NORMAN — Because she could do so many things, Whitney Hand always made her team better when she was on the floor.
If she wasn’t scoring, she’d rebound. If she wasn’t rebounding, she’d win loose balls. If she didn’t have an athletic advantage, she’d outthink her opponent.
Of course, after tearing the ACL in her left knee, thereby finishing her season and collegiate career, Hand watches from the bench now. And though she may not have considered it, something else also is becoming clear. By leaving the court, necessity being the mother of invention, she has made her teammates better.
The examples abound, from Joanna McFarland grabbing more rebounds to Sharane Campbell offering more and better minutes. Still, there is no better example than the player many already considered a star.
Aaryn Ellenberg was voted to the five-player coaches preseason All-Big 12 team after averaging a team-best 15.5 points per game last season and was averaging 15.8 when Hand was lost for the season. She has averaged 23 since, and her coach, Sherri Coale, insists it’s only the tip of the iceberg.
“She will never get enough credit for how much she’s improved. I promise you that,” she said. “Because that’s just the way it is when you’re a great player. I mean, who goes and talks about how good Peyton Manning gets from one year to the next?”
Coale said that a few minutes after OU’s Saturday night victory over Texas Tech and maybe 90 minutes after Manning’s Denver Broncos had fallen to the Baltimore Ravens in the NFL playoffs.
Still, you get the idea.
Ellenberg has led the Sooners to a 14-2 start to the season and a 4-0 start in the Big 12 Conference, benchmarks the program last achieved in the 2008-09 season when OU began 24-2 and 12-0. Tonight, she will lead the Sooners into Hilton Coliseum, where OU meets No. 25 Iowa State (12-2, 3-1 Big 12).
Typically quiet, naturally mercurial, Ellenberg knows a change has taken place, one that accelerated when her teammates and coaches demanded it take place.
“She had meeting after meeting with different people after Whitney went out and everybody told her, ‘You have to fill this role, you have to help us out with that,’” junior point guard Morgan Hook said. “She’s improved in many ways.”
So many, let her coach count them.
“She’s always been able to make threes. She can create shots for herself … That’s been part of her MO since shot got here,” Coale said. “Now, she jumps the ball defensively, she anticipates on the weak side (defensively). She’s moving without the ball. She’s not standing and watching. She’s talking in transition, she’s communicating with her teammates, she’s forcing herself outside her comfort zone and becoming a great player.”
It may be hard to understand what 23 points a game looks like. It means if you score 19, you better come back with 27. It means no game where you’re simply not productive. Last time out, against the Lady Raiders, Ellenberg had 13 points with less than 4 minutes to play. Next, she scored the rest of OU’s points, 13 of them, putting the game away.
She also blocked two shots against Tech and nabbed four steals during the previous game at TCU. And she’s been a consistently active defender for maybe the first time since arriving on campus.
Ellenberg credits her teammates.
“They’ve really helped me get over that hump of doing the little things and being accountable for myself,” she said. “Scoring never came hard for me. It was mostly the little stuff that people didn’t see, like communicating and playing hard all the time on defense.”
Or even something as mundane, as Hook explained, as “echoing a drill; she does it now and she hasn’t done it the last three years.”
That means calling out what’s happening while performing a practice drill. It may not be necessary to perform the drill well, but it helps make a habit of engagement with the moment and with your teammates.
“Out on the court,” Hook said, “she’s talking to us in the huddle and she’s never done that before. It’s just leadership.”
Ellenberg, always a bit of her old self, casually explained her new direction.
“When you lose people,” she said, “especially somebody like Whitney, you kind of have to grow up. It was going to be that way next year already because she wasn’t going to be here anyway, so it’s kind of given us a head start at stepping into that new role.”
Whatever, it’s happened.
Her team is the better for it.
Follow me @clayhorning