By CLAY HORNING
NORMAN — The Sooners did not lose the game. And still, for Oklahoma women’s basketball, the program and its fans, it’s only a matter of being thankful for small favors.
Whitney Hand, the squad’s fifth-year on-court leader, spiritual leader and most indispensable player on the team since Danielle Robinson left for the WNBA, exited with about 2 minutes remaining in the first half after her left knee buckled as she planted for a shot in the lane.
Hand fell to the hardwood crying in pain. Already she had missed her true sophomore season to a torn ACL in her right knee, and almost half of the following season when additional surgery was required.
Hand left the arena for an MRI on the knee as the game played on. About two hours after the game was over, OU announced the results: an ACL tear in her left knee.
That would appear to put the Sooners in the position of facing down the season the same way it faced down North Texas, 71-68, Thursday night at Lloyd Noble Center.
That is, with eight healthy bodies, assuming nobody else is lost.
Already OU had lost posts Lyndsey Cloman (back) and Kaylon Williams (ruptured Achilles tendon) in the preseason. Freshman guard Maddie Manning, three games after entering the starting lineup, tore the ACL in her right knee in practice earlier this week.
“The game is immaterial,” Sooner coach Sherri Coale said, her voice cracking with emotion, as she begged out of her postgame radio interview with play-by-play man Brian Brinkley to get back to her players.
About 15 minutes later, into her postgame press conference, Coale appeared pretty certain of Hand’s condition.
“I’ve watched them fall,” she said. “There’s a way they fall and a way they scream.”
The Sooners played a messy game, turning the ball over 12 times in the first half and 19 in all, shooting a season-low 37 percent (25 of 68) from the field.
Still, by the 15-minute mark of the second half, after the Mean Green had taken its biggest lead, 38-32, it was clear OU and its crowd felt inspired by Hand’s absence.
The game didn’t get a whole lot cleaner. And, if anything, North Texas raised its game, too, consistently putting the brakes on Sooner rallies.
In the end, OU won the game at the free-throw line, getting points on each of its last 10 possessions, every single one of them at the charity stripe, where the Sooners canned 16 of 20 over the last 4 minutes.
Nicole Griffin led OU with 15 points, including eight straight to take OU from 57-53 down to 61-59 up with 2:58 remaining.
Senior post Joanna McFarland, who lost her starting job when the Sooners went to Hawaii for the Rainbow Wahine Classic five games ago, responded with her first double-double of the season, netting 12 points and 11 rebounds.
North Texas was led by Alexis Hyder’s 15 points and 12 rebounds. Loryn Goodwin added 14 points and Hanna Christian 13.
The story was Hand.
North Texas coach Mike Peterson was the first person to get to Hand’s side, as she fell directly across from the Mean Green’s bench.
“I just told her to hang in there, her trainer was on the way … She’s not my player but I have so much respect for her,” he said.
Though the result was secondary, or, “immaterial,” as Coale put it, she believes it said plenty about her players.
“I don’t even know how they could think, much less change defenses and run sets and change matchups,” she said. “They revealed their strength.”
Without their leader, at least on the court, the Sooners will be calling upon that strength the rest of the season.
“They’ll fight with Whitney’s spirit and do everything they can,” Coale said. “We’re going to find a way to win basketball games.”