By CLAY HORNING
NORMAN — There the Oklahoma women were, not even three weeks ago, after opening the Big 12 conference season with four straight wins, a loss at Iowa State, a victory over Texas and a loss at No. 1 Baylor.
There they were, 5-2 against the league, with five games coming up they could build their season around.
They knew it.
They talked about it.
“We know if we win these next five games, that we know we’re capable of winning, it separates us from the whole pack,” junior point guard Morgan Hook said.
How’d it work out?
Well, OU was just plain bad at West Virginia, losing by 21 points. But the Sooners followed with victories over Kansas State and, maybe their best game of the season, an 80-61 dispatching of Bedlam rival Oklahoma State.
Then they were stunned by Iowa State and dumbfounded by officiating that allowed the Cyclones to attempt 34 free throws to their 14. Then they went to Kansas and played like Iowa State was still in their head.
Had the Sooners gone 5-0 or even 4-1 over the stretch, they’d be sitting pretty, all alone in second place in the conference by a wide margin and, perhaps more importantly, in position to build off that success.
Instead, they’re in the conference’s third spot with no momentum and have been bounced out of the Associated Press Top 25 for the first time this season with more tough games upcoming.
Tonight’s game, however, isn’t supposed to be one of them. OU (18-7, 8-5 Big 12) has already topped Kansas State (13-12, 4-9) in Manhattan and tips off with the Wildcats at 7 p.m. today at Lloyd Noble Center.
How the Sooners are looking at their plight range from philosophical to a strong sense of urgency.
Junior shooting guard Aaryn Ellenberg, who leads the team at 19.2 points per outing against conference opponents, but who has made just 19 of 57 shots in OU’s last three losses, said there are three keys that should keep the Sooners in good shape, “Rebounding, 50-50 balls and deliberate pushes in transition.”
“We could have been in a better position, obviously,” Ellenberg said, “but it does nothing to defer from what we’re still trying to do. If we win the next three games, we’re still right where we want to be.”
That’s true, but after tonight it’s OSU in Stillwater on Saturday, followed by No. 1 Baylor arriving in Norman on Monday.
“We need to take a deep breath. I think we got a little too tense, a little too uptight, a little too concerned with what was going on outside of the four lines here,” said senior forward Joanna McFarland, referring the two sidelines and two baselines of the court she’d just walked off. “I think we started looking at the big picture instead of taking it one step at a time.”
McFarland said the Sooners “carried the Iowa State loss with us to KU,” but she believes the cure is quite simple.
“We have to be together. We have to be strong together,” she said. “We have to rebuild the wall we had.”
The wall is what keeps outside agencies from influencing OU’s play on the court. That wall, McFarland said, developed cracks against Iowa State.
Hook, back in the present, actually mentioned the NCAA tournament as a rallying point.
“(The losses are) just something that has happened to us and it was within our control and it’s something that we can’t let keep happening. We have to end that right now,” she said. “We have to make a good run for the NCAA tournament. After all, it’s been 13 consecutive years that we’ve gone.”
OU shouldn’t be in trouble making it 14. Before losing to Iowa State and Kansas it was No. 22 in the NCAA’s own Ratings Percentage Index (RPI). After its last two losses, it’s still No. 32.
Of course, the Sooners could drop some more if more losses pile up. By the same token, they could string some wins together and not only return to March Madness, but return with wind in their sails.
The Big 12 tournament will be important, but so will be what remains of the regular season, yet another five-game stretch. If asking for an upset of Baylor is too much, victories in the rest aren’t: tonight, at Oklahoma State, Kansas at home and Texas Tech in Lubbock.
That’s where the urgency comes in.
“We just have to change it,” Hook said. “We can’t keep saying that and then having another stumble and then saying it again.
“Right now is the time we have to accelerate and be playing our best basketball going into March.”