CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — The Oklahoma women believe they’re ready. They’ve been trying to come together all season long, and they think they’re doing it. They feel it.
“It has been an up and down season, but this is the most focused we’ve been all season,” point guard Danielle Robinson said.
Maybe it will be enough, because on the eve of the game, James Madison was saying all the right things, too. Right down to the arena — John Paul Jones Arena, or “the JPG,” as JMU coach Kenny Brooks and his players like to call it — where they turned their season around with an 82-80 victory at Virginia way back on Dec. 20.
“If there was one place we could play, it would be here,” JMU point guard Dawn Evans, who scored a school record 42 points her last time on the Virginia campus, said. “For JPJ to be 45 minutes away from JMU means a lot to us. We’re going to treat it like a home-court game.”
The Dukes (26-7) were 5-5 heading into Charlottesville in January. Since, they have won 21 of 23.
The Colonial Athletic Association is hardly the Big 12, but JMU is rolling into the tournament. Meanwhile the Sooners (21-11) have lost four of their last six games. And the Dukes, from nearby Harrisonburg, should have the fans on their side, too.
That’s part of the back story to today’s 1:30 p.m. NCAA tournament Dayton regional first-round contest between OU and JMU. The day’s second game, either the Sooners or Dukes will meet the winner of today’s opener, between Miami and Gardner-Webb, Tuesday.
Of course, there’s more.
OU coach Sherri Coale said before leaving Norman her team would have to make shots to be successful at the NCAA tournament. Saturday, she explained how a team goes about that.
“I think the key is not trying to make them, as crazy as that sounds,” Coale said. “Our guys can shoot … I think what you’ve got to concentrate on is all the things that lead up to the shots. We have to run hard basket cuts, we have to center the ball and we have to make good ball screens, (have good) movement away from the ball, all those things.”
Asked if that’s what she’d been seeing in practice, Coale offered a pretty big statement.
“It hasn’t been what I would call a typical NCAA tournament preparation week for us … It’s been more like a January week than the first part of March,” she said. “Thursday’s practice was our best of the year in every facet. The way we guarded, the way we rebounded, the cadence on offense, the quality of the shots we got, the shots that went in, everything about it was the highest level it’s been at all season long .
Coale can feel her team getting better.
Further, OU hopes and believes back-to-back trips to the Final Four give it an advantage in the lose-and-go-home environment of March Madness.
“We have six new guys that haven’t done it, but seven of us have and a bunch of us have done it twice,” Sooner guard Whitney Hand said. “That experience gives us something. Although we’ve had an up and down year, we know what it is to go the distance. We know we can do it.”
It is a familiar plotline for JMU.
A year ago, they were thrilled to reach March Madness. Now it’s time to do something once there.
“(Oklahoma) has been here before and they can go off of that, but we have something to prove,” JMU center Lauren Jimenez said. “We’re not just here to be here. We’re trying to make some noise.”
Anything might seem possible behind Evans, who netted 42 against Virginia, but also 34 against Central Florida, 32 against Iowa, 31 against
and Northeastern, 30 at Virginia Commonwealth and at least 26 in six other games.
Jimenez missed the first three games of the season and three more at mid-season to injury, but her presence has only made the Dukes more formidable. A senior, she’s averaging 17 points and 9.4 rebounds over her last nine games.
Brooks has been mentioned as, possibly, the next coach at Virginia or Virginia Tech, both of which have women’s basketball openings. Saturday, he said there has been no distraction, especially for a team like the Dukes.
“It’s just a special season and a special team for me … I’ve stayed up late at night because I’ve been thinking of how I’m going to get these seniors to win a championship. If any group I’ve had deserved it, they did.”
But that was just the Colonial Athletic Association championship. In trying to beat OU, the Dukes know it will take reaching a new level.
“It would mean a lot because Oklahoma is such a good team,” Evans said.
The Sooners hope to be.
They may need to be.
Clay Horning 366-3526 firstname.lastname@example.org