By CLAY HORNING
NORMAN — You have to hand it to the Oklahoma women. Though the ride is sometimes bumpy, the Sooners always seem to save their best for last.
It happened again this season, as the No. 6-seed Sooners returned to the Sweet 16 after topping Central Michigan and, stunningly, UCLA inside Ohio State’s St. John Arena a little more than a week ago.
Sunday, via a 74-59 loss to No. 2-seed Tennessee at Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, OU’s season ended.
The Sooners finished the season 24-11, with an 11-7 conference record that was good for third place in the Big 12, a league that sent seven teams into the NCAA tournament.
OU also finished with seven healthy players in uniform, one of which, Eden Williams, only joined the squad at the semester, following the Sooner volleyball’s team’s ouster from its NCAA tournament.
“The guys have done amazing things this season against really unbelievable odds,” coach Sherri Coale said a few minutes after the season ended.
OU first loss was Kaylon Williams, the forward who closed her freshman season entrenched in the starting lineup, to a ruptured Achilles tendon. Next, though she’d rehabbed from knee surgery made necessary by a torn anterior cruciate ligament, a degenerative disk in Lyndsey Cloman’s back forced her to finish her senior season on the bench.
Then, the last week of November, three games after entering the starting lineup, freshman guard Maddie Manning tore the ACL in her right knee. And Dec. 6, against North Texas, Whitney Hand, the face of the program, tore the ACL in her left knee.
Finally, Sunday, 9 minutes into the game with the Lady Vols, point guard Morgan Hook suffered concussion-like symptoms after taking a knee to the head that sent her to the bench for the rest of the game.
If three Sooners had fouled out against Tennessee — as three Cardinals fouled out in Louisville’s victory over Baylor, played after the Sooners and Lady Vols — OU would have finished the game with four players on the court.
Given that, the story of the season is two fold.
It was one of perseverance and resiliency, of overcoming obstacles and, after all the injuries, well surpassing expectation. It was also about the legacy left by that perseverance and resliency.
As she left the interview room after scoring 22 points on the last night of her sophomore season, Sooner guard Sharane Campbell’s mind was well into next season even as she thought of each senior teammate: Hand, Cloman, Joanna McFarland and Jasmine Hartman.
“Whitney Hand taught me how to be a leader on the court. Lyndsey taught me how to play with emotion. Jo taught me how to be tough, crash, rebound, want the ball. Jaz taught me how to love defense,” she said. “I just learned all these things from these seniors. I’m going to be a junior but I’m going to show all my teammates we can do this.
“I’m going to take this role as being one of the leaders and try to bring us back here, bring us further. I think next year is going to be great. I can’t wait.”
Though two of them will be returning from surgery, in Aaryn Ellenberg (18.7 ppg), Hook (9.9 ppg, 5.3 apt), Campbell (10 ppg, 4.3 rpg), Manning and Williams, the Sooners will actually bring five starters back next season.
Having done more with less this season, they could be prepared to do more with more next season.
Coale sounded like she was sure that would happen, saving special praise for her seniors.
“The way I feel about these kids will fill me for years,” she said. “The young guys who got to see the examples set by the senior class, what a gift they’ve been given … Now they’ll treat their future teammates in the same manner.
“They know what it means to be right. Preach it all you want, but until kids feel it, it’s hard to get done. That’s the gift the senior class gave these guys.”
The biggest hole on the court will be the one left by McFarland, who averaged 11.4 points and 11.1 rebounds against conference opponents. Still, it was Williams’ talents that had her stealing McFarland’s starting spot a little past the halfway point of last season. If Manning can come back strong, OU will have three-guard starting backcourt — Manning, Hook, Ellenberg — all capable of handing the ball, pushing tempo and hitting the 3.
And if Campbell lives up to her postgame speech … well, it’s easy to paint a very good picture, even if it wasn’t very easy for the Sooners to walk away.
“It’s always sad at the end of something. This is just the end of a part of my life,” McFarland said. “But I’m looking forward to the future and I know this team’s going to be great next year.”