BY JOHN ROHDE
Feb. 25, 2017
Reaching this year’s Final Four would be a lengthy journey in terms of achievement for the Oklahoma women’s basketball team, but it could end up being a ridiculously short trek in terms of actual miles traveled.
- Big 12 Women’s Basketball Championship at Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City (March 3-6) – 23.7 miles
- Possible NCAA First/Second Round at Lloyd Noble Center in Norman (March 17-20) – 0 miles
- Possible NCAA Regional at Chesapeake Energy Arena (March 24-26) – 23.7 miles
- NCAA Final Four at American Airlines Center in Dallas (March 31 and April 2) – 187.0 miles.
On the four most important weekends of the season, if everything falls into place, OU’s road to the 2017 Final Four would require traveling just 234.4 total miles (one-way).
First and second round sites won’t be revealed until the NCAA Division I Women’s Basketball Championship Selection Show airs at 6 p.m. on March 13, but all other locales were determined long before the 2016-17 season commenced.
The Sooners knew precisely where their postseason schedule potentially could take them. Head coach Sherri Coale didn’t need to draw it up on a dry erase board. No need for Google Maps.
While some teams might refuse to acknowledge that such a favorable tournament road might await them in March, this year’s postseason possibilities have been discussed among OU players throughout the season, and with Coale’s blessing.
“How are you going to keep them from it?” Coale said of her team’s private bracketology. “They’re smart kids.”
After missing three games, Maddie Manning returned to action on Feb. 21 at K-State. The Ankeny, Iowa, native is second on the team in scoring and rebounding.
Guard Peyton Little chuckled, and then came clean. “Oh, it is absolutely spoken about,” Little said. “The Final Four is in Dallas and we could host the first two (NCAA) rounds? We speak about it every day.”
Fellow guard Maddie Manning added, “We talk about it all the time because that’s the goal. We’re not looking ahead, but that’s the goal. I have complete confidence we’ll get there.”
The Sooners know where their team bus potentially could take them throughout March, but Coale stresses her team must be careful not to start that bus too soon.
“I love the way the (postseason) sets up,” Coale said, “but at the same time, you’ve still got to be the best team. You’ve got to go play. It doesn’t matter what the bracket is. You have to go play a 40-minute game. It’s a nice, little frame that they’ve put together, but you’ve still got to go do the work every game. There are a lot of good teams that will stand between us and being able to travel those 200-whatever miles.”
The Sooners have two regular-season games remaining – at TCU (12-15 overall; 4-12 in Big 12) on Saturday and at home against No. 4 Baylor (26-2; 15-1) on Monday. Both games start at 7 p.m. CT.
It remains to be seen whether Monday will be OU’s final home game, but the Sooners currently own a 21-7 record overall, a 12-4 mark in conference play, have secured no worse than the No. 3 seed for the Big 12 tournament and could move up to No. 2 with a little help from Texas.
The No. 16 Sooners are in position to host NCAA First/Second Round games at Lloyd Noble Center for the first time since 2012. From that point forward, all that matters is whether OU is able to survive and advance. It appears the Sooners’ best chance to play at Chesapeake Energy Arena is to raise themselves to a No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
This year’s success represents more of the same for Coale, who last June was inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame.
In 21 seasons under Coale, the Sooners are on the cusp of their 18th consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance, an active streak that ranks fifth nationally behind Tennessee (36), Stanford (30), UConn (29) and Notre Dame (22). Since 2002, only five programs have advanced to more Final Fours than the Sooners (2002, 2009, 2010) – UConn with 12 appearances, Tennessee and Stanford with six each, and Notre Dame and LSU with five each.
As impressive as her resume is, Coale said she never brings up the past while competing in the present. “It’s not about anything but how you play, so that’s what we talk about all the time,” Coale said. “Tradition isn’t going to get you a national championship. It’s ‘What are you guys going to do?’”
When February arrived, OU’s record was 16-6 overall and its hopes of becoming an NCAA First/Second Round host were shaky at best.
Peyton Little’s go-ahead 3-pointer gave Oklahoma its seventh-straight win over Texas at home and their first victory over a top-10 opponent this season.
On Jan. 29, the Sooners lost 92-58 at No. 2 Baylor. OU led 20-15 after the first quarter, but was outscored 77-38 thereafter. The Sooners were outscored 60-26 in the paint, 27-7 off turnovers and 30-16 off the bench.
“It was embarrassing,” junior guard Gabbi Ortiz recalled. “Our thing was to be able to start games well, to be able to punch somebody. Early in the season, we were struggling with punching somebody. We were able to come back and finish it, but we weren’t starting games well. We started well at Baylor, but didn’t finish the job.”
Coale expounded on Ortiz’ remarks and said, “One thing that has defined us from the very beginning of the year is we fight back. If we get in a corner, by golly, we’re not going to quit. We’re not going to go away. We’re going to fight back. That’s just part of our DNA. Early in the year we talked about building an identity that wasn’t just about fighting back.
