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Tuesday, February 7, 2012
OU stands up to school of hard knocks

By Mechelle Voepel
ESPN.com

Sure, there were a lot of cringe-worthy moments Monday if you are an Oklahoma fan. Or actually, just a fan of competitive games.

In Baylor's 81-54 victory against the Sooners, center Brittney Griner at times seemed about 15 feet tall, while guard Odyssey Sims appeared to be in four places at once. For instance, in the first 11 minutes of the second half, when the Sooners had enormous difficulty making the spherical thing go through the rim thing.

Other than three free throws, Oklahoma didn't score after the break until the 9:14 mark. That made it 68-36 in Baylor's favor. If you were still tuned into the game, kudos to your perseverance, especially considering Duke's 96-56 "thriller" over North Carolina that had preceded it on ESPN2. Or maybe you were just too comfortable on the couch and forgot to bring the remote control with you.

Suffice to say, there likely will be stories to write about Baylor right up until the last night of the 2011-12 season. Coach Kim Mulkey's No. 1-ranked powerhouse is now 24-0, with Griner getting 27 points, eight rebounds and eight blocks against Oklahoma.

Whitney Hand
The injury-depleted Sooners have relied on "Whit and the Kids": junior Whitney Hand and a slew of underclassmen.

Yet even after such a shellacking, the Sooners deserve a little spotlight. Not because they'll challenge Baylor this season. But because they just might be able to stand up better against Baylor next season, thanks in part to the school of hard knocks Oklahoma is going through now.

You might have thought while watching Monday, "Good grief, Oklahoma is going to lose by 50." That didn't happen; certainly it helped when Baylor took out its starters. But it also mattered that the Sooners really didn't just give up and play dead.

That is hard to avoid doing against the Green Gang this season. Baylor is allowing its Big 12 foes an average of just 49 points per game, while scoring 75.3. In Baylor's 11 league games thus far, only Texas Tech has come within single digits: 72-64 on Jan. 18 in Lubbock, Texas. And one gets the feeling Texas Tech will pay for that when visiting Waco, Texas, on Feb. 18.

At this point, the only Big 12 team that realistically has enough talent/experience to potentially beat Baylor is Texas A&M … which is also the one team Baylor most wants to clobber.

That's because of how last season ended -- with Baylor's Elite Eight loss to Texas A&M -- and because of the Aggies' impending departure to the SEC, which got Mulkey's dander up. (Remember Big 12 media day and her oh-so-tweetable comments about not getting, uh, "friendly" with someone who divorced her.) Baylor and A&M meet this Saturday in Waco and Feb. 27 in College Station, Texas.

Oklahoma fell by 31 when Baylor came to Norman, Okla., last month; then Monday in Waco it was by 27. Oklahoma is 15-7 overall and 7-4 in the Big 12. If those numbers, understandably, don't impress you, maybe the back story will.

The Sooners lost starters Danielle Robinson and Carlee Roethlisberger to graduation. Then before this season started, senior guard Jasmine Hartman and junior center Lyndsey Cloman suffered ACL tears. On Jan. 14, junior post Joanna McFarland suffered a broken jaw against Oklahoma State; she returned for 25 minutes with a protective mask against (gulp) Baylor.

While McFarland was out, Oklahoma coach Sherri Coale was left with a lineup dubbed, "Whit and the Kids," meaning junior Whitney Hand -- no stranger to ACL danger -- sophomores Aaryn Ellenberg, Morgan Hook and Nicole Griffin, and freshmen Sharane Campbell, DaShawn Harden and Kaylon Williams. And while center Jelena Cerina is a senior, she's a junior college transfer who played in just 20 games, averaging 6.3 minutes, last year in her first season at OU. Experience-wise, she's still in "kid" territory, too.

"Coach Coale always talks about how rewarding it is to see players 'get' it," Hand said. "I feel like as a leader -- as kind of a mother figure or whatever -- it is fun to watch that. There is a lot of repetition, saying things over and over. It can be frustrating.

