|ESPN.com: NCAA Tourney 10||[Print without images]|
SAN ANTONIO -- Sun and warmth were both in abundance on the stroll to the Alamodome on Saturday morning, a far cry from the cold and slush that accompanied the trudge through a parking lot in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., in the early days of December.
|Danielle Robinson and Nyeshia Stevenson, who helped lead OU to its second straight Final Four, can be a lethal 1-2 punch for opponents to deal with.|
Marist College's McCann Center also is a far cry from the massive building that will fill up on Sunday in advance of the meeting between Oklahoma and Stanford (ESPN, 7 p.m. ET) in the first of the evening's semifinal games at the Final Four. But it's entirely possible that Oklahoma wouldn't be participating in its second consecutive Final Four, that it couldn't have made the relatively short trip to Texas, without the likes of its snowy stopover in Poughkeepsie.
The regular season is long. At times, it's even monotonous. But it's not meaningless.
On that wintry night in December, Oklahoma ventured far from Norman's comforts to play a Marist team that rarely loses at home and had a near-capacity crowd of almost 3,000 fans filling the bleachers to prove it. Playing just their fourth game without sophomore Whitney Hand, who had sustained a season-ending knee injury two weeks earlier, the Sooners rallied from 10 points down with a little more than 10 minutes to play and Danielle Robinson on the bench in foul trouble -- and three points down with 27 seconds to play and Robinson fouled out -- and won 80-71 in overtime.
Sooners senior Nyeshia Stevenson, who entered the Marist game shooting just 23 percent from the 3-point line, scored a career-high 32 points and hit half of her 18 3-point attempts that night, including the tying shot with 17 seconds in regulation and two more from long distance in overtime. Three years earlier, Stevenson hadn't wanted the ball with the game on the line against Notre Dame in the NCAA tournament. The year before, she had wanted the ball late against Louisville in the Final Four but couldn't hit the shot to save the day.
She wanted it, got it and hit it against Marist.
"I always knew my role; my role was to make baskets," Stevenson said. "I was shooting all the shots earlier, before then [in the season]; they just weren't falling for me. And I think they just fell that night, and it was like a perfect time. Maybe it was a turning point. Maybe I thought of it as, 'All right, here we go, I can knock down shots. My shot is back, so I'm going to keep shooting.'"
That game came four days after Oklahoma survived an overtime thriller at home against Arkansas, needing a tying shot at the buzzer in regulation and a winning shot with nine seconds left in overtime to escape with an 87-86 win.
Neither Marist, which advanced to the NCAA tournament for the fifth year in a row but fell to Georgetown in the opening round, nor Arkansas, which missed the postseason altogether, was a threat to reach San Antonio. Oklahoma, as it turned out, was just becoming one.
"Wow, Marist was huge," Robinson said. "I think that's one of the games where Nyeshia really, really found out how important she was to this basketball team. Arkansas [represents] just our fight and our toughness, overtime games that we've won, obviously. That's kind of been somewhat of our identity; I mean, we're 4-0 in overtime. So that just shows our will and our toughness and our fight for each other."
Amanda Thompson nearly watched the Arkansas win slip out of her hands. The senior missed a layup that would have tied the game with eight seconds left. But when the Sooners fouled and Arkansas missed the front end of a one-and-one, Thompson got the defensive rebound, her team got a timeout, and Robinson sent the game to overtime with a basket at the buzzer.
The hero in the extra session, scoring the eventual game-winner on a baseline drive with nine seconds remaining? That would be Thompson, the senior who averaged a double-double this season.
"[Thompson] really sets the bar, as in toughness and just competitiveness," Hand said. "I think she is such a fighter, and if she can fight like that, we can fight like that. And we fight for [the seniors], and I think that's kind of been our mentality is we fight for each other. Nobody else believed in us all year, so it's been like us believing in ourselves. And I think that's set us above, I think, where we were supposed to go."
The biggest surprise associated with this year's Final Four field might be just how similar it is to the quartet of teams that gathered in St. Louis last spring. Connecticut and Stanford were expected back, but not Oklahoma. Not after losing Courtney Paris and Ashley Paris to the WNBA draft. Certainly not after losing Hand, who seemed poised for her own run at national prominence before the injury. Sure, there was an All-American in Robinson, but the Sooners were supposed to be a supporting cast looking for a production -- a depleted supporting cast, at that.
So forgive them for reveling a bit in a new role in familiar surroundings.
"It feels different to me, only because we were the underdog this year -- we are the underdogs," Stevenson said of the second consecutive trip to the Final Four. "No one thought we were going to be here. And last year, if we wasn't going to be here, it would have been probably an upset."
It takes a little luck to get to within two wins of a national championship, when one bad game or even one bad half in the four preceding games can erase a season's worth of excellence. Oklahoma's veterans all know that, having seen the title that seemed predetermined when the Paris sisters arrived vanish at various stages of the tournament for four seasons in a row. Nebraska All-American Kelsey Griffin knows that pain, too, knows how one rough night for a team can put such a permanent end on things.
But sometimes teams create their own luck, especially when they've been here before. Or when they've been to a place like Poughkeepsie in December.
"They've got great charisma," Griffin said Saturday of the Sooners after she was honored as a State Farm All-American. "Their team energy, the way they feed of one another, they've got great chemistry about them. When you can have that along with talent, your team is going to go far. And so I think those two things have really propelled them. As well as their experience. You know, there are players that know what it takes to do well in tournaments, and I think that's really paying off for them."
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.