March 28, 2009

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) - Just to get as far as the final 16, Agnus Berenato and her Pitt Panthers had to take a 6 1/2-hour cross-country flight and beat two Pacific Northwest teams on a court that proved to be not-so-neutral.

The next stop on their road to the Final Four? A trip to Oklahoma City that proved lengthier than expected, with top-seeded Oklahoma and All-America center Courtney Paris awaiting them.

"I missed, like, geography in school - and I thought it was only like an hour flight. It was almost three hours, and we had a charter," Berenato said Saturday, never losing her ever-present smile. "It was almost three hours, and I was like, 'Are you kidding me?"'

While setting a school record for wins in a season, Pittsburgh (25-7) has found itself on a daunting road to try to reach the regional finals for the first time in school history. First, the Panthers were sent west to Seattle to face Montana. A win there earned them a chance to face 12th-seeded Gonzaga, which had already pulled off a home-state upset of Xavier.

"It has been rough, when you look at a lot of the other teams that either had home seeds or they've been right up the road a piece and then they've come back home," said Berenato, who led Pitt to its first NCAA tournament berth two years ago and its first regional semifinal last year.

"But honestly, it's all part of the NCAA. I think it makes it so exciting and so special. We handle whatever we're given, and I think that that's what you do in life. And basketball's just like the game of life."

Sophomore Shayla Scott, Pitt's leading rebounder, suggested that the West Coast trip prepared the Panthers for what they'll face Sunday night - along with a rugged Big East schedule that featured visits to Connecticut and Louisville and the school's first win at Rutgers.

"Just being in that whole environment when you have a lot of people rooting against you really helps you just to stay calm and to stay together as a team and make sure you're focused and able to listen to your coaches. I think that we're well prepared for that."

While Pitt was crisscrossing the country, returning home to attend classes in between trips, the Sooners (30-4) were able to sneak in an extra night in their own beds before switching to a hotel to set up their gameday routine.

Oklahoma coach Sherri Coale pointed out that while top-seeded Duke lost on Michigan State's home floor and seventh-seeded Rutgers advance with two wins at home, there was a handful of teams that lost in their home states or on their home court - including Iowa, Notre Dame, Georgia and San Diego State.

"It doesn't matter where you are and to a great extent it doesn't matter as much who you are playing as it does can you be the best you can be? That's the whole sense of the NCAA tournament, if you can continue to call forth your best performance," Coale said.

"There's a reason we're all playing here. It's because we've done something right over the course of three or four months. You have to continue to call upon that. I don't think it matters where you're playing to do that."

The Sooners were in line to play in the Oklahoma City Regional last year before getting upset in the second round by Notre Dame. Instead, it was Tennessee that won the regional on its way to a second straight national championship.

That point hasn't been lost for Oklahoma's players.

"Last year we had this opportunity and we missed out on it, and we had to watch everybody else play on TV," Paris said. "Now, we get to play here and play in front of our own fans, so we're excited about it."

Coale put herself through the torture of attending the regional her team where her team hoped to be playing, going with close friend Marsha Sharp, who coached Texas Tech to the 1993 national title.

When Sharp text messaged Coale to congratulate her on reaching the final 16 this time around, Coale texted her back to say: "No offense, Marsha, but I really didn't want to sit with you."

By Saturday, 9,580 tickets had been sold for the regional held less than a half-hour from Oklahoma's campus. It figures to be a partisan crowd for the Sooners, who ranked fourth in the nation with average attendance of 9,007.

After what the Panthers have been through so far in the tournament, they're used to the hostility.

"We just played Gonzaga and Montana with Gonzaga and Montana home crowds, but my 28 people were really loud," Berenato said, slapping her hand down on the table where she was seated.

"They were awesome. I'm not kidding. We brought the house down."