By CLAY HORNING
NORMAN — About 10 days ago, Oklahoma women’s coach Sherri Coale was preparing her team for the Big 12 tournament, a tournament launching several days earlier than it ever had before.
She knew then that even if she reached the final of the conference tourney, her team would return to Norman a week before selection Monday and almost two weeks before her team would travel to its first-round NCAA tournament destination.
Coale wasn’t sure how she’d like so much time between her last conference tourney game and her first NCAA tournament game.
“Now,” she said, “I like it.”
This past week, the Sooners worked on themselves rather than any particular opponent. And, while focus was emphasized — point guard Morgan Hook said Coale would compare each drill to a period of the game, wanting the Sooners to exit each drill “ahead” — the practices weren’t designed to take a physical toll on the players.
“This week’s been great,” Coale said. “We’ve done a lot of non-contact stuff to let our bodies recover from the beating of the Big 12 Conference. We’ve shot the ball a lot.”
Within that thought of Coale’s is an explanation and a strategy.
Because it’s very clear to anybody who has followed the team closely that OU has been having a hard time in first halves.
Against TCU Jan. 30, the Horned Frogs scored the game’s first 11 points. At Kansas, Feb. 17, OU trailed by 12 points before the game was 13 minutes old. At Oklahoma State Feb. 23, OU trailed by 19 points 8 minutes into the game. Against West Virginia, in the first round of the conference tournament, OU trailed by 19 points at the half and, after winning that one with a comeback for the ages, the Sooners trailed Iowa State by 19 at the half the very next day.
Coale sees one constant, yet many causes. Whether her team is executing its game plan but not getting the desired results, or simply missing shots or failing to live up to the demands of its defensive scouting report early in the game, each issue has led to a dramatic loss of energy.
And, believes Coale, energy can quickly falter when you’ve been playing a very short roster very long minutes in a conference as tough, top to bottom, as the Big 12 … especially after experiencing any of the breakdowns described.
So the time off is wonderful, also a valuable tool.
“I think it’s just sort of a result of carrying baggage with you and that’s what this time is good for,” she said. “You get to unpack the bags, lay them down and start fresh.”
Hook remembers that when shots weren’t falling, “we let that affect us and we weren’t playing well defensively.”
Shooting guard Aaryn Ellenberg, like her coach, has continued to refer to the day-in, day-out nature of facing Big 12 opponents as a “beating.”
“It’s definitely good for us to get away from that and rest a little bit,” she said, “and get a fresh start against different teams.”
The Sooners won’t find out where they’re going and who they’ll be playing once they get there until Monday night. But when they do play again, their coach doesn’t think they’ll be nearly as susceptible to the letdowns that have plagued them recently.
Because of the break, OU should be significantly less fragile.
“The fissures get to heal,” Coale said. “That’s literal and figurative.”