The Norman Transcript

April 1, 2010

New ground for OU women

The Norman Transcript

NORMAN — Pretend Stanford hadn’t lost but the single game it lost to Connecticut. And pretend Stanford didn’t have a history of ending Oklahoma’s season. Because if that were the case … it would make almost no difference whatsoever.

Stanford would still be Stanford.

The Cardinal would still be headed to its third straight Final Four. Tara VanDerveer would still be the most successful contemporary women’s basketball coach in the nation not named Pat or Geno.

Had it lost three games, five games or seven games, Stanford would still be Stanford. No matter how well the Sooner women appeared to be playing coming into Sunday. Even if it was OU with the single loss, nobody with a clue would be thinking the Cardinal’s going down easy.

Stanford would still be Stanford.

That’s what OU’s victory over Kentucky meant to Sherri Coale’s program beyond the 2010 Final Four.

Now, OU will always be OU.

Coale was onto it just as soon as she finished cutting down the net at Sprint Center Tuesday, where the Sooners’ 88-68 victory sent them to their second straight Final Four.

“It’s not over yet, but for these three seniors to guide their teams to back-to-back Final Fours, that puts us in a different league,” she said. “That’s a different deal. Those three kids will forever be known as the first to do that, and I love that for them because they’re that special.”

Don’t miss the nuance of Coale’s assertion. Amanda Thompson, Nyeshia Stevenson and Abi Olajuwon will go down as the first senior class to take the Sooners to back-to-back Final Fours, yes.

But the greatest consequence of their accomplishment has less to do with how they’ll be remembered for past achievement and more to do with the perception of the Sooner program going forward.

Before, there was UConn and Tennessee. Then there was Stanford. Then, maybe Duke. Maybe Notre Dame. You can make a case for Baylor because tradition’s forever bolstered a national championship.

But if those programs stand out front, there’s many more you could throw blanket over. Like North Carolina, Ohio State, Texas A&M, LSU, Maryland, Rutgers, Michigan State … Oklahoma.

Not so much any more.

No longer are the Sooners part of the pack that chases the very best programs in the nation. They’re among them. Behind the Lady Vols and Huskies, fractionally behind Stanford, ahead of just about everybody else.

You bet it’s a different league.

Want the men’s comparison?

They’re Michigan State.

They don’t have to be a No. 1 or No. 2 seed to reach the Final Four. They’re dangerous from anywhere in the bracket. They have the tradition and the blessing of internally high expectations.

They’re the kind of program that can sputter along and still opposing coaches will say something like, “Well, you know Oklahoma’s going to be there at the end.”

Now, when the Sooners are down, they’ll still be “a sleeping giant.” And when they’re up, you won’t be hearing “I’m not sold on Oklahoma.”

You bet it’s a legacy.

The most important player in the history of Oklahoma basketball is Phylesha Whaley. She just is. She’s the one who started it all, even if she only played in one NCAA Tournament.

Then, Courtney Paris.

She rewrote the record book and the nation paid attention as long as she was here. Oh, for her to have played her last two seasons as well as her first two, but she was still amazing.

Then Stacey Dales, even if it’s hard to think about her without thinking about LaNeishea Caufield.

Then, heck, you almost have to go with the whole roster headed to San Antonio. Danielle Robinson leads, Amanda Thompson’s the warrior and Nysehia Stevenson’s the X-factor.

But do the Sooners beat UALR without Abi Olajuwon? Do they get past Notre Dame without Jasmine Hartman? Are they here at all without Whitney Hand getting in their face on the bench?

Everybody gets credit.

Each has played a role in taking OU to a greater place. This season, yes. More importantly, beyond.