- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
- 0 Shares
Oklahoma coach Sherri Coale has a gift for saying the most profound things in the simplest, most elegant terms. One thing she said a few years back is something that sticks because it will stay true as long as there is competition.
Coale says a coach looks at some players and says, "I think that's someone who can win a lot of games." And that's a great thing. But of others, a smaller pool, a coach says, "I think that's someone who can win championships."
You might say, "What's the difference? Don't you have to win a lot of games to win championships?" Indeed, you do but there is that ephemeral quality that exists in sports -- the ability, when faced with pressure, to wear a grin, not a grimace. That can be the difference-maker on the way to a championship.
Oklahoma freshman Whitney Hand, a guard out of Fort Worth, Texas, has the kind of grin that fills her face like that of a 5-year-old seeing a puppy. And it's as contagious as it spontaneous, proof that a positive personality is almost like a kind of electric current that everyone can plug into.
Everyone who's on her side, that is. And in Oklahoma -- well, outside of those recalcitrant Oklahoma State fans who just can't possibly bring themselves to ever root for anything "Sooners" -- that would be everybody in the state now as OU's women head to the Final Four.
Coale said before this season started that Hand would be all that and a festive plate of nachos for her team, and of course she was right.
Hand is likely the person who would get off a new roller-coaster called "The Ultimate Up-Chucker" and while everyone else was wobbling, staggering and getting ready to confirm the ride's name, she would be beaming.
"Oh, my gosh, that was such a blast," Hand would say at her 95 mph talking speed. "Can we ride it again? Now?"
(Note: Uh, I just made this up I don't know of any roller-coaster named that, but of course there are two identical ones in Virginia and North Carolina, both called "The Hurler.")
What makes Hand the kind of player whom fans love to watch and teammates love to play with is her attitude that no matter how high the pressure, it's still fun.
"I feel like it relaxes everybody," teammate Amanda Thompson said. "A lot of times, you get so tense."
The situation Tuesday night at the Ford Center in Oklahoma City was tense. Purdue, a program of great tradition and an iron will, was not a No. 6 seed. Not really. On this night, the Boilermakers were standing toe-to-toe with top seed Oklahoma in a fight to get to the Final Four.
The Sooners trailed at halftime, and the weight of expectations -- not just their own, but those of the 11,000-plus fans in attendance -- could have become excessively burdensome.
And then, three minutes into the second half, Hand hit a 3-pointer and turned to teammate Nyeshia Stevenson with that big smile. Not just like a 5-year-old seeing a puppy.
Like a 5-year-old seeing a whole wagon full of puppies.
"When she smiles like that, it makes you want to hit a 3-pointer, too," Thompson said. "The atmosphere is better when she smiles like that."
But Hand has brought more to the Sooners than just her personality. She is averaging 9.1 points and 2.9 rebounds for OU, and if there were an official stat kept for diving after the ball, she would lead the team in it.
When Hand fractured a finger on her left (non-shooting) hand on Feb. 21, she was not scared about potentially not being able to come back and play as well as she had.
"I think it was more a frustration than being afraid," she said. "It was having to let my body heal and watch my teammates do their thing. Everybody can do it; it's not like I have to be out there."
No, she doesn't have to be on the court for the Sooners to win, but it sure helps. They lost the first game she missed, at Texas A&M on Feb. 23. She returned for the Big 12 tournament, but didn't make a shot in the Sooners' two games there.
Then in the NCAA tournament opener against Prairie View, Hand was 2-of-13 from the field, with both of those makes being 3-pointers.
"I never really felt like I lost my stroke," she said. "I just thought it would take some getting used to with the splint. In the first round, even though I shot 2-of-13, I felt good. I was hoping they wouldn't guard me so I could keep shooting."
She was 5-of-9 against Georgia Tech, 7-of-11 for a game-high 22 points against Pitt, and then 3-of-12 against Purdue. All three of those made shots against the Boilermakers were 3-pointers and came in the second half, when Oklahoma turned momentum in its favor.
"I think it was just an attitude [in the second half] of attacking them and to stop being nervous," Hand said. "To go with the moment."
That's one of the lessons Hand learned from her father, Rich Hand, who pitched four seasons in the early 1970s in the major leagues. His baseball career ended before Whitney was born, but he has been there every step of her life for guidance.
Rich, a native of Washington state, said that basketball actually always has been his favorite sport. He was a guard for his hoops team at the University of Puget Sound, then played baseball for the Indians, Rangers and Angels.
"We've got a big family -- she has one brother and four sisters," Rich said. "And if you're in an athletic family, there's competition for you every single day. She was always playing with older kids, and we had some knock-down, drag-out backyard games."
Growing up, Whitney was typically put on the same basketball team as her sister Jordyn, who is 2 years older.
"We didn't separate them," Rich said of the decision made by him and wife Susan. "I never told Whitney that because she was younger, she was at any disadvantage. So she never thought that way. She had to learn and compete at that level -- and she learned a lot from that.
"She's got a competitive spirit that she really loves the game. And you can see that when she plays. Not a lot of kids take the pressure and still enjoy it as they're playing. But she does."
Whitney said her father taught her a great deal about competition, including that you should grab an opportunity with both hands when it's in front of you. It might not come again.
"One of the main things he's told me is that everybody in life has defining moments," she said. "And this is one of them for me, going to the Final Four. It's something that might happen once in a lifetime, and when people are in big moments, you have to give it everything you have.
"I think I looked up at the clock [near the end of Tuesday's game], and it was just a realization, 'You dream of this when you're a child, shooting millions of shots to make a Final Four.' And we did it. It's one of the coolest things ever."
For Rich, it has been about nurturing something that he knew would either take root or not, depending on Whitney's aptitude, commitment and decisions.
"It's hard to describe for a parent, because at some point your influence stops," he said. "What happens is that kids start owning their own dream. If the training has been good and solid, when they start owning it, it becomes their energy and their focus and their belief. When that happens, a parent sits back and says, 'How well did I do?'
"I'm at a point now where my influence is marginal compared to the coaching staff, and I get to sit and enjoy it without the pressure. She's been a blessing as a kid, a wonderful breath of fresh air, I think, as a teammate."
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com/.
Whitney Hand's positive personality and potent 3-pointers often relax Oklahoma. And that's just what the Sooners need at the pressure-packed Final Four.