Commentary

Carlee steps up in Hand's absence

Originally Published: December 14, 2009
By Graham Hays | ESPN.com

POUGHKEEPSIE, N.Y. -- When one door closes, perhaps another opens, as fortune cookies and greeting cards are wont to tell us. But the laws of physics are considerably clearer in demanding a single door must be closed before it can open.

[+] EnlargeCarlee Roethlisberger
AP Photo/Sue OgrockiCarlee Roethlisberger didn't start any of the 66 games she played in as a freshman or sophomore. But she has five starts this season and is averaging 9.1 point and 5.5 rebounds.

When the lock clicked in Whitney Hand's room the night after the Oklahoma sophomore suffered a knee injury in a game against San Diego State in the Virgin Islands, her season was over, even if tests wouldn't confirm a torn ACL until days later. Yet Hand wasn't alone in the room, and when the hinges moved again the next morning, a new opportunity awaited Carlee Roethlisberger.

Those around the the 6-foot-1 junior, a player inescapably known best by way of her famous big brother, see someone entirely capable of making a name all her own on the basketball court.

"She's a 'Wow' waiting for a place to happen," Oklahoma coach Sherri Coale said.

In her first three games as a starter after Hand's season-ending injury (the first three starts of her Oklahoma career), Roethlisberger averaged 15 points and 6.7 rebounds. She hit 8 of 20 shots from behind the arc in that span and scored a career-high 29 points in a win against Texas-Arlington. And although Roethlisberger's run of statistical showmanship paused slightly on a subsequent two-game road trip through upstate New York, when she totaled 15 points and 13 rebounds in a pair of games against Marist and Army, she remained a presence on the court in ways beyond her literal minutes on the court.

"Whitney was a huge leader and huge presence on the floor," Roethlisberger explained. "And missing her -- she's going to do what she can from the bench and then at practice to help us to get better and communicate and things like that -- but she brought so much to the floor that we basically had to split it up between all of the players to be able to replace it. And you can never replace somebody like Whitney Hand on the floor. But it's just, I've got to come in and score and be a presence. I can't just be someone that comes in and fills in every game."

The player of the year in Ohio as a high school senior, Roethlisberger is built like a basketball player. She has the size and wingspan to hold her own on the boards but moves easily on the perimeter and has a shot that Coale labeled something straight out of an instructional video.

For all of that, the problem her first two seasons was a tendency toward invisibility in what limited minutes she saw behind Hand, Ashley Paris and others. Roethlisberger led Oklahoma's reserves in scoring at last season's NCAA tournament, but with the season on the line in the Final Four against Louisville, she played just two minutes, part of a collective bench contribution that totaled just 24 minutes in a 61-59 loss.

"I mean, you watch her in practice and you're like, 'One of these days, she's going to be absolutely amazing,' and you're just waiting and you're waiting," Coale said. "And you see all this potential and you're waiting and you're waiting. You put her in and she plays 15 minutes and the stat line is virtually untouched. And you're like, 'Come on, give us something.'"

[+] EnlargeCarlee Roethlisberger
AP Photo/Sue OgrockiCarlee Roethlisberger is 18-for-48 on 3-point attempts in 10 games this season; she made a combined 21 treys the past two seasons.

The most obvious "something" Roethlisberger could provide was long-distance cover. Entering the games against Marist and Army, Oklahoma ranked No. 187 nationally in 3-point field goal percentage, out of the 263 teams with enough 3-pointers to qualify. And that included Hand's production in five games (10-of-26 for 38 percent). The cupboard isn't bare, as Nyeshia Stevenson demonstrated by hitting 9 of 18 shots from behind the arc against Marist, but it needed replenishing.

Roethlisberger's 3-point production was difficult to find on the stat sheet her first two seasons -- she hit just 21 3-pointers in 66 appearances -- but her outside touch was the stuff of legend for those who saw her on an everyday basis.

"If you watched her in pickup, it's just like she's an All-American," Hand said. "She'll just shoot it from wherever and it's going to go in -- normally in my eye because we're normally guarding each other. … It's a matter of game experience and she hasn't played too many minutes in two years and now it's kind of her chance to play about 40 minutes a game with the amount of people we have."

Already short-handed after the offseason transfers of Jenny Vining and Rose Hammond, the Sooners are down to nine players, including two freshmen, without Hand. Coale said she was candid with Roethlisberger before the season, long before Hand's injury, that it was time for Roethlisberger's potential to translate into production. Without Hand, there is simply no choice; Roethlisberger will be on the court for 30-plus minutes every night. What impact she has shooting the ball and hitting the offensive glass, another of Hand's specialties, will go a long way toward determining how the Sooners fare.

Oklahoma knows it will play short-handed all season, but it can't afford to play 4-on-5.

"She goes into the game and you want her to affect it, and for long periods of time she hasn't," Coale said. "Now with Whitney out, she's felt the sense of urgency that she has to. She can't hide. She can't wait until the game comes to her; she has to go after it. And I think it's helped her, obviously. The game where she scored 29, everything looked easy. And she said everything felt easy. Well, she got lost in the activity of the game, and that's something that if we could all bottle it, as coaches, we'd bottle it and sell it and we probably wouldn't be doing this."

As Hand puts it, watching from the sideline is something you never really get used to, something that "just sucks all year." But she also said she told Roethlisberger the night of the injury that, if it turned out to be something serious, there was nobody she'd rather see take her place than her friend. And so far, Roethlisberger is making the most of the opportunity.

"I'm so proud of how she's playing," Hand said. "I think that she's earned it and she's worked so hard this offseason, and I think, mentally, she's there. So I think we couldn't be in a better spot, and we're not going to miss me that much. Carlee's going to do well."

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.

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