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No. 16 Sooners plugging along despite injuries

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NORMAN, Okla. (AP)

It's 45 minutes before game time, and Sherri Coale's full complement of players are out in pregame warmups for No. 16 Oklahoma.

Out on one side of the court, between the painted area and 3-point line, Lyndsey Cloman is wearing high heels and a dressy pink shirt, bouncing passes in to teammates along the lane. Kaylon Williams occupies the same spot on the opposite side, a medical boot protecting her left foot.

Near midcourt, team captain Whitney Hand is keeping an eye on the action, a brace stretching from thigh to ankle on her left leg.

None of them will play in this game or any other one the rest of this season for the Sooners, an unfortunate cluster of injuries dealing a 1-2 punch during training camp and then returning for another couple blows in an eight-day span shortly after Thanksgiving.

Yet Oklahoma is hardly down and out.

The Sooners (14-2) who are left are taking on heavier minutes, picking up the slack however they can while rolling out to a 4-0 start in the rugged Big 12 Conference and headed toward a 14th straight NCAA tournament trip.

''I'm not surprised. I love these guys,'' Coale said. ''I'm proud of them. I'm happy about it. We've got a lot of room for growth, a lot of improvement to make. I just love their spirit. I love the way they fight together and their belief in one another and in themselves.''

Still waiting for the official word on Hand's injury that occurred during a win against North Texas on Dec. 6, Coale guaranteed that her remaining players would ''fight their tails off'' to make the most of the season. Unfortunately, she didn't need to wait for doctors to tell her Hand had torn her anterior cruciate ligament.

She's seen it enough over the years, a painful part of women's basketball. Hand had torn her other ACL a few years earlier, and WNBA-bound point guard Danielle Robinson, Jasmine Hartman and Cloman are just a few of the Sooners she's seen go down in recent years. Just eight days earlier, freshman Maddie Manning tore her ACL in practice shortly after she'd moved into the starting lineup.

The Sooners had already seen Williams rupture her Achilles tendon in training camp and Cloman give up the game after rehabbing to get back from her own knee injury, then dealing with back problems. Their resolve would be tested even more without their second-leading scorer (12.1 ppg) and top rebounder (7.5 rpg).

''I think all of us believed it and that's really what matters,'' Hook said. ''It doesn't matter about the outside. It matters inside the core, and we all believed it.''

The next game was a loss to Vanderbilt, but the Sooners followed that with six straight wins. In a 65-55 victory against Texas Tech on Saturday night, starters Aaryn Ellenberg and Hook each played the full 40 minutes. In four conference games, the fewest either one of them has played is 36.

''Everyone needs to be 2 percent better every night,'' Hook said. ''You can't come out and have a bad night because we don't have that many players to just rotate in. I think it is just us coming out and playing every night. Every single one of us has to have our mind right.''

Even with everyone healthy, the Sooners would have faced a challenge unseating top-ranked Baylor - the defending national champions, with all five starters back from last season's 40-0 run - as the top team in the Big 12. But they've shown no signs of giving up the fight.

''I think it helps us confidence-wise because although we did those lose those important people to our team, all the other guys on our team have stepped up and been a little bit better versions of themselves,'' Ellenberg said. ''This is a tough league. People are dropping day in and day out.

''Just to come out 4-0 like that, it shows other people as well that we're going to be tough to beat down the road.''

With just eight scholarship players left, little bits of Hand's all-around game have been picked up by her healthy teammates. In the seven games since Hand was hurt, Ellenberg is averaging 23 points. Joanna McFarland has moved into the starting lineup and is averaging 10.9 rebounds, after matching her career best with 16 against Texas Tech.

Hook, while never getting a breather, was charged with pushing the pace and did it superbly in a game-changing 14-2 run that put Oklahoma ahead for good. She had assists to McFarland on a pair of layups and a 3-pointer during the stretch, the two offering each other glowing smiles and high-fives.

The good times are that much sweeter now.

''I think it's just our togetherness and how much fun we have together, and just what we know we're capable of even if Whitney Hand does go out,'' Hook said. ''Next year, she's not going to be here with us either. I think it's a confidence in our minds of what we know we're capable of and how far we can go.''

Who knows how far that will be? A couple tough tests are ahead in the next 10 days, with a trip to No. 25 Iowa State on Wednesday night and a visit to the No. 1 Bears a week later.

''All the adversity that we have faced has made us even tighter,'' McFarland said. ''Our chemistry is even better because we have a lot of leadership on the sideline now. I think we're all just playing for all those people who can't. ... We're just trying to make a stand.''

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