OKLAHOMA CITY – Starting guard Morgan Hook left the game not even halfway into the first half and didn’t return.
Seems about right, yet it seems totally wrong the Oklahoma women’s basketball season would end the same way it started.
“Really? Serioulsy? After everything, now we’re going to drop one in the Sweet 16,” OU coach Sherri Coale said.
That’s the way it went for the Sooners this year, overwhelmed by injuries and then overwhelmed by Tennessee Sunday afternoon, 74-59 inside Oklahoma City’s Chesapeake Arena.
Yet in between the four season-ending injuries that pared the Oklahoma roster down so significantly Coale was forced to bring on a pair of volleyball players to fill out the team all the way up to Sunday’s loss, the Sooners went on to win 24 games, including two in the tournament that sent Oklahoma back to the Sweet 16 for the sixth time in the past eight seasons.
“I am incredibly proud of our basketball team,” Coale said. “These guys have done amazing things this season against really unbelievable odds. To lose Mo in the first 9 minutes, for us to keep fighting, just depicts the character of this team.” Really, the Sooners likely maxed out when it came to wins, despite minimized talent.
OU lost sophomore starting forward Kaylon Williams before the season started with an Achilles injury. Junior center Lundsey Clomon never played at all this season, due to a back injury and freshman guard Maddie Manning tore her ACL in the preseason. But when senior guard Whitney Hand, the team leader on the court and in the lockerroom, was lost to an ACL injury in December, it just seemed like too much to overcome.
Instead, OU played their way to an 11-7 record in the Big 12 Conference an then playing their way to a pair of wins in the NCAA Tournament, including beating No. 11-ranked UCLA in the second round.
“What a ride they took us all on,” Coale said. “They were unbelievable. I got to be a part of it.”
That’s probably why the Sooners left the court to a standing ovation, waving to the “Home” crowd and fighting through tears.
Really, no amount of any home-crowd advantage would have helped the Sooners Sunday. Tennessee was taller and faster and just better. You know the first part of the state championship game in the movie “Hoosiers” where the good guys from Hickory High were overmatched? It was kind of like that.
Tennessee shot 53 percent in the first half while the Sooners shot 28 percent. Tennessee made nine of its first 13 shots while OU’s Aaryn Ellenberg was just 1-of-13 in the first half.
Sometimes it doesn’t work out. Sometimes it’s too much to overcome when your floor leader and point guard gets hit in the head by a rogue knee and spends the better part of 30 game minutes on the bench.
“You got to find a way,” said sophomore guard Sharane Campbell, who did her part with 22 points. “That’s the only answer. You can’t panic. We still had basically the whole first and second half to go. I mean, if anything, play hard for her. She doesn’t want you to feel sad.”
The Sooners did play inspired, they just didn’t play well enough. OU got a 17-point halftime deficit down to 12 and then had a handful of consecutive looks to get a bit closer. Didn’t happen.
“We had ourselves right there,” Coale said. “We got stops. We got exactly the looks that we wanted and they just didn’t go in. Would love to know how the story might have been different had we made a couple of those open shots.”
But really the story would have been a lot different had some of those injured Sooners been healthy. A few more shots would have gone in. A few more losses might have been wins. The ending could have changed.
“I would love to be going to New Orleans to play in the Final Four,” Coale said. “The thing that makes me most sad is we don’t have practice tomorrow.”