory.
Awkward ended the game 25 points, and freshman Alliesha Easley had 12.
Price, who matched Courtney Paris' scoring output of 31 points in the game along with 10 rebounds, five steals, and five assists, said she knew what Ross was speaking of when she recalled the conditioning and the heat back home in Mississippi. And she knows just how best to beat it.
"We usually play well in this kind of weather," she said. "We know that if we run, we'll feel a little air-conditioning, too."
On Sunday afternoon in unseasonably warm Dayton, Ohio, the Rebels ran all the way to the Elite Eight.
Rebels beat the heat to get past Oklahoma
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