“You build toward that and you couple it with what already is a part of you … How do you then answer the counter-punch that a really great team is going to give at that point? We’re used to getting the punch, but not the counter-punch. You can argue that it’s splitting hairs, but I think the difference between being good and great is figuring out how to handle all those little time periods, all those little adjustments.”
Three days after the Baylor loss – actually three mornings after – the Sooners hosted Kansas in a 10:30 a.m. start for the third annual Sooner Jr. Fan Field Trip Day. OU’s 89-52 domination of the Jayhawks on Feb. 1 started a five-game winning streak that was capped with a scintillating 74-73 home victory over No. 8 Texas last Saturday.
With 2.0 seconds remaining against the Longhorns, Little drained a 3-pointer from the right corner off an in-bound pass to give OU a 73-70 lead. The Sooners handed Texas its first Big 12 loss of the season and snapped the Longhorns’ 19-game winning streak.
Asked if it was the biggest victory of her OU career, Little said, “That’s probably the best one, right up there with beating Baylor (68-64 two years ago in Norman), I’d say. It was an amazing atmosphere, an awesome game and no better way to end it, beating them on our home court.”
Even more impressive, three wins during the streak came without Manning, who was sidelined after suffering an MCL sprain in the fourth quarter of a 66-60 victory at Oklahoma State on Feb. 4. Senior guard T’ona Edwards also was sidelined three straight games with a back injury.
“You can’t control it and we knew we had to move on,” Ortiz said of losing Manning and Edwards. “We needed to pick the extra slack because Maddie does a ton of things. It was all of us really coming together and understanding. It showed us how much we can do, even with players out.”
Manning, who suffered torn ACLs in back-to-back seasons as a freshman and redshirt freshman, had to admire the view from the bench. “Oh, my gosh. It made me so excited to see them step up in the leadership roles and in so many different areas,” Manning said.
Coale admitted Manning is her team’s best all-round player, primarily because she’s their best all-around leader. “I love her leadership presence,” Coale said of Manning. “She’s also got a really good basketball mind. She can get us into things quickly and can make little changes on the floor in terms of matchups, running this play this direction instead of that direction.”
Manning is a Swiss Army knife. She is 6-foot-2, primarily plays the No. 4 position, yet is listed as a guard.
“Pretty tricky, huh?” Coale said with her recognizable laugh.
In Big 12 play, the Sooners have four players averaging double-digits in scoring. Despite having yet to start a conference game, junior center Vionise Pierre-Louis leads the team in scoring (14.2), rebounding (8.3), field-goal percentage (.527) and is tied for the lead in blocked shots (37).
“She is a beast in the paint,” Manning affectionately said of Pierre-Louis. “All of us have confidence she’s going to score the ball. She really stepped up in the time I was out and I think that’s going to make our team that much better going forward.”
Little said of the 6-foot-4 Pierre-Louis: “She’s a dominating post. When we throw her the ball, we know she’s going to score. If you want to make a run late in the tournament, you’ve got to have an inside and outside game. She gives us that.”
Coale might have permitted her team to sneak a peek at the NCAA Tournament bracket, but has not allowed her players to dwell on the onslaught of adversity they have had to overcome this season.
Some issues have been private family matters, which included Edwards’ grandmother and mother passing away a month apart in December and January. Other obstacles have been self-evident, such as multiple injuries to key players. In addition to Manning and Edwards, junior center McKenna Treece has maintained day-to-day status essentially all season with a nagging hip injury.
“That’s the good thing with us,” Ortiz said of her team’s attitude. “I don’t think we ever had that (doomed) outlook. You could sit back and think, ‘Wow, why are so many things happening to us? The odds are against us.’ I think because we haven’t done that, we’ve been able to overcome it all. We won some big games with both of them (Manning and Edwards) out.”
Manning echoed Ortiz’ remarks and said, “You don’t let yourself go there mentally. You don’t to let yourself feel like the victim. You take them as they come. Like life, they seem to come in bunches. We’ve dealt with so much adversity this year, and we just bounce back every time. That’s something that gave me confidence coming back. It allowed me to take my time and heal because I knew they were going to take care of the court for me.”
Little said experience has played a key role to this year’s perseverance. “We have a bunch of seniors on this team and we’ve been through the some tough seasons of not performing to the best of our abilities,” Little said. “Now we know. We set ourselves up for the kind of season we’ve had so far. We knew the team we were capable of being.”
This year’s OU roster has six seniors – including two redshirt seniors in Manning and Little – plus four juniors.
Without that experience, could the Sooners’ record possibly be anywhere close to 21-7 at this point?
“There’s no telling what our record would be,” Coale said. “I think maturity is the only way you can sort through whatever road blocks are thrown in your path. I think it’s really, really hard for immature teams to navigate all that.”