An emotionally exhausting nine days for the Oklahoma State Cowgirls ended Saturday with hugs, tears and a few smiles.
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In their first game since a plane crash killed coach Kurt Budke, assistant coach Miranda Serna and two others, the Cowgirls beat Coppin State 59-35 behind 17 points from Tiffany Bias.
The Cowgirls celebrated the victory by standing arm in arm on the floor and singing university’s alma mater with the crowd of 3,557. Interim coach Jim Littell and many of the players then pointed their index fingers toward the sky and went into the stands to hug Budke’s wife, Shelley, and other Budke family members, who attended the game and sat behind the home bench.
Their presence didn’t surprise Bias, a sophomore guard who wrote ”Serna” on one of her orange shoes and ”Budke” on the other.
”It just shows how much OSU is a family,” Bias said. ”That’s what the Budke family is. They’re a family, and we’re their extended family. No matter what the tragedy is . they are going to come out and support us.”
In the immediate wake of the Nov. 17 crash in Arkansas, Oklahoma State postponed home games last weekend against Grambling State and Texas-Arlington, but university officials decided to resume the Cowgirls’ schedule Saturday, five days after a memorial service for the victims inside Gallagher-Iba Arena.
”It’s the best therapy we could have,” university President Burns Hargis said of the Cowgirls’ return to the court. ”I just think the whole OSU family came together wonderfully. It’s not going to be easy. There are going to be a lot of tough times ahead . but if we pull together, we’ll figure out a way to get through this.”
Littell guided Oklahoma State (2-0) against Coppin State (1-3), and the Cowgirls made it easy on him, as he never so much as had to call a timeout. The Cowgirls have won 55 of their last 56 nonconference home games.
”I thought today got much deeper than just the basketball part of it,” Littell said. ”I thought we had a chance to pay honor today, and I was very, very proud of our kids. I was very, very proud of our coaches.
”I just told our players that I’ve been fortunate over the years to be surrounded by a lot of good players and have a lot of success. I’ve never been more proud of a group than I was today.”
Littell called the game ”a step” for the Cowgirls. ”They’ve gone through a big, big tragedy, but it’s much, much deeper than a basketball game.”
Sophomore guard Jenni Bryan said since the deaths of Budke and Serna, players have been trying to practice hard and control their emotions.
”There’s not one specific kind of emotion you feel,” Bryan said. ”It changes minute to minute.”
Littell said he’s had to remind the Cowgirls that ”it’s OK to smile, it’s OK to laugh out there, it’s OK to show positive emotion. That’s not disrespectful.”
University officials tried to make Saturday’s game as normal as possible, but there were reminders of Budke, Serna and the other two crash victims, former state Sen. Olin Branstetter and his wife, Paula, on display throughout the arena.
The Cowgirls wore patches with the number ”4” on it. Coppin State players wore orange T-shirts emblazoned with the number ”4” during warm-ups and many of the Eagles wore orange headbands or ribbons. Coppin State coach Derek Brown and his assistants all wore orange ribbons on their lapels.
In one arena lobby, a bouquet of orange and white flowers and a basketball balloon were placed next to a memorial for the 10 men connected with Oklahoma State’s men’s basketball program who died in a plane crash in Colorado in January 2001. In another lobby, fans signed memory banners, one of which hung from a wall.
The Branstetters’ regular seats in the arena were adorned with orange-and-black ribbons and a fan across the court held a sign reading ”We Will Never 4Get.”
The Cowgirls received a standing ovation when they came out to the court for pregame warm-ups, and again before the game itself.
Public address announcer Larry Reece stuck to the usual routine for pregame introductions until after the playing of the national anthem. While requesting a standing ovation for Budke, Serna and the Branstetters, Reece asked fans to honor the four ”not with a moment of silence but with a tribute for winning.” The crowd stood and roared its approval.
After Vicky McIntyre scored the Cowgirls’ first basket, she pointed skyward as she ran back down the court.
Oklahoma State closed the first half with a 20-2 run to take a 34-14 lead at the break. The Eagles came no closer than 19 the rest of the way.
Jeanine Manley led Coppin State with 12 points. The Eagles shot 19 percent from the field (11 of 58) while Oklahoma State shot 32.8 percent (22 of 67).
Littell improved to 514-100 as a college coach, including a 418-61 mark at Seward County (Kan.) Community College and 95-39 at Friends (Kan.), a four-year NAIA university. He joined Budke as the Cowgirls’ associate head coach when Budke took the head-coaching job at Oklahoma State in 2005.