NORMAN — Oklahoma women’s basketball coach Sherri Coale has been at this thing going on 17 seasons. She’s been to 13 straight NCAA tournaments, taken the Sooners to a trio of Final Fours and reached the Sweet 16 eight different times.
Within the span have been two discernible and memorable eras.
There was the Stacey Dales Sooners, including teams that from 2000 to 2002 reached three straight Sweet 16s and a Final Four. There was the Courtney Paris era, from 2006 to 2009, that included one Final Four trip, one perfect march through the Big 12 conference season and postseason tournament and one national championship guarantee from Paris herself that came in a couple wins short.
The Sooners are in no particular era right now. Fifth-year senior shooting guard Whitney Hand may go down as the program’s most beloved player. She played a season with Paris and two-plus with All-American point guard Danielle Robinson. Still, the thought of past eras comes up for another reason.
Remove those two eras and there likely hasn’t been any season in which OU thought so highly of its possibilities.
The combination of it being Hand’s last go-round, of just about everybody who played a significant role last season coming back, and the addition of three newcomers expected to play and excel in major roles, has the Sooners thinking all things are possible.
A return to the Final Four?
A national championship?
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It all begins at 1:30 p.m. today at Creighton, where the Sooners open up against the team that took St. John’s to the wire at the NCAA tournament last season at Lloyd Noble Center two days before St. John’s ended OU’s season.
Openers can make for sluggish efforts, especially away from home against a team that could make its season by knocking off a team like OU. On the other hand, it’s a stiff early test that may demand the Sooners prove they are who they think they are, or something close to it, to return home with a victory.
About that, OU begins the season ranked No. 12 and tied for second with West Virginia in the coaches preseason conference poll.
Hand is the clear leader.
She averaged 13.3 points and 7.1 rebounds last season, but her contributions go well beyond numbers.
“She’s so consistent,” Coale said. “You know what you’re getting every single day … She is going to will her way through whatever presents itself, whether it’s an injury or a deficit or whatever the case may be, she’s going to fight all the way through that.”
Aaryn Ellenberg, OU’s leading returning scorer, at 15.5 points per game, is a member of the conference’s five-player preseason All-Big 12 team. A wildly talented scorer, the knock on Ellenberg has been her occasional intensity lapses. There are moments when she is there, but seems not to be. She says she’s over it.
“It comes with getting older,” the junior guard said. “You have to be a little more mature about things. I think I’m really locked in. I think I’ve found a place that works for me.”
After that, there’s returning junior point guard Morgan Hook (10.9 ppg, 3.6 apg last season), who compiled 15 assists against three turnovers in two exhibition victories; Sharane Campbell (9.0 ppg, 3.2 rpg), the reigning conference sixth man of the year, coming off a stellar freshman season; and posts Nicole Griffin (5.7 ppg, 3.9 rpg), a junior, and Joanna McFarland (5.4 ppg, 5.9 rpg), a senior.
Senior guard and defensive specialist Jasmine Hartman is back from ACL surgery after missing all of last season. And there are the newcomers: freshmen Nicole Kornet and Maddie Manning and junior Portia Durrett.
Durrett led the Sooners with 26 points in their last exhibition game. Manning, leading the break, and pushing the action, was responsible for many of Durrett’s baskets. Kornet is a 3-point sharpshooter utterly unafraid to let the ball fly.
Coale will have 10 players in uniform.
She believes she’ll play everybody.
“Last year, I think, we relied on just so few people, like me, Whitney, maybe Morgan,” Ellenberg said. “Pretty much, I think we have it all the way through down to our bench, there’s no drop off. I’m just so excited to see how we’ll do together, because I know we’re going to go far.”
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In Hand, Hook, Ellenberg, Cornet, Campbell, even McFarland, OU is long on 3-point shooting.
They’ve lost posts Lyndsey Cloman to a chronic back injury and Kaylon Williams to a torn Achilles tendon, thinning out their frontcourt, but still they have Griffin, McFarland and Durrett, and will be asking all three of them to be first down the court every possession, because the Sooners plan to return to their running roots like they haven’t in several seasons.
“They believe in playing that way, they believing we can have success that way,” Coale said. “They’re willing to work hard enough to do it, and that goes back to that character issue. We don’t have anybody who’s unwilling to work hard enough to play that way.”
They may not have a superstar. But they appear to have quite the collection of characters and players.
“It feels different,” Hand said. “You walk in the gym and there’s a different look in people’s eye … And, we’re really talented. We don’t have one person that I’m like, ‘They’re OK. They’ll be there in a couple years.’ Everyone’s there. Everyone’s prepared. It’s very exciting.”
Sounds like it.
Clay HorningFollow me @firstname.lastname@example.org