Sooners ride wave into Sweet 16

OKLAHOMA CITY — This Sooner team has come a long way, a really long way.

This Sooner team has come a long way, a really long way.

This Sooner team has come a long way, a really long way.

When forward Kaylon Williams tore her anterior cruciate ligament before the season, then center Lyndsey Cloman concluded her career due to back issues, then freshman guard Maddie Manning tore her ACL and it all culminated in veteran captain Whitney Hand tearing hers and effectively ending her career, the Sooners were down to just eight scholarship players.


A starting five plus three reserves.

At first, until they added volleyball players Eden Williams and Tara Dunn, they couldn't even go five-on-five in practice.

But a way they went, attacking all their goals.

"We made a decision that we were going to find a way to do special things and to be extraordinary," said OU head coach Sherri Coale. "I think that's been the most rewarding part of this journey, has been the continuous correct decisions by a bunch of courageous young student-athletes who simply wake up every day and decide they want to be special. I don't use that word ‘special' very often, but this group is special."

They're special because they found a way to come together and close the regular season at 14-9 from that point, including a 12-8 mark in Big 12 Conference games.

They landed a No. 6 seed in the NCAA Tournament and knocked off No. 11 Central Michigan before exacting revenge on No. 3 UCLA for an earlier season six-point loss with an 85-72 second-round triumph, all to land in this weekend's Sweet 16 in the Oklahoma City Regional.

"It is very satisfying," Coale said. "We talk about what an accomplishment this is to be here. We let it sort of sink in. We looked at each other, we talked about it, we digested it, then we said, ‘Okay, that was fun. Now we have work ahead of us. Don't let this be the end all.' Just getting here is not enough. Who is to say what is enough? What is enough is what you're capable of.

"We believe we have a lot of basketball left in us and that's what we're looking for on Sunday."

But regardless of that, it's impossible not to step back for a second and think about everything this group has battled through.

Not just losing four players, but all four players who would have contributed in big ways.

The extreme lack of depth that put them behind the eight ball not just in terms of freshness on the hardwood, but also when foul trouble became an issue.

Players bought into their roles, each and every one of them, and OU overcame all this to still be playing 20 miles north of the Lloyd Noble Center this weekend.

"It's definitely a big accomplishment for us because, I mean, we expected to be here, but not in sort of the way it went," said OU guard Aaryn Ellenberg, who leads the team with her 18.9 points per game. "We expected to have Whitney and everybody by us. They're still there on the bench, but it's a little bit different. It still means a lot."

Perhaps one of the most important reasons why OU has been able to achieve this is forward Joanna McFarland's assertiveness on the glass, where she averages a near double-double of 10.4 boards plus her 9.8 points.

"Because it was a lot of playing for the people who couldn't play," McFarland said about what sparked her improved play after Hand's injury. "When Whitney went down, it was four total. I remember right from our next game, they applied a motivational clip for people who couldn't play or an injured player. That's what hit me.

"I'm going to play for the people who can't, especially my fellow seniors. I know it killed Whitney as a senior who couldn't play. I think it was all of us stepping up our game so we could give the people who couldn't play an opportunity to go and be a part of something special."

The whole team certainly seemed to rally on that down the stretch.

And on a unique closeness.

"Just our togetherness [makes us special]," said OU point guard Morgan Hook. "I mean, we have this bond where we want to continue to play so we have another week together."

And thus, they'll get that chance to keep this magical thing going when they meet two-seed Tennessee at 3:35 p.m. CT Sunday at Chesapeake Arena.

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