HORNING: For Sooner women, a program turnaround may be in progress

Kyle Phillips / The Transcript

OU's Shaina Pellington pushes down the court during the Sooners' game against UConn, Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2018, at Lloyd Noble Center. The Sooners followed their near miss against the No. 1 Huskies with a 77-61 victory at SMU Saturday.

Until last Wednesday evening, what’s been happening with coach Sherri Coale’s Oklahoma women’s basketball program felt more like the end of something than a beginning.

Indeed, painful though it might be to consider, accept, or write about such things connected to an absolute icon in our city, state and hometown university, the first nine games her team played this season, matched by the difficulty of previous seasons, had made the program she’s been in charge of since April of 1996 an elephant in the room.

Coale has guided the program to 19 consecutive NCAA tournaments, including one national championship game, three Final Fours and nine Sweet 16s. However, the cruel irony of greatness is the inevitability of being judged against it and the Sooner women haven't played great basketball in some time.

OU has not claimed a Big 12 regular season or conference tourney crown since 2009, has not reached the Sweet 16 since 2013 and, last season, only reached the NCAA tournament despite a 16-14 record — 16-15 after being bounced out of the first round.

The program hasn’t boasted an All-American since Danielle Robinson eight seasons ago, nor an honorable mention selection since Aaryn Eilenberg five seasons ago.

All of that and the Sooners lost 6 of 9 games to begin this season and attendance had slowed to a trickle heading into last Wednesday’s meeting against unbeaten and No. 1 Connecticut.

Pregame talk among reporters wondered if OU might lose by 20, 40 or 60 points.

It wasn’t crazy talk.

The Huskies had previously beaten apparently better Sooner teams by 24, 18, 41, 16 and 28 points the previous five meetings between the programs.

Yet, somehow, early in the third quarter, after a Taylor Robertson 3-pointer, OU led 45-33.

The Sooners didn’t give up the lead until 3:36 remained and their eventual 72-63 loss is the closest regular season game UConn has played this season or last, when then-third-ranked Notre Dame played the Huskies within 80-71 more than a year ago.

Also, Saturday, in Dallas, Coale’s Sooners took care of business away from home for the first time, routing SMU 77-61, leading from start to finish.

Shaina Pellington finished with 21 points and would have had 28 had she hit all her free throws. Madi Williams, who reminds of Amanda Thompson — added 20 on 7 of 13 shooting, all from inside the 3-point arc, while Robertson netted 15, hitting 5 of 8 from beyond it.

OU actually led 49-24 at the half and coasted home. This from a team that led Central Arkansas by a mere three points as late as 3:48 remained Dec. 5 in Norman.

“This team has great capacity,” Coale said qr534 the UConn game and, perhaps for the first time in some time, that’s the case for the Sooner women.

Recent teams may have had great capability, yet not the capacity to find it. Or, at least, to find it early enough in the season to build something special.

This Sooner team is going to have a heck of a time reaching a 20th straight NCAA tournament. At a minimum, it will require last season’s two-games-over .500 record entering selection day and the only way to guarantee that entering the Big 12 tourney would mean going 12-6 in conference play, which begins at home, Jan. 2, against Texas Tech.

Since Courtney Paris left the program in 2009, the Sooners have won at least two-thirds of their conference games twice, in the 2014-15 and 2016-17 seasons.

This team will have to do it with zero on-court veteran leadership. Against Connecticut, Coale played seven players, all of them freshmen and sophomores. Of course, that may be a good thing.

Presumed leaders leading has not been a strength in recent seasons.

If Pellington, a sophomore, who could be OU’s best point guard since Robinson, and Robertson, a freshman, undoubtedly the program’s least bashful shooter since Ellenberg, are already the leaders, so much the better.

On the way out of town, legendary UConn coach Geno Auriemma chimed in on OU’s future.

“A lot of it is their coach,” he said. “They have one of the best in the country, so every game, every week, they’re going to get better. Their freshmen came out of this game feeling like, ‘If I can do this against Connecticut, I can do this against anybody.’

“And that’s the great thing about young players. No matter matter how much you show them in practice, no matter how many times you tell them, they have to see it and feel it for themselves, and they have to have success … I think they’re going to get a lot better.”

Coale exited the UConn loss gushing about her team.

Of the opportunity it afforded, "I think that we wrung it dry,” she said.

Then, rather than be hung over by a near miss against the nation’s best team, the Sooners instead carried it over against the Mustangs Saturday.

Is it possible a squad that’s won 4 of 11 games could nonetheless suddenly be one of the nation’s best 15 or 20 teams. If so, OU has been that team since Wednesday.

Longtime observation yields another judgment.

Whether the responsibility falls upon Coale and her staff or simply in the DNA of recent players coming through the program and the collective chemistry it has created, recent teams have been more afraid of looking bad on the court than losing and have inevitably done both.

This preposterously young Sooner team may not have known what it’s capable of until now, yet fear is not in play and that could mean everything, now and later, because the players Coale’s putting on the court figure to be around a while.

It could be good.

It might be the start of something.