OU goes out fighting
Sooners overcome injuries and long odds for memorable run to San Antonio
SAN ANTONIO -- This wasn't the game Oklahoma wanted to play in the Final Four, a realization etched painfully across the faces of Sherri Coale, Danielle Robinson and Amanda Thompson as they met the media after a 73-66 loss to Stanford ended their season.
The Sooners started slowly, defended tentatively and shot as if they couldn't have hit water if they had fallen out of one of the boats traversing the River Walk district.
All four teams struggled Sunday shooting against the backdrop of the Alamodome, combining to hit just nine of 56 3-pointers and 39 percent of shots overall. But no team endured 20 minutes like Oklahoma did in the opening stanza of the first game. The Sooners took 32 shots and watched the ball slip through the net just eight times.
Eventually down by as many as 18 points midway through the second half, Oklahoma rallied because, well, that's what Oklahoma did this season. But the charge that saw the Sooners outscore the Cardinal 23-12 over the final 407 seconds wasn't enough to make up for the damage done during the first 1,993 seconds.
Credit Stanford's defense for some of that, perhaps even most of that. Told all week how they might prove their own team's undoing against such a quick Oklahoma backcourt, Jeannette Pohlen and Rosalyn Gold-Onwude played stellar, if statistic-light, basketball. They took care of the ball on offense and until Robinson's late scoring binge, largely locked down both Oklahoma's All-American and Nyeshia Stevenson on defense.
As Coale noted, the Sooners still had a chance to win this game in the closing minutes. Down three with 46 seconds to play, they needed just one stop to earn a chance to complete the comeback and push the game toward overtime, a place they had already gone four times without a loss this season. They couldn't get there; couldn't find a way to stop Nnemkadi Ogwumike from getting position in the post and drawing a foul with 21 seconds left. Couldn't find Ogwumike at all after another Robinson basket once again cut the lead to three with 16 seconds left, letting Stanford's sophomore sprint unopposed to the other end for the last of her 38 points.
No, it wasn't the game the Sooners wanted to play after reaching the Final Four for the second year in a row, and the third time under Coale's watch. But that they had a chance to play it at all says more about the season to remember than a game to forget.
Oklahoma wasn't the better team in this game, which separated it from a number of games this season only in that the Sooners played like it for most of the night. There's no need to rewrite history to suggest Oklahoma was some sort of miracle; Coale's team did have an All-American in Robinson, a tremendous all-around forward in Thompson, a shooter in Stevenson and a post presence in Olajuwon. And it won 11 games in the toughest league in the country this season.
But from the moment Whitney Hand went down with a season-ending injury in the fifth game, for a team already adjusting to life without Courtney and Ashley Paris and short-handed after the offseason transfers of Jenna Plumley and Jenny Vining, this was a team that proved to be more than the sum of its parts with each successive win. Oklahoma didn't shoot well Sunday, yes, But at least relative to the rest of the field in San Antonio, Oklahoma didn't shoot well all season. Yet it beat Baylor twice, gave Connecticut arguably its biggest scare of the regular season and found itself within a 3-pointer of tying Stanford in the final minute of a national semifinal.
And while Robinson was the star, Thompson, Stevenson and Olajuwon didn't just avoid shrinking from the spotlight cast on them when the Paris sisters left. This season's seniors embraced their place atop the playbill.
"All along, we've had these special seniors, people who don't want their season to be a flop," Hand said. "[They] just want to be special. They're not scared of that. They're not scared of the last-second shot or scared of losing. They just want to win."
It takes players to win championships, something on display all weekend in San Antonio with the justified hype surrounding Brittney Griner and Baylor's future, and something that will be on display again Tuesday night when Maya Moore and Tina Charles battle Ogwumike, Jayne Appel and Kayla Pedersen. It took a star in Ogwumike for Stanford to pull out Sunday's semifinal. But it's not without note that Oklahoma -- which might have one star but certainly lacks a star-studded roster -- made it here.
It is not all about talent with Connecticut and Stanford, nor was it with Baylor, but it's easy to gloss over that when marveling at their stars. There's no glossing over what Coale and her team did this season.
"Stacey Dales and LaNeisha Caufield and Caton Hill will forever be the class that took us to our first Final Four, and these guys will be the first ever to take us to back-to-back," Coale said. "But I think even more than that, these seniors have restored everything that is Oklahoma basketball. And I don't know if 'restore' is the right word, but they have grown and they've figured out over the course of their four years what it means to play hard all the time, what it means to sell out and be a great teammate, what it means to commit to the process of getting better."
Oklahoma could have won Sunday, but it shouldn't have. There is no dishonor in coming up short against a better team, even if the memory of so many early shots coming up short makes that difficult to believe.
"We've overcome a lot," Thompson said. "I mean, we've been -- over time, we've lost players. We've done it all. We've brought it together. And Abi, she didn't play for three years and had the best year of her life. Nyeshia a year ago wouldn't have took the shots that she took this year. She knocked down some big ones here to bring us to the Final Four. We've just all fought, man. And where we've come from, nobody can take that from us."
This wasn't the game Oklahoma wanted, but it was the season it deserved.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.