The Norman Transcript

March 28, 2010

After everything, Sooners two wins from returning to Final Four

By Clay Horning
The Norman Transcript

KANSAS CITY — Consider the Oklahoma women.

Ranked No. 12, seeded No. 3 at the Kansas City Regional, in the Sweet 16 for the seventh time in 11 seasons, they want to reach the Final Four for a second straight season.

The Sooners are two wins away from San Antonio’s Alamodome, where the women’s Final Four will take place for a second time, the first time being 2000, when OU advanced to the national championship game, only to lose to unbeaten Connecticut.

Connecticut, of course, is unbeaten and top-ranked again. Still, very recent history or nine-season-ago history repeating itself remains a long way away for OU.

The Sooners meet seventh-ranked and second-seeded Notre Dame at 6:34 p.m. today inside Sprint Center. It is the third round of the NCAA Tournament and the regional’s semifinal round.

After the Sooners and Irish finish, top-seed Nebraska and four-seed Kentucky meet. The winners meet Tuesday, hoping to earn a trip to the Alamo City.

OU has put itself in this position the season after the departure of not only Courtney Paris, who rewrote the program’s record book in every category but assists, steals, 3-point shooting and free-throw percentage, but also Ashley Paris, arguably the third best frontcourt player ever to come through the program (leaving room for Phylesha Whaley in the second spot).

Even if expectations were way down from last season to this one, as exemplified by OU barely being chosen among the top half of the conference by Big 12 coaches this preseason, the players were still talking about returning to the Final Four way back in November.

That thought, though, presumed Whitney Hand taking over much of the Sooners’ leadership and scoring duties. The sophomore shooting guard was on her way until suffering a season-ending knee injury Nov. 27 against San Diego State.

“Whitney had really become our heartbeat,” OU coach Sherri Coale said. “She had become our identity.”

Yet here the Sooners are, a long way away, yes, but in very good position, set to play the same team it met the day after Hand was injured. OU lost that game, 81-71, but neither side dominated.

How did the Sooners get from there to here?

“It started with (Coale) challenging us when we got back from the Virgin Islands to step up that much more, each person individually, to make up for the presence that Whitney had displayed on the floor,” point guard Danielle Robinson said. “It was just us maturing, though, night in and night out and every day in practice.”

Individually, and literally, the Sooners answered that challenge quickly. From Dec. 3 to Jan. 3, a stretch of seven games, all five then-starters achieved new career-high scoring totals. Carlee Roethlisberger netted 29 against Texas-Arlington, Robinson 31 against Arkansas, Nyeshia Stevenson 32 against Marist, Abi Olajuwon 25 against Cal State-Fullerton and Amanda Thompson 26 against Tennessee.

Consistency of effort took longer to develop, yet it arrived near the end of the conference season and was on display throughout the Big 12 tournament.

Robinson, running the point and leading OU in assists and scoring, may play the biggest role, but the Sooners defy simple description.

“You’ll just see a different team,” Thompson said Saturday, explaining the difference between last season and this one. “We won’t rely so much on the post, and we have strength in all positions.

“You’ll see a little bit of transition, a little bit of defense, a little bit of offensive execution and just playing basketball.”

Still, for everybody to notice a little of everything, the Sooners will have to perform a whole lot of everything.

Pull it off and they might be back on the court Tuesday.

Clay Horning 366-3526 cfhorning@normantranscript.com