OU rides resilience back to Final Four
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Little more than two weeks ago, the Oklahoma Sooners were just a couple of blocks away here in downtown KC not-so-successfully fighting back tears. Junior point guard Danielle Robinson acknowledged that all the emotion after a hard-fought 74-67 loss to Texas A&M in the Big 12 title game had to do with her team's senior class.
She had wanted very badly to send Amanda Thompson, Nyeshia Stevenson and Abi Olajuwon out with a league tournament title. After that game in old Municipal Auditorium, Robinson vowed she'd do whatever she could to avoid another disappointment.
Sixteen days later, at Kansas City's still-like-new Sprint Center, Robinson helped give the seniors something even better than a Big 12 title: another trip to the Final Four. Oklahoma's 88-68 victory over No. 4 seed Kentucky on Tuesday sends the Sooners back to the sport's ultimate showcase for the second season in a row, and the third time in program history.
Robinson did her part with 16 points, five rebounds and six assists. But the seniors also greatly helped themselves. Stevenson was the regional's most outstanding player, scoring 31 points. Thompson had 17 points and 14 rebounds, and it was the fire in her eyes that really sparked the Sooners, after they'd gotten off to a terrible start. Olajuwon had six points and three boards, but she had entered the regional title game as the team's top scorer in its three previous NCAA tournament contests.
"What a tremendous legacy already, and it's not over yet," coach Sherri Coale said. "But for these three seniors to guide their teams to back-to-back Final Fours, that puts us in a different league. Those three kids will forever be known as the first [at Oklahoma] to do that, and I love that for them.
"One of the reasons these kids have been so fun to coach [is] you can throw anything out there and they'll embrace it."
There was certainly a lot thrown at the Sooners this season. They knew they were losing Courtney and Ashley Paris to graduation, and had the summer to prepare for that. But Whitney Hand -- not just a great shooter but a vibrant personality -- being sidelined with a torn ACL in November was a big blow to the Sooners.
But they never really let that show. Coale said she could tell from the attitude in practice after Hand's injury that things were still going to be OK at Oklahoma.
"We just weren't satisfied with anyone seeing us as an underdog," Robinson said. "Courtney and Ashley left a huge impact on this program and women's basketball. Whitney going down -- it was hard to get up from that immediately. But over the course of the season, it was just our will to do it. Our whole key has been playing for each other.
"You know, Whitney is [not playing], but she's still a captain. She's still at practice every day. So we still had a special leader, and she's helped us throughout the whole season."
You could also say that several former Sooners, who haven't been there in practice, have helped, too. The Paris twins keep in constant contact with Olajuwon, who was getting messages from an ecstatic Courtney Paris on her cell phone moments after the victory Tuesday.
Olajuwon also mentioned that the Sooners who were on the first OU Final Four team in 2002, such as Stacey Dales and LaNeisha Caufield, sent encouragement to her during the season.
Another player from that 2002 team, Caton Hill, has inspired these Sooners with what she's doing now. Hill is an Army flight surgeon currently deployed in Afghanistan. And the player who really built the foundation for Coale's program, Phylesha Whaley, is an Army nurse now deployed in Iraq.
"It puts a fire in our hearts, what the players before us did," Stevenson said. "We know who they are even if we didn't play with them. We don't ever want to let them down."
Coale has tended to not dwell on the improbability of this group of Sooners replicating what last year's team did because she doesn't want them to think it was really all that improbable.
But she does readily acknowledge they had a lot to overcome, including in Tuesday's final against a spirited Kentucky team that had knocked off No. 1 seed Nebraska in the semifinals. The Wildcats got off to a blazing start against the Sooners, leading 15-2 just 5½ minutes into the game.
"I thought Oklahoma just really absorbed that initial blow with the attitude of coming back swinging," Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell said. "When you have veteran guards that are good as those kids are, they just keep going. And when they went to the zone, we did a really poor job of attacking that.
"There's a hundred things happening in the game, and we'll go back and watch the film and see what we could have done better. But that's my initial impression -- that they were able to keep their composure."
Even after viewing the video, it's a good bet that Mitchell will think the same thing of the Sooners. He will also see his junior star, Victoria Dunlap, playing hard to the finish with 31 points and 13 rebounds. For SEC Rookie of the Year A'dia Mathies, it was a tougher game; she was 4-of-14 from the field for nine points. Credit OU's perimeter defense for that.
Still, what Kentucky did to elevate its program -- the Wildcats finished 27-8 and made both their first SEC title game and first NCAA Elite Eight appearance since 1982 -- should not be lost in the Sooners' triumph and trip to the Final Four. This was a big year for Kentucky women's basketball, and with Dunlap and Mathies returning, there is a lot to look forward to next season in Lexington.
Mitchell said he sees Oklahoma as a program to emulate, and the Sooners certainly showed why Tuesday.
"We never took our eye off the prize, no matter what happened, who left, who got injured," Thompson said. "We knew we could still fight. We knew we had to double everything we did on the court, and everybody took responsibility for that."
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.
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