Joanna McFarland has figured it out.
It took a while.
It took three long seasons and maybe losing her starting job in the fourth. It took too many injuries suffered by her teammates.
It may have taken having no way out. Sort of. Because many never figure it out.
It’s a long story, but also a short one, because one day she was struggling and soon thereafter she was thriving. It’s as simple as flipping a switch, but as complicated as a life led up to the moment the switch was flipped.
“There’s been a lot of, ‘Oh my gosh, what am I going to do, what are people going to think?’,” McFarland said. “But when Whitney went down, it was like, ‘Well, crap, nobody else is left, so it might as well be me stepping up.’”
A little explanation:
The Oklahoma women play Kansas at 7 tonight. It is their last home game of the season and therefore senior night, meaning McFarland will be honored alongside Whitney Hand, Jasmine Hartman and Lyndsey Cloman for their time spent in the program.
Cloman tore her ACL last preseason and, though rehabbed, had to give up her senior season to a chronically bad back. Hartman has come back from ACL surgery to play but, as many do, has struggled to find her old form. Hand, long the on-court and emotional leader of the program, suffered her second torn ACL on Dec. 6 and has had to settle for inspirational leadership since.
McFarland has triumphed.
“Since I’ve been here, she’s probably the teammate that’s grown the most as a person, in every single way,” Hand said of the 6-3 power forward from Derby, Kan. “Socially, mentally, emotionally, physically … She’s matured into the woman she is and it’s really cool just to be able to walk alongside her and be a part of it.”
On the court, it came together over a couple of weeks, when November became December.
Averaging two points and four rebounds over the season’s first three games, McFarland lost her starting spot. Over the next six games, all off the bench, she averaged 6.8 points and 9.2 rebounds.
In the sixth game, Hand was injured against North Texas. That put McFarland back in the starting lineup where she has averaged 10.4 points and 11.2 rebounds since, a near season-long, double-double.
So lost in the game, reacting rather than thinking, those watching can get lost watching her, her effort demanding their attention.
McFarland’s 11.3 rebounds-per-game average against conference opponents leads the Big 12. Her nine double-doubles against conference opponents leads the Big 12.
On the same team as Aaryn Ellenberg, whose 18.6-point averages ranks third in the conference, McFarland may have a hard time achieving first-team All-Big 12 status.
Not that she hasn’t earned it.
Still, when McFarland’s journey is considered, it’s not what those close to her think about. What sticks with them is the process.
The one that allowed her to take off when somebody had to. The one that allowed her to overcome doubt and fear and caution and, as her coach says, grow “comfortable in her own skin.”
“Whatever you do in four years of college,” OU coach Sherri Coale said, “if you can come out the other end of it and say that, then you’ve done something.”
Given McFarland’s senior year success, there is the temptation to question that which came before, her first three years in the program when she averaged less than five points and six rebounds, before she was able to, in her words, “get our of my own way.”
The best answer is that it’s hard to get out of your own way.
“I think it’s way more difficult than to learn to keep a straight elbow or to get the ball to come off your index finger,” Coale said. “It’s a mindset, it’s the way you process information, it’s the way that you see yourself and sometimes those are all very complicated and complex sorts of things and there’s not a drill you can run to get better at them.”
It’s harder when you’re your own worst critic, afraid to fail and afraid to make a mistake.
“I had perfectionistic tendencies and through my four years I’ve tried many different things and it’s like, just accepting it and being me is what’s helped me,” McFarland said. “I’ve tried to play for my parents, for other people, for coach. I’ve tried to be this person for somebody else. But when I’ve just tried to play for my team and just to have fun, that’s when everything cleared up.”
Coming from a family of perfectionists, McFarland believes she has figured something out.
“What you really are is an imperfect perfectionist, so you’re never going to be happy,” she said. “So I’ve turned that weakness into a strength. It doesn’t matter, you’re never going to be perfect, you might as well just do everything you can to the best of your ability and that’s pretty much perfection right there.”
That works on the basketball court and pretty much everywhere else.
“I’m so pleased that Jo got there and got to feel what it’s like to be completely free of those self-expectations or those self-prohibitions that she placed on herself,” Hand said. “When you haven’t, it’s like playing in chains.”
It’s like McFarland had to lose herself to find herself. And if it happened quickly, it’s still a very long way from there to here. Best of all, she likes what she’s found.
“As a freshman, I was quiet and didn’t say anything. I was very insecure. I didn’t want to say anything because I didn’t know how people would react to me,” she said. “At this point, I don’t care. I am who I am, take it or leave it and I’m just trying to be that for my team.”
She has been.
She has figured it out.
Follow me @clayhorning