By MICHAEL KINNEY
OKLAHOMA CITY — Dec. 6 is not a day Oklahoma likes to remember. That was the day Whitney Hand, the team’s leader, on and off the court, tore the anterior cruciate ligament in her left knee, bringing an end to her collegiate basketball career.
Many counted the Sooners out.
“Everybody was just devastated,” junior center Nicole Griffin said. “How is this happening to, out of all people, Whitney? She has been through so much already and she’s the leader of our team. She is the one that carries us. How are we going to go on without her?
“It was all these thoughts that go through your mind. It was really crazy.”
OU didn’t crumble or go into the tank. It survived and went on to a third-place finish in the Big 12 and earned its 14th straight berth into the NCAA tournament.
“Everyone has just stepped up and risen to the occasion,” Hand said. “That’s the great thing about humans. The resiliency. Until you are really put in that position, you can’t really (reach) your full potential. It’s been really cool to see all the girls grow and reach that potential they have.”
The No. 6-seed Sooners (24-10, 11-7 Big 12), back in the Sweet 16, face off against No. 2-seed Tennessee (26-7, 14-2 SEC) at 3:35 p.m. today at Chesapeake Energy Arena.
“We talk about what an accomplishment this is to be here. We let it sort of sink in,” OU coach Sherri Coale said. “We digested it, then we said, ‘OK, that was fun, now we have work ahead of us.’ Just getting here is not enough.”
Sooner players have missed a collective 121 games to injury this season. Hand was the fourth player to go down.
Before the regular season began, sophomore post Kaylon Williams suffered an Achilles tendon rupture and senior post Lyndsey Cloman was forced out by a degenerative disc in her back. Also, freshman guard Maddie Manning tore the ACL in her right knee in practice Nov. 28.
Hand’s injury seemed like the last straw.
“We were all shocked about that,” senior guard Jasmine Hartman said. “But the thing is, we all had to fight together. We have to fight for her. It’s just not about us individually. It’s about the team together.”
Tennessee has dealt with injury, too. Sophomore center Isabelle Harrison was out for 10 games. Sophomore forward Cierra Burdick missed a month. Point guard Andraya Carter dislocated her shoulder seven games into the season, requiring season-ending surgery.
“You have to have 15 people on scholarship … I’ve got to where we didn’t go against each other a lot,” Tennessee coach Holly Warlock said. “Any kid that ... fell down, you get nervous. It’s just part of our game.”
Playing against the Lady Vols in Oklahoma City should bring back fond memories for OU’s two fifth-year seniors, Hand and Hartman. As freshmen, they met Tennessee at the then-named Ford Center, winning 80-70 on Feb. 2, 2009, momentarily making Lady Vol coach Pat Summitt wait on her 1,000th victory. Two months later, they were in the Final Four.
Hand plays a different role now.
Instead of being a freshman excited by the prospects of bright future, she’s the elder-statesman looking back on an injury-filled, but still terrific, career with great pride in what she and her teammates have accomplished without her on the court.
“It’s definitely been a roller coaster for me as a person and, I think, for our team,” an emotional Hand said. “As many of our seasons have been, it’s something about this program I will always be proud of: When our backs are against the wall, there is always fight. There is never quit.
“I would say that marks our team. That just goes to show these girls have character, heart and are very tough as individuals.”