COLUMBUS Ohio — If a program can only break through once, coach Sherri Coale’s Sooners did it at Purdue 13 years ago, advancing to the Sweet 16 for the first time on the defending national champion Boilermakers’ home floor.
But it couldn’t have felt a whole lot better than it felt Monday night inside St. John Arena.
Down three starters and two team captains since the first week of December, the Sooners, in their 14th straight NCAA tournament, are somehow playing Cinderella after stopping UCLA 85-72.
All in one night, OU bucked the odds, gained revenge and proved more with less isn’t that impossible a concept.
The Sooners did it by getting an All-American performance from Aaryn Ellenberg, who’s been chasing greatness for a long time but caught it against the Bruins; by getting another huge game from Joanna McFarland, who must be playing her way into a professional career somewhere if she wants it; and by getting the X-factor performance from Sharane Campbell that Coale had foreshadowed only the day before. And, individual accolades aside, by playing murderously hard for 40 minutes on both ends of the court.
Play like that and losing’s just not an option. You can only get beat, but not very often.
Play like that and you might play more than one game at Chesapeake Energy Arena, where the Sooners meet Tennessee Sunday.
“Their belief, their resilience and their perseverance all came to a head tonight,” Coale said of her players. “They were in sync with one another, determined and absolutely refused to lose that game.”
Even as it ended, OU was building its lead. Even the Sooners could have relaxed, but they didn’t entertain the option.
Case in point, the score 75-62 with 2:21 remaining, when UCLA’s Allysia Brewer hit a shot, got fouled and missed the free throw, only for it to lead an offensive rebound and a Nirra Fields’ jumper: the rare four-point possession. That made it 75-66, but the Bruins never got closer.
With five seconds remaining, Coale dove into a bear hug with Whitney Hand and Lyndsey Cloman, the two captains who lost their seasons long ago but continue to dress for games, maybe because every one could be their last chance to put on a uniform.
Soon after, the whole team, the Sooner cheerleaders and Boomer (or Sooner, whichever mascot it was that made the trip) huddled and jumped together beyond the Sooner baseline, like they’d rushed the court after their favorite team won a huge one.
So it made perfect sense.
“We played together and we played with a lot of emotion,” McFarland said. “We refused to lose. We knew it was all or nothing. It was a team effort and it felt amazing the whole night.”
Ellenberg finished with 27 points on 8 of 20 shooting and 6 of 13 from 3-point land. Once again she was her hottest in the second half, just in time to bury the Bruins.
At the end, she began flashing a sign with her hand, touching her index finger to her thumb, indicating three points with the other three fingers. It looked like she was flashing the “A-OK” sign.
Like everything was all right.
McFarland finished with 20 points and 16 rebounds, canning 3 of 4 3-point attempts and 9 of 10 free throws. They’re going to have to drag her off the court. Campbell made 6 of 8 shots and 6 of 7 free throws.
You know how hard it is to beat a team that gets 66 points out of three players? UCLA didn’t either.
It wasn’t that OU began like it was shot out of a cannon. It was that it played every moment like that, right to the end.
Nobody plays like that.
It’d hard to do once and even harder to replicate. But should it be, it’s easy to see OU getting a third crack at Baylor a week from tonight in Oklahoma City.
Coale gave UCLA a bunch of credit and said the Bruins “gave us all we wanted for 40 minutes.” And Atonye Nyingfa finished with 14 points and eight rebounds, and Markel Walker had 14 and seven and Jasmine Dixon had 13 and eight.
Yet none of that was what Monday night was about. It was all about the Sooners, headed home but hardly finished.
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