Oklahoma State perseveres through tragedy
Pretty soon, when he's done returning the 150 or so calls that choked his voice mail system, or maybe after he stares down carpal tunnel thanks to responding to the 200-plus text messages and another 80 or so emails, Jim Littell can take a break.
He needs one.
A season of tragedy ended in triumph last Saturday when the Oklahoma State women's basketball team won the WNIT championship.
"It's been hectic and all that," Littell admitted. "But it's also a sense of relief that we finished the job that we set out to do."
Hard to exhale, but Littell certainly should after what this team had to endure this season.
Hard to imagine after what this school has been through.
A November plane crash that killed OSU coach Kurt Budke, assistant
coach Miranda Serna and two others gave way to Budke's wife, Shelley,
smiling in front of more than 6,000 fans when she climbed the ladder and
sliced down the last strands of net.
The plane crash was the
second in a decade to kill members of the Oklahoma State basketball
family. The first was in January of 2001 when 10 people, including
players on the men's basketball team died coming home on a flight from
"We just need to celebrate what the players did," Littell said. "We need to take a week to enjoy and take a breath."
What they did was way more remarkable than 22-12 record indicates. An 8-10 Big 12 Conference record left the Cowgirls out of the NCAA Tournament. But six wins, all of them in Stillwater, Okla., made them the talk of the town and gained them national exposure.
The 75-68 victory over James Madison in the final wasn't just a championship, it was an accomplishment.
"After everything we've been through, it feels great to win our last game," Oklahoma State forward Toni Young told the OSU athletic website after the championship win. "A lot of teams don't get to win their last game. Coming off of a win and being able to honor our coaches feels great."
Littell was named interim coach on Nov. 17 and given the permanent job on Dec. 9. Teams all over the Big 12 Conference honored the fallen four all season by wearing patches on their jersey, but Littell and his team played for them.
"They're always on our minds and in the back of our head just always being there," guard Tiffany Bias told the OSU athletic website. "I think they were really watching out there on the floor."
The Cowgirls had a little more than 2,000 fans at their first-round NIT game. By the time the championship game rolled around, OSU played in front of its largest crowd of the season, with more than 6,000 fans inside Gallagher-Iba Arena.
"We started in November saying that we were going to pay honor to the four who died," Littell said. "Our players did that. We worked hard and handled some tragic and adverse conditions. They persevered. I think we might have been a team of destiny."
That's why Shelley Budke was on the court with the Cowgirls smiling and taking her piece of the net.
"We wouldn't have wanted it any other way," Littell said.
That's why the team was honored nationally by everyone from the Oklahoma City Thunder broadcasting crew, which congratulated the team over the airways, to Russell Athletic and the Women's Basketball Coaches Association, which picked the Cowgirls as the recipient of the inaugural Together We R Team Award, which highlights teams that strive to succeed in the face of adversity.
"We told our group it was just meant to be," Littell said.
Now, if Littell can just get back to returning all those calls and typing all those text messages, he could take it easy.
"I'm working on it," he said. "I'll get it done. I promise.
"I think it's time to take a break."