- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- Sunday wasn't the last time this season that Oklahoma will take the court wearing the white uniforms of the higher seed, but the Sooners' NCAA tournament fate might well hinge on how well they play the role of overachievers in red.
If they need a blueprint, Sunday's opponent certainly offered one.
Despite the fact that it found itself playing defense against an opponent with the ball and a chance to tie the score in the final minute of the game, fourth-seeded Oklahoma held on and advanced to the second round with a 69-61 win against 13-seed Illinois State.
The Sooners came out shaky, built a big lead in the opening minutes of the second half and then held on for dear life against a furious rally. It was a win; it wasn't a work of art.
All of which means that while Sherri Coale's team might well enter Tuesday's second-round game against fifth-seeded Notre Dame as the favorite based on seeding, Sunday's result will reaffirm the notion that a crowd dominated by green won't be the only thing working against Oklahoma when the ball tips against the Irish.
For those looking for an emphatic declaration out of a team that lost its final three games leading up to the NCAA tournament, including a quarterfinal loss to Missouri in the Big 12 tournament, the win against Illinois State was more of a policy statement.
But if there wasn't an exclamation mark in a game that saw Illinois State whittle away Oklahoma's 17-point lead and Courtney Paris attempt just five field goals, there was evidence of how the Sooners will make their stand this month. The truth is, they are a team learning how to make the most of attributes which lend themselves to ineloquence.
They're learning how to win ugly.
Largely a collection of Annie Oakley sharpshooters deployed around Courtney and Ashley Paris as recently as last season, the Sooners no longer pile up frequent flier miles on their field-goal attempts. Erin Higgins, Chelsi Welch and Leah Rush are gone, and a team that hit just 1-of-11 3-point attempts Sunday doesn't have many replacements.
What the Sooners do have is the makings of a defense that can do the same to opponents.
"I think the one thing that not a lot of people have talked about with Oklahoma is how aggressive defensively they can be," Illinois State coach Robin Pingeton said. "A lot of people talk about the offensive power of the Paris sisters and their ability to rebound the ball, but I think they're particularly good at their defense, too."
An Illinois State team that entered the NCAA tournament averaging more than six 3-pointers per game and shooting 36.3 percent from behind the arc found the white parabola at Mackey Arena to be the basketball equivalent of a demilitarized zone. The Redbirds finished with five 3-pointers, but they needed 18 attempts to get there.
"They're a huge 3-point shooting team," Oklahoma's Jenna Plumley said. "So when it came to that, it was just mainly about communication: knowing where shooters were, make sure we're reading the screens right -- if we're switching, then we've got to talk to one another and make sure that we're switching every screen."
Oklahoma has been outstanding against 3-point shooting all season. Counting Sunday's game, Oklahoma's opponents are shooting just 30.6 percent from behind the arc. The Sooners' sharpshooters may be gone, but the lessons learned against them in practice remain.
"That helps a lot, too, coming from a team that had four guys who hit the 3 consistently," Ashley Paris said of players like Higgins and Welsh. "And Big 12 play, also. There are a lot of teams out there that can hit the 3 pretty consistently, and I think that helped prepare us for a game like tonight."
It's true that a number of Illinois State's misses came on relatively uncontested shots that simply didn't go down, but even there, Oklahoma's defense might have played a role.
At one point in the second half, Kristi Cirone began to drive off a double screen from the top of the key, only to find herself several feet too close to midcourt to make any use of the assistance. Time and time again, Cirone, Maggie Krick, Tiffany Hudson and others had to spend a great deal of energy just getting the ball into position to initiate the offense.
To that end, Oklahoma's 3-point defense doesn't exist in a vacuum. The Sooners are also pretty stingy against conventional field goals. With Amanda Thompson, who collected four blocks, three steals and eight rebounds before fouling out late in the game, and Danielle Robinson, the Sooners have greater ability to apply the kind of pressure that makes opponents look as inelegant as Oklahoma itself sometimes looks with the ball.
"I don't think watching tapes is the same as actually playing against them in person," Pingeton said. "I don't think tape gives them enough credit for their athleticism or shows exactly how athletic they are."
What was on display Sunday was evidence of neither Oklahoma's impending run to the Final Four or its imminent departure from the bracket. It was a team with some good core attributes and some weaknesses that aren't likely to vanish in the next three weeks.
During their time in front of the microphones the day before the game, various Sooners talked about coming together and committing to the always popular notion of hard work. The first test of that resolve came earlier than some expected, but Illinois State wasn't a team anyone was going to blow out by 30 points.
"I think to the end, it held up our confidence," Plumley said of the close call. "Coming down and holding one another accountable for everything, making sure we're going to get that rebound if they miss a shot or making sure we get the ball into the right person who is going to make free throws."
Oklahoma held off Illinois State because the underdog that stuck with its strengths and played with a collective focus didn't catch the one or two breaks it needed. Whether in white or red, that's a blueprint Oklahoma could well use to make some noise of its own.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
Yes, OU still looks shaky. But the Sooners are learning to win with what strengths they have -- even if it means winning ugly.