WACO, Texas — Senior forward Joanna McFarland had an interesting comment after practice this week, a few days before the 20th-ranked Oklahoma women were to meet No. 1 Baylor, who they meet at 11 a.m. today at Ferrell Center.
“We know how to play them,” she said. “We’ve played them so many times.”
The question put to her dealt with the phenomenon that often exists for opponents of dominant programs, who instead of bringing their best game to such matchups, frequently bring their worst.
The second part of McFarland’s answer was correct. The Sooners and Lady Bears have met seven times over the last three seasons. The first part of her answer, however, was not.
OU last topped Baylor in 2010, the last time coach Sherri Coale (and then-point guard Danielle Robinson) led the Sooners to the Final Four.
That season, OU fell 57-47 in Waco, prevailed 62-60 in overtime in Norman and triumphed 59-54 at the Big 12 tournament championship game in Kansas City.
Since, OU has been competitive in only one of four meetings, an 82-81 home-court victory in 2011. In the other three, the Sooners have fallen by 22, 31 and 27 points to the Lady Bears.
Perhaps more bothersome, reigning national player of the year Brittney Griner, the first-of-her-kind 6-foot-8 Baylor center has actually played bigger games in losses to OU than in victories.
At Lloyd Noble Center three seasons ago, the then-freshman Griner charted 17 points, 12 rebounds and 11 blocked shots. In Kansas City a short time later, Griner finished with 18 points, six rebounds and 10 blocks. In three Baylor victories since, Griner has not even accumulated a double-double, much less a triple-double.
Indeed, evidence suggests the Lady Bears’ intimidation factor upon the Sooners has been high.
The only Sooner clearly unaffected by the Baylor’s aura last season was Whitney Hand, who scored 39 points and grabbed 13 rebounds in two meetings, but who will be on the bench today in street clothes and a knee brace.
Still, there are reasons OU should walk out for the tip a confident team this morning. The Sooners will have had a week of practice uninterrupted by any opponent. Their only bye week of the conference season, they were able to go back to work on themselves this week before turning the page toward Baylor.
They should be ready.
Still, Coale knows there can be a gulf between “should be” and “will be” when it comes to facing opponents like the Lady Bears.
“Step No. 1 is you can’t beat yourself. You can’t have the game over with before you step on the floor, and that’s always the biggest challenge, regardless of what kind of tradition your program has,” she said. “When you see a team at the top of the rankings, when you go take the floor, you have to know in your own mind and in your own heart that you can go make plays and that you have a chance to win the game and that’s easier said than done.”
Both of last season’s meetings followed similar templates. In the first one, OU actually led 16-15 midway through the first half, yet fell behind by 17 points before the half. In the second, the Sooners hung reasonably close until the half, when they trailed by 11, before being blown out after intermission.
“You have to work so hard (to execute) your game plan, to make possessions hard for them, that it wears on you,” Coale said. “So they get to explode later in the game because they haven’t been doing those mental Olympics the whole time.”
On that issue, McFarland has a thought that rings true.
“It will probably come down to matching up,” she said, “player for player.”
Nobody can let down against Baylor.
Griner may be the nation’s best player, but Odyssey Sims is arguably another All-American. And last season in Norman, they were just two of six Lady Bears to score at least 10 points and only two of five to grab at least five rebounds.
OU shooting guard Aaryn Ellenberg, who’s averaging a tops-in-the-league 21.2 points against conference opponents, yet who made only 6 of 25 shots against Baylor last season, believes the Sooners don’t have to worry about mental toughness.
“I think we’ve been through so much that (facing Baylor) is really nothing compared to what we’ve had to deal with,” Ellenberg said, referencing all the season-ending injuries the Sooners continue to deal with this season. “I’m excited and I know that everybody else is, too.”
That should help. A revitalizing week of practice should help, too. Really, the Sooners need all the help they can get. That’s just the way it is against the No. 1 team in the country.
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