By CLAY HORNING
NORMAN - You know how the Oklahoma women have this tendency to struggle for so much of their season? To get out of their own way, to quit thinking long enough to play their hardest?
One game into the Big 12 season, this Sooner team appears to be taking a different path. Wednesday night at Lloyd Noble Center, OU took West Virginia’s best shot — several of them, actually — and walked away a 71-68 winner.
The game was marked by extremely physical and tight defense from West Virginia and OU’s refusal to back down from it. That led to a parade of free throws from the Sooners and a trio of Mountaineers disqualified on fouls.
It was just enough.
“That was a fight. That was a fight for 40 minutes,” OU coach Sherri Coale said. “I thought it was a great show of character by our team just grinding its way back.”
Aaryn Ellenberg led OU with 19 points, but it was Sharane Campbell and Joanna McFarland who made victory possible, both turning in their best games of the season.
Campbell, who enjoyed a personal six-point possession early in the first half — four free throws and a field goal — finished with 17 points and 12 rebounds, while McFarland added 13 and 13 and maybe the game’s biggest defensive play.
For a moment, in the second half, Campbell backed off. Then she got some good advice.
“I was a little worried about (my) fouls,” she said. “Whitney (Hand) came up to me and told me I needed to get back on it, I needed to step up, I needed to not play afraid and that’s when I was like, ‘OK, yeah, it’s time for me to step back up and do what I have to do.’”
The duo’s combined 25 boards led to a 44-31 OU rebounding advantage that was as crucial to victory as anything else.
That was enough to counter 30 points and 8-of-12 3-point shooting from Mountaineer guard Taylor Palmer, the only player from either team to shoot well from distance on a night the Sooners canned a season-low two 3-pointers.
That, and taking advantage of West Virginia’s aggressiveness. The Mountaineers committed 32 fouls — Ayanna Dunning, Christal Caldwell and Palmer, all starters, had to leave early — and OU took advantage by making 31 of 39 free throws.
The Mountaineers’ biggest lead was nine points with 15:42 remaining. They led by eight with 10:55 to play. The Sooners’ biggest edge was six with 2:35 remaining.
Playing well throughout kept OU close, but saving their best for last, when the Mountaineers were shorthanded, put the Sooners over the top.
OU tied it for the first time of the second half — 54-54 — with 9:21 remaining, but promptly turned the ball over on three consecutive possessions, allowing West Virginia the lead. From there, OU scored 12 of the game’s next 16 points to lead 66-60.
Victory was still a tight fit and the Mountaineers had one opportunity to take the lead, trailing 68-67 with the ball.
West Virginia post Akilah Bethel received the ball in the post guarded by McFarland, playing with four fouls, as the shot clock wound down. The Sooner forward’s defense produced a shot that failed to draw iron.
“I knew I had four fouls. I just tried to stay in front of her,” McFarland said. “She shot it right into my arms and I got the rebound.”
Next, Morgan Hook was fouled going the other way, made both free throws and the Sooners were out of danger.