By CLAY HORNING
Can the Oklahoma women be believed?
Perhaps that is the question entering the NCAA tournament, where the Sooners meet Central Michigan at 10:10 a.m. Saturday at St. John Arena in Columbus, Ohio.
OU has appeared out of sorts many times this season. The Sooners went 11-7 against the Big 12, good for third place in the conference race, yet four of those losses were by 19 or more points (and only one of them to No. 1 Baylor).
Also, the Big 12 tournament, OU fell behind by at least 20 points twice, somehow beating West Virginia but falling by 19 to Iowa State.
Yet OU’s self-image is not mired in inconsistency. Far from it. Instead, the Sooners see themselves as a group that brings its best when it must.
Generally, it goes back to their entire season, one in which three starters and a team captain — Whitney Hand, Kaylon Williams, Maddie Manning, Lyndsey Cloman — were lost for the season to injury, and still, here they are, back at the NCAA tournament for a 14th straight season after finishing third in a conference that’s placed 7 of 10 teams in the tournament.
Specifically, it goes back to the last two games of the regular season, when OU, 19-9 at the time, wasn’t even sure it had locked up another Big Dance bid and responded by beating Kansas 85-77 and Texas Tech, in Lubbock, 77-73.
The Jayhawks and the Lady Raiders also received NCAA tournament bids.
“This is the tournament,” point guard Morgan Hook said. “This is it.”
And when it’s been a matter of this is it, the Sooners believe they’ve played their best basketball.
“When it comes down to pressure situations, we always seem to string good games together,” Hook said.
OU coach Sherri Coale understands there’s a not-so-great flip side to her squad’s this is it mentality.
“The other side of it,” she said, “is, ‘Why do we have to feel like we’re in a corner to fight that way?”
Still, if that’s the way her squad sees itself, it’s the right time of year to be feeling that way.
“That has sort of become our badge,” Coale said. “Put us in a corner and we’ll fight out of that corner … And, I think, the NCAA tournament, unless you’re a No. 1-seed, is kind of that thing. ‘OK, here we are, we have to fight our way out.’”
Something else playing into that mindset is the fact OU has lost some laughers but won many tight games.
Six of its 10 losses have been by 10 or more points. Also, 10 of its 22 wins have been by 10 or fewer points. Numbers like that can be read two different ways, but the Sooners are embracing them on the way to Columbus.
“If we can get a game close, we’re probably going to win it,” senior forward Joanna McFarland said. “We’re used to tough situations, pressure situations.
“We’ve been through a lot of ups and downs this season and I think that we have a lot of maturity and a lot of poise when it comes to close games.”
Beginning Saturday, OU may face some close ones. It’s the NCAA tournament.
This is it.