"Then I look on the court and say, 'Look, there's three freshmen out here.' Of course, they're going to have some bad days and forget things, but they are also helping us just find ways to win."

Not against Baylor, no. You'd need to go back to some of the best teams in Coale's tenure -- 2002, or during the Paris twins' era of 2005-09 -- to possibly do that. But against the rest of the Big 12, Oklahoma is competitive. This is a race for second place, which is still a realistic goal for the Sooners. And that, all things considered, would be a major success for this group. OU is now in third at 7-4, behind Texas A&M at 7-3.

This isn't about making excuses for Oklahoma, a team that has never done that under Coale. Not even when she first started, fresh off coaching Norman High. It's about appreciating how a culture develops and sustains itself in a program, including in the more difficult years. The Sooners reflect Coale's personality, which is about facing challenges and sometimes getting knocked down but wading right back into the fray.

Aaryn Ellenberg
Aaryn Ellenberg and OU are 15-7 overall, but 7-4 in the Big 12, good for third place in the league.

Oklahoma will do that next Big Monday, too, when No. 3 UConn visits Lloyd Noble Center for another game on ESPN2 (9 p.m. ET). The Sooners clearly would like to put on a better show than they did this Monday at Baylor. But even if they don't, it won't be because of intimidation.

"I've had older teams who refuse to let the name of the other team's jersey beat them," Coale said. "They were still going to play the game as hard as they could. The more calm we as a coaching staff can remain, the more positive, the better these younger guys now will handle it.

"I was prepared to be young this year, but I really wasn't prepared for all this. Being in closer games that maybe are not the magnitude, nationally speaking, that Baylor and UConn are adds to their ability to handle those big games and all that comes with it."

Exhibit A: Last week, the Sooners pulled out a 74-68 overtime victory at Kansas in a game even Coale conceded they probably had no business winning. The Jayhawks had gotten into the coaches' poll earlier that day and were on their home court with a very good junior tandem of post Carolyn Davis and point guard Angel Goodrich. Kansas should have had all the emotional energy.

Meanwhile, Oklahoma's leading scorer, Ellenberg, went 0-for-6 from the field -- scoring one point on a free throw -- and had no assists. But Campbell, a guard from Spencer, Okla., had the best game of her young career with 23 points (8-of-10 shooting) and five rebounds. Fellow rookie Williams, a forward, had eight points and 10 rebounds. Hand, red-faced from battling a cough, still played all 45 minutes.

"I'm really not sure how we did that," Coale said afterward. "To say that I'm really proud of our kids would be the ultimate understatement. Our character, our resolve rose to the surface. We had some huge plays from gutsy players who kept believing in each other. Under the leadership of Whitney Hand. She continues to keep the mindset -- on the floor and in the huddles -- positive and full of faith in each other. And that stuff's important."

Then this past Saturday, Oklahoma avenged its loss earlier this season to Oklahoma State. The Sooners are host this Saturday to Missouri -- a team that's still winless in Big 12 play but did push OU in a 62-59 loss last month -- then get ready for UConn.

Admittedly, Oklahoma as a program is still looking for that big-time, nationally televised win against a team ranked No. 1. The Sooners have been to the Final Four three times under Coale but haven't won a national championship. Oklahoma has now lost five in a row to Baylor, which is the Sooners' longest losing streak in that 39-game series.

All that is a pretty high bar for a program to judge itself on, and that's what Coale wants.

One of the interesting things about sports is trying to look into the future then later being able to review whether you saw it clearly. If you've only watched Oklahoma against Baylor, of course you might not think much of the 2011-12 Sooners.

But a year from now (cue the sound of Coale knocking on wood for Oklahoma's health), the Sooners might be a much larger presence nationally. In the meantime, there's still an important goal in the Big 12, along with another NCAA tournament berth, to strive for.

Plus, the Sooners can reflect on how playing the likes of Baylor, despite getting throttled, can help them grow up -- if they're open to grabbing onto lessons even while taking their lumps.

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at mechellevoepelblog.com.