With game on line, Stevenson delivers

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- During the Big 12 tournament here in town two weeks ago, Oklahoma coach Sherri Coale joked about how senior Nyeshia Stevenson was sometimes "late to the party" but usually showed up.

On Sunday, Stevenson showed up the whole night for the Sooners, but was especially big at the end. Stevenson hit a 3-pointer from the baseline with 4.4 seconds left in overtime, then finished the scoring with two free throws as the No. 3 seed Sooners survived all that No. 2 Notre Dame could give them, 77-72.

Stevenson finished with 21 points in leading the Sooners to the Elite Eight, and it was a Sweet 16 redemption for a shot she missed a year ago at the Final Four.

In the national semifinals against Louisville, Stevenson had a good look at a 3-pointer in the final seconds. But it rattled out, which ended the Sooners' season with a 61-59 loss.

The year before in the NCAA second round, Stevenson played just 14 minutes and scored six points in Oklahoma's 79-75 overtime loss to this same Notre Dame program. Stevenson said she "ran away" from wanting to take big shots in that game.

She didn't want to have any regrets this time, and so when she spotted up for her shot, she did so with great confidence.

"I just said, 'Hey, when the clock is running down, if you're not going to take it, who is?'" Stevenson said. "So I just jumped up and shot it."

Stevenson was in that position because another confident shooter had forced the overtime. Notre Dame's Skylar Diggins stayed in her hometown of South Bend, Ind., to play for the Irish, and her rookie campaign couldn't have gone much better.

Diggins made a 3-pointer with 32 seconds left in regulation that tied the score at 66 as OU and Notre Dame went to extra time just as they did two years ago when they met in West Lafayette, Ind.

"She's been our leading scorer all year long," Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said of Diggins. "She's a close second in assists, leads us in steals. She'll occasionally be the leading rebounder if that's what we need her to do. She's our best on-ball defender.

"She had a sensational year. She really wanted the ball late in the game, and I was disappointed that we didn't get it to her a little bit more."

Diggins finished with 10 points, and Coale credited the defense of Sooners sophomore Jasmine Hartman for slowing her that much. Hartman had to step into a bigger role for OU this season after starter Whitney Hand went down with an ACL injury in November -- in the game before the Sooners faced Notre Dame and lost 81-71 in the Paradise Jam event in the Virgin Islands.

What Hartman did is really part of the overall "theme" for Oklahoma this season: elevating. Consider that after graduation and injuries cost the Sooners three-fifths of their starting lineup from a year ago, they are just one more victory away from duplicating their 2009 accomplishment of making the Final Four. Who, really, was expecting that?

Well, Coale isn't too surprised. She said the Sooners had the summer to prepare for the adjustment to being without Courtney and Ashley Paris, and during that time Abi Olajuwon lost weight and worked very hard to make her last season all it could be.

Amanda Thompson also prepared to be the rebounding machine that she has been in trying to replicate Courtney Paris, the top rebounder in the history of women's college basketball.

Point guard Danielle Robinson knew without the Paris twins as targets and minus Hand's sharpshooting outside, her penetrating drives and tireless demeanor would mean all the more for OU.

You saw it all on display in Sunday's victory. Olajuwon and Thompson combined for 33 points and 25 rebounds. Robinson, like Stevenson, played all 45 minutes and had 15 points and seven assists.

And they did all of this against a very good Notre Dame team, one that had seniors Melissa Lechlitner (22 points), Lindsay Schrader (19), Ashley Barlow (13) and Erica Williamson (4) all trying to extend their careers.

"If I was going to go down, I was going to go down swinging," Schrader said. "I told myself I had to attack the basket, and I did tonight. I left it all out there. There's nothing else I could have done."

In a joyful embrace at the finish, Coale said to Stevenson, "My, how you have grown up! Are you mature or what?"

And Stevenson said back, "I'm mature, Coach! I'm mature!"

You could say that about all of the Sooners, but especially the senior class of Stevenson, Thompson and Olajuwon.

"Everything about this game, I thought, was kind of how it's supposed to be for this senior group," Coale said. "As far as this stage and what this tournament can do for you, most of the success in life is about being confident and believing you can do things. And the really superior part of athletics is that it can teach you that -- if you let it."

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.