Oklahoma women tied for first in Big 12

NORMAN, Okla. (AP) Oklahoma struggled through its non-conference schedule. The Sooners, however, have been a powerhouse during Big 12 play.

The transformation happened gradually as veteran players became comfortable with expanded roles and newcomers grew familiar with their teammates. Now, a squad that started the season by losing five of its first 10 games is tied with Baylor for the conference lead heading into Saturday’s home game against Texas Tech.

”We kind of found ourselves, and we were sitting down and we just got real with ourselves,” center Kaylon Williams said. ”We ultimately got to know who each other were, and so, in doing that, it gave me more of a reason to play for them and our coaches as well. We all made it a want-to thing and grabbed ahold at Christmas break, and we locked arms, and we’ve been busting through walls since then.”

Coach Sherri Coale said the signs that better days were ahead were clear, even when the Sooners (12-5, 6-0 Big 12) lost three straight to Arkansas-Little Rock, Duke and Arkansas.

”We weren’t really all that far away when we were losing some games,” she said. ”It’s just players concentrating, focused, being finite, and everybody really believing in each other.”

Oklahoma leads the Big 12 with 75.8 points per game and tops in the league with .473 shooting from the field. The Sooners have six players averaging at least 6.6 points per game in league play.

”Whoever’s got the hot hand, the rest of us are giving you the ball,” Williams said. ”Go show the world, and we’ve got you in the background. If you miss, we’ve got the rebound.”

Gioya Carter, a sophomore guard, leads the team and ranks second in the Big 12 with 17.3 points per game in league play. She’s shooting 54 percent from the field in Big 12 games, an outstanding stat for a 5-9 guard, and she’s shooting a league-best 62 percent from 3-point range. Coale attributes Carter’s improvement to a better understanding of the game, which has translated to better decision making.

”You have to play at the speed that is appropriate for you,” Coale said. ”Gioya is a fantastic athlete, super explosive, but she had to slow the game down in her mind so she could ascertain what’s in front of her. The moment that she did that, she began to be decisive, and then it was this wave of trust – self-trust – that she rode, and is still riding, and now, it’s spilling over to other members of the team.”

Williams, a 6-foot-3 junior, struggled before averaging 13.5 points and 7.7 rebounds per game in conference play. She tore an Achilles tendon before the 2012-13 season and redshirted, then came back and was a reserve for most of the year, averaging 7.0 points and 4.2 rebounds. This season, she is one of the Big league’s top scorers, and her field goal percentage (64) in league games leads the Big 12.

”I don’t necessarily think I’m a different player, I just think I finally unlocked that player,” she said.

Freshman point guard Gabbi Ortiz has impressed her teammates with her command of the game and the team.

”She’s a hard-nosed kid,” Carter said. ”She’s savvy. I just admire her so much because I didn’t have that as a freshman. She’s confident. I wouldn’t want anyone else to run the team.”

Oklahoma won 10 conference regular-season and tournament titles in the 2000s, but the Sooners haven’t won one since 2009. Williams wants to change that and make it what she remembers from her childhood days in Midwest City, Oklahoma.

”That is the goal, is to get a conference championship,” Williams said. ”It’s been a while since we cut down a net and brought a trophy back to Oklahoma. We’re really just trying to get the Oklahoma basketball that all of us had seen growing up – we’re really trying to bring that back. We want to experience it for ourselves.”

Follow Cliff Brunt on Twitter: www.twitter.com/CliffBruntAP