- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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An old saying holds that it's better to be the person who follows the person who follows the legend than to be the unfortunate soul caught in the middle of that equation. That Tiffany Bias needed no such help following on the heels of the greatest player in Oklahoma State women's basketball history is a cornerstone of her own legacy.
She followed Andrea Riley, sure, but she is second to none among her peers.
"She is fantastic," Oklahoma coach Sherri Coale said of the player who steered Oklahoma State to three wins in the Bedlam rivalry against Coale's Sooners, more even than Riley. "That kid is going to play at the next level, and she is going to be good at the next level. There's not really anything she can't do. And I love her presence on the floor. I just love how she handles things. She's terrific. She's an elite point guard, no doubt about it."
But that legacy won't end when she leaves after this season. It will include one final assist that won't go toward what is already a program record. Riley set the standard, but befitting a player who has more assists than all but one active player in Division I, Bias is setting up her successor and in the process setting up Stillwater as a cradle of guards with All-American aspirations. If Bias has anything to do with it, Roshunda Johnson won't be following a legend so much as carrying on a tradition.
"When I first got here I was kind of scared to do half the stuff I'm doing now," Johnson said. "But as the practices and the workouts went on, I sat back and watched Tiffany do everything, how she led the team, how she played really good defense. I just started watching and I told myself that's what you've got to do to be a true point guard.
"Now I'm just working my way in, trying to be that."
It's a worthy goal.
When Oklahoma State placed the basketball, and in turn control of the team on the court, in Bias' hands, it might well still have been warm from the work Riley put it through. The Big 12's all-time leading scorer when she finished her career in 2010 (she was subsequently passed on that list by Brittney Griner), Riley was a one-woman show for four seasons. As a senior, she either scored or assisted on 57 percent of Oklahoma State's field goals. As much as Odyssey Sims does for Baylor this season, even she can claim a hand in "only" 47 percent of her team's field goals.
Oklahoma State went 6-22 the season before Riley arrived. It hadn't appeared in the NCAA tournament in more than a decade. Riley led the Cowgirls to three tournament appearances in four seasons.
Bias was measured against those expectations when she arrived the season after Riley departed. The freshman was in the starting lineup for the first game of the regular season and all but one game thereafter. The results were mixed -- she had almost as many turnovers as assists that first season and shot 33 percent from the field and 24 percent from the 3-point line. Then the associate head coach and now the head coach, Jim Littell said Bias arrived as a great athlete, a five-time state sprint champion as a Kansas high schooler, and a work in progress as a point guard.
She was also the only player on the team to log one thousand minutes, nearly five more per game than anyone else.
"I think I did a lot of going in circles and learning by myself because I didn't have an older point guard to teach me and show me the ropes and what to do and what not to do," Bias said. "I think it was just one of those things where I learned from my mistakes just to keep going and keep your head up, don't get down. Little things like that.
"I think it was hard doing it that way, but I think I learned a lot and it made me the person I am today."
It sadly wasn't the only encounter with adversity, nor anything close to the most difficult.
As a sophomore, Bias and her teammates confronted something no student would or should ever expect to encounter when head coach Kurt Budke and assistant Miranda Serna were killed in a November plane crash. The toll that took, and continues to take, on those who had to process it is incalculable. Perhaps one small measure is that of the five players in Bias' class when that season began, only she and Kendra Suttles remain on the roster. But basketball continued, and the 2011-12 season ended with the unforgettable image of Budke's widow helping to cut down the net after Oklahoma State's WNIT championship.
"I think we went through a lot of trials and tribulations my sophomore year," Bias said.
Bias finished with 17 points, 11 assists and five steals in the WNIT finale against James Madison, emblematic of a sophomore season in which, amid everything else going on, her numbers improved almost without exception (she again led the team in minutes, averaging nearly 37 minutes a game in 33 games).
Each season she came back better than before, which might sound banal until you look around at how many college careers are anything but steady progressions.
She was always a relentless defender, always a marvel of endurance. She made herself into a distributor with a 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio this season. She made herself into a 40 percent shooter from the field and a 35 percent shooter from the 3-point line this season. The coaches worked with her on her shot, they tweaked her hand placement and talked about tempo, but there wasn't any magic fix. She worked on it until, like her other skills, it was an asset.
"In 36 years of coaching, I've never had a kid that works harder on a day-to-day basis during the offseason than what she does," Littell said. "She's just got great energy, great enthusiasm and emotion for the game. She just comes to work every day."
For the time being, that means Johnson is an understudy. Ranked among the nation's top 50 recruits by some services, Johnson remains in her own mind a point guard. But with Bias on the court 36 minutes a night, Johnson has had to carve out minutes as a scorer, someone who can take some of the ballhandling pressure off Bias when they are paired together but who has more 3-point attempts than assists to this point.
"Ro understands the game and has a really good feel for the game," Littell said. "She just needs to grow in her work ethic and learn from the one that's ahead of her right now, as far as how you handle your business every day. But her skill set is really good. Her knowledge of the game, her feel and being able to play the game."
And she doesn't have to run in circles with Bias around to offer directions.
"I don't think there's a question I've asked her that she couldn't answer yet," Johnson said.
How do you follow Andrea Riley? Bias had an answer for that, too. She carved out her own place in Oklahoma State basketball history by playing the position her own way, a playmaker right down to facilitating the next transition of power.
"She's the next guard in waiting here," Littell said of Johnson. "It was Andrea Riley, Tiffany Bias and then it's going to come down to Roshunda Johnson."