Just nine days since the single-engine plane crash that killed the very popular Cowgirls head coach, assistant coach Miranda Serna, and pilot Olin Branstetter and his wife Paula Branstetter — and really just eight days since the family and the team found out the devastating news — the grief was still there. The hurt from the loss of loved ones and valuable leaders and mentors was fresh.
Following the singing of the alma mater, the entire Cowgirls team, coaching staff and support staff went up the bleachers and hugged the Budkes.
This Saturday in Gallagher-Iba Arena was about a lot than basketball.
"I thought today got much deeper than just the basketball part of it," said interim head coach Jim Littell, a best friend of Budke's and his true partner in rebuilding the Cowgirls program.
"I thought we had a chance to pay honor today and I was very, very proud of our kids, of our coaches, and the work that our staff has done from Bill Annan to Richie Henderson to Amber Littleton all the way down to our strength coaches has shown what type of people they are and how lucky we are to be around those folks.
"I just told our players that I have been fortunate over the years to be surrounded by a lot of good players that have a lot of success but that I've never been more proud of a group than I was today. Did we play like we were capable of? Definitely not, and I think these kids would tell you, but it is a step. We've been off the floor 13 days and they've been through a tremendous tragedy. I'm very proud of these kids," said Littell.
Littell is an experienced coach, a successful coach, but this is a situation they don't prepare you for in college, as an assistant coach, as a high school head coach, as a junior college head coach, or as a small college head coach. This lesson is never taught because it is hoped it is never needed.
At Oklahoma State it has been needed twice and while Eddie Sutton is a more famous name, those in the program say Littell has done an amazing job with his players and staff through this gut wrenching emotional ordeal. Littell is hoping the process of being back on the court in a competitive situation is another step in the healing.
"I think it is a start. I think it is a start," said Littell. "I'm pleased that the people came out and paid honor to the four that we lost, and I know that made our players feel pretty good."
Sophomore post Vicky McIntyre scored the first basket, a little short jumper to put OSU up 2-0. Freshman Liz Donohoe made the first trey off the right wing for a 9-5 lead. Tiffany Bias, in transition, hit a stop and pop to put OSU up 14-8. Bias would go on to lead the Cowgirls with 17 points.
Kendra Suttles, who Budke's proclaimed the team's "most improved player" in preseason, hit back-to-back layups to forge a 27-12 advantage. The basketball may not have been the larger part of the day, but it was a key ingredient to working toward some form of normalcy. It was proof that the healing is underway.
"Coming together as a team and knowing the girl to the left of you and the girl to the right of you is going to be there for you and then looking up in the stands and seeing all that support," said sophomore Jenni Bryan, who knocked down a three-pointer in the second half, "that is who we play for."
Bryan is a young lady that teammates can lean on. She lost her father, Ricky Bryan, while in high school. She is a tough-minded young woman.
Tiffany Bias is a team leader. She was last season as a freshman and she has advanced that leadership role in her second season to start at point guard. Bias said not hearing Budke was tough, but having the voice of Littell there to lean on was important.
"Not hearing his voice (on the bench and in the huddle) is going to take some time to get used to, but Coach Littell's is a voice we've heard in every huddle and every time we came back to the bench, so there is no other voice we would expect to hear than Coach Budke other than Coach Littell," said Bias.
The Cowgirls were not alone as 3,554 fans were there on a busy Saturday to lend support. The men's basketball team, fresh off of stepping off a plane from New York City, were all there. While he wasn't required to be back until later in the afternoon, Cowboys defensive end Jamie Blatnick, who has been working some with the Cowgirls program, took a seat on the end of the bench and moved the chairs out for time outs and added a boisterous enthusiasm.
"I wanted to be back for this," said Blatnick, who time and time again has show his devotion as an OSU student-athlete.
"We have been getting support from a lot of different people and groups," said Littell.
Of course, the group that meant the most was the group of people dealing with the largest hole in the heart and needing the same kind of healing as the Cowgirls themselves.
"It meant a lot to the OSU family and our players and coaches for them to be here today," said Littell of the Budke family.
After the hugs, after the tears, and hopefully with the future of some smiles, the Cowgirls and the Budke family left Gallagher-Iba Arena to a chorus of clapping and cheers.
Basketball won't be the same for awhile but it's nice to know that love is there in that age old arena when needed.