The Norman Transcript

March 19, 2011

Younger players should not be overwhelmed by tourney

By Clay Horning
The Norman Transcript

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va — If the Oklahoma women come together and find their best game at the NCAA tournament, it will be a case of young and old meshing.

Simply put, this is the youngest team the Sooners have put on a March Madness floor in some time. 

Five seasons ago, OU had two freshmen on the floor playing extended minutes, but one of them — Courtney Paris — was a first-team All-American. This is different.

The Sooners start two freshmen — shooting guard Aaryn Ellenberg and center Nicole Griffin — while Morgan Hook still plays a lot of minutes. All three will be playing on the game’s biggest stage for the first time, trying to digest it and handle it for the first time. Coach Sherri Coale doesn’t see a big problem.

“They’re not the kind of kids to be wide-eyed or overwhelmed by anything. They’re just not like that,” she said. “They have fun and they’re lighthearted and they don’t take themselves too seriously, which can be a really big attribute this weekend.”

The “weekend” begins Sunday, when the Dayton Regional No. 6 seed Sooners (21-11) meet No. 11 seed James Madison (26-7) at 1:45 p.m. inside John Paul Jones Arena. The winner, on Tuesday, will play winner of Sunday’s early game between No. 3 seed Miami (27-4) and No. 14 Garnder-Webb (23-10).

Ellenberg may have consistency issues, but she’s hardly ever shy. She’s started 30 of 32 games, is second on the team in scoring at 16.5 points per outing and, at 477, she actually leads OU in shot attempts (with 14 more than point guard Danielle Robinson). With 40.5 percent 3-point accuracy, she must be accounted for.

Griffin has gone from playing very little to starting. Since taking on that role nine games ago, she’s averaged nine points and 5.5 rebounds. She’s really picked it up lately, averring 12 points, 8.7 rebounds and 36.7 minutes over her last three games.

“They don’t know what to expect, but they’re going in there loose,” Robinson said. “There’s nothing better than the NCAA tournament and I think we’ve talked to them enough about how fun it is.”

Robinson added that Hook and Griffin will take some cues from Ellenberg, who’s been taking cues from the seniors all season long.

“Aaryn being loose will help the other two be loose. Especially, with our leadership experience, I think we’ll be just fine.”

It is an interesting mix.

In Carlee Roethlisberger and Robinson, OU has a couple of starters who will be beginning play in their fourth NCAA tournament. In junior Whitney Hand, they have a third starter with Big Dance experience. The height of the moment may not bother the Sooners in the least. 

Still, the greater challenge would appear to be getting the entire lineup to play with a consistency of effort and effectiveness. It is an issue that remained unsolved throughout the regular season.

There’s no time like the present to get it right.

Ellenberg is ready to follow the veterans’ lead.

“They’ve been here before. They’ve done that,” she said. “All we can do is follow at this point.”

And see where it leads.

Clay Horning 366-3526 cfhorning@normantranscript.com