OKLAHOMA CITY — Five seconds remained. The game was in the bag. Against so many odds, No. 6-seed Oklahoma would knock off No. 2-seed UCLA inside Ohio State’s St. John Arena.
Sooner coach Sherri Coale turned and faced her bench. Everybody was on their feet. The celebration had begun. Coale could have jumped into anybody’s arms.
Almost leaping into the embrace, she put her left arm around Whitney Hand and her right arm around Lyndsey Cloman, the two senior captains whose collegiate career’s were cut short on the court even as their influence was not.
On the road to the Sweet 16, Hand and Cloman didn’t play a minute, but Coale could not be more certain “they’re highly responsible for it.”
Cloman tore the anterior cruciate ligament in her left knee during OU’s first exhibition game last season. She recovered from that well enough, but a degenerative disc in her back made returning to the court not an option.
Hand, who tore the ACL in her right knee early in her sophomore season, tore the one in her left knee Dec. 6 against North Texas.
Cloman was to be a valuable presence in the post. Hand had long been the Sooners’ most important player. They could have departed the program, literally or figuratively, and their coach would have understood.
“It would be so easy to be a senior and to have your career taken from you and to just move on,” Coale said. “Maybe not physically, but certainly emotionally, just to salvage your soul, just so you can get by so the wound (of not playing) doesn’t gape every day.”
Cloman nor Hand considered exiting. Now, they and their team are reaping the rewards.
“It’s difficult,” Cloman said. “You spend your whole entire life playing this sport and you can’t (play) … But as a captain, as a teammate, I couldn’t be happier for the girls who are playing.”
Hand knew her place with the program was bigger than the game.
“It’s about so much more than basketball for coach Coale, for me, for this program, and my job didn’t end once I got hurt,” she said. “When people ask me that, I’m like, ‘Oh, I didn’t even know I had an option … This is what I’m here to do, to lead these girls whether I’m on the court or off.”
Hand and Cloman are only two of four Sooners to lose their season to injury.
Kaylon Williams, who started 16 games her freshman season, ruptured her right Achilles tendon before her sophomore campaign could begin. Freshman Maddie Manning, who moved into the starting lineup four games into the season, lost it after tearing the ACL in her right knee the last week of November.
Every shot was a hard blow to the program, but Hand and Cloman’s refusal to back away from their leadership roles has been a big part of the Sooners’ resiliency.
Their sacrifice continues to blow Coale away.
“You know, it’s one thing to not (be able to play) and to hurt because it’s over, but then to still have to be right where you used to be, every day? That’s big time,” she said. “Then, ironically, I don’t think we’re here talking today if they don’t choose to do that.”
Almost by accident, Hand and Cloman gave the team another lift beginning the last home game of the season, March 2, against Kansas.
“Whitney and Lyndsey came to me on senior night and asked if they could wear their jersey because it wouldn’t feel right not being in uniform their last night at Lloyd Noble Center,” Coale said. “I said, ‘Sure, why don’t you do that.’
“The next day in practice, I went right back to them both and said, ‘I did not see this coming, but you two guys in uniform helped me so much.’
“It’s hard to explain, it was subtle but it’s constant. In a huddle, I’m not just looking at four guys … I thought, ‘You know what, if I feel like that, I’ll bet our players feel like that.’”
Now Williams is wearing the uniform again. Manning, too. Every game could be their last one of the season and, for Hand and Cloman, their last one, period. But that’s not the reason they keep putting on the crimson and cream.
They’ve just found another way to make their team better.
“Putting on the uniform, the symbolism, it switches your mind from watching the game to being in the game,” said senior forward Joanna McFarland, who, after breaking her jaw at Stillwater last year, knows what it’s like to have a season interrupted by injury. “Now they can cheer and jump and they’ve got basketball shoes on, so they can run out on the court … It’s great because it gives us more energy.”
It’s bound to again today, when the Sooners and Tennessee meet at 3:35 p.m. in the semifinal round of the NCAA tournament’s Oklahoma City Regional at Chesapeake Energy Arena.
Hand and Cloman will be on the bench, yet in uniform. They miss the court, but it’s the only thing they’ve missed since being sidelined.
None of it has been lost on Coale, who knew exactly who she wanted to hug six days ago in Columbus, Ohio.
“They made the decision to stay completely immersed in what we’re doing,” she said. “The reason I went to them was I know it’s an open wound that will not close until our journey is over.”
Perhaps not, but OU’s two senior captains, Whitney Hand and Lyndsey Cloman, appear to be managing very well.
Follow me @clayhorning