- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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Guard Tiffany Bias talks about being a sophomore leader on a young team that has gone through a great deal on and off the court this season.
STILLWATER, Okla. -- Oklahoma State's Tiffany Bias was reaching for the relay baton before she was technically in the race. She committed to play for the Cowgirls while just a high school sophomore in Andover, Kan., a suburb of Wichita.
The Oklahoma State campus was just a couple of hours south, so it meant she could stay close to her family. She liked the friendly openness of everyone she encountered in Stillwater. And she especially appreciated that the player she hoped to eventually replace was eager to help her do just that.
"I talk to her almost every day. She's like my older sister," Bias said of Andrea Riley, the Big 12's all-time leading scorer, who finished at OSU in 2010 with 2,835 points and 707 assists and is now with the Phoenix Mercury. "She gives me advice when we have bad games and good games. She's always critiquing my game, which is good. She helps me keep my head up and supports me but also gives me that criticism that I need.
"When I first came to visit here, she kind of took me under her wing. She has shown me the ropes. We're not exactly the same player, but it's good to see how she got through things."
Of course, "getting through" took on a new, deeper, heart-searing meaning this season for everyone associated with Oklahoma State women's basketball. The program lost the driving force that had rejuvenated it, head coach Kurt Budke, along with assistant Miranda Serna, in a Nov. 17 plane crash.
Ever since, the Cowgirls and the staff have tried to walk that line between remembrance and moving forward. They have their private conversations in which the grief and sense of irreplaceable loss still well over. But they also know the last thing Budke and Serna would have wanted to see was a stack of L's next to Oklahoma State's name. They both loved the program, loved Stillwater, loved what has been and is still being built.
To that end, the Cowgirls have worked to stay as businesslike as possible in practices and games. When they hit a skid in late January that lasted into late February -- losing seven of eight games -- they didn't let themselves get bogged down emotionally.
Instead, the Cowgirls enter the first round of the Big 12 tournament having won their last three games of the regular season. It would have been four in a row if they could have pulled out a 53-50 loss at Kansas State on Feb. 22.
Oklahoma State is the No. 7 seed and takes on No. 10 Missouri at 8:30 p.m. ET Wednesday in Kansas City. The teams just met Saturday in Stillwater, with OSU winning 68-47. The Cowgirls also won the squads' first meeting 62-58 on Jan. 21 in Columbia, Mo.
"I think our players have started to practice better, and we've decided to make sure we have a conscious effort of going inside," said Jim Littell, Budke's assistant who took over as head coach after the crash and has since had the "interim" tag removed. "I believe some of our players have matured, and I feel we've played our best basketball the last three or four games.
"I've been told all year that people thought that 8-10 [in the Big 12] would get you into the [NCAA] tournament. All we can do is go to Kansas City and play as hard as we can."
The Cowgirls are 16-11 overall and indeed went 8-10 in league play. Even if that's not enough to make the NCAA field, the fact that they're in the bubble conversation is commendable. When Budke talked about this team, which has no seniors, back at media day in Kansas City in October, he was excited but pragmatic.
In fact, he was already looking forward to 2012-13, when the Cowgirls would be older and wiser. Budke, a Midwesterner, could see the crop of the future when looking at the little plants he had.
It has grown without him being able to tend to it -- although you could say he still does. The OSU staff gently requests that reporters not ask the players to talk about the accident, to let them focus on the season they're in the midst of playing and living. The truth is, though, you don't have to ask them. The players bring it up in the natural course of telling their story.
"Coach Budke and Coach Serna were so nice, they just opened their arms to me," freshman Liz Donohoe said of why she chose to come to Oklahoma State. "They were so excited when I told them. I remember Coach Budke always just had this glow in his eyes. He believed in me. I wanted to be part of what it felt like here."
That "glow" wasn't her imagination; Budke really did think that in Donohoe he'd gotten one of the steals of the 2011 recruiting class. Donohoe, a 6-foot forward from Edmond, Okla., hadn't played a ton of AAU basketball and didn't necessarily stand out remarkably to many evaluators. But Budke confided this past fall to those close to him that he wouldn't be a bit surprised if Donohoe was named the Big 12 freshman of the year.
On Monday, she was. Donohoe led Oklahoma State this season in scoring (12.4 points per game) and rebounding (7.1).
"Liz has had a tremendous freshman year for us," Littell said. "At times, we've put her in an unfair situation in terms of asking her to do too much for a freshman. But we've built a lot of things that we do around Liz. She's had some ups and downs, which happens to everybody, even juniors and seniors. But she's always come back and responded after a bad game."
Budke and Littell knew that part of the reason Oklahoma State could succeed this season even with so much reliance on younger players was that sophomore point guard Bias had gotten "old" -- in a good way -- before her time.
As mentioned, she was Riley's understudy before she even started college. This season, she is second on the team in scoring at 12.3 points per game and is averaging a team-best 6.6 assists. Plus, she has the personality to be in charge on the court.
"I enjoy having the weight on my shoulders, whether things go badly or go good," Bias said. "You have to have confidence in your game, and your team has to have it in you -- that they trust you to take the big shots. Be willing to take responsibility, whether you lose the game or win it.
"I think it's about just not buckling under pressure. We have no seniors, but I don't think that should matter. If you're a leader, you're a leader."
Bias had great rapport with Budke, who was the type of coach to tell his point guards, "Here are the keys to the car. I know we might have some fender-benders, but I trust you to drive this thing."
Littell comes off as more somber than Budke and did even before the tragedy. He and Budke were close friends, so Littell has gone through a very personal loss as well as a professional one. He can't and doesn't want to replace Budke literally. He's had to forge his own identity in the head coach's role, a job he'd previously done for a long time at the junior college level.
"It was a little hard at first; I think he would agree with that," Bias said of her adjusting to Littell as the main voice from the bench. "But we are on the same page now; we know what we want from each other. We've had many talks. He's worked with me a lot."
Said Littell: "Tiffany is really the heart and soul of our team. In her two years here, she hasn't lost a sprint on a daily basis. She's very competitive, wants to win. She knows when to play fast and when to slow down."
Bias acknowledges, though, that no one at Oklahoma State looks forward to slowing down when the season is over, when their minds might wander more to missing what is gone. But by the same token, Bias knows there's a lot to feel good about in terms of what Oklahoma State has done.
That included a 66-63 win over rival Oklahoma in Gallagher-Iba Arena on Jan. 14.
"That Bedlam game -- I saw Shelley in the stands, and that was a great feeling," Bias said of Budke's wife. "It was a rush of energy; our support was great.
"Coach Budke and Coach Serna were very much about everyone being as one. That game was like a dedication to them, really. I think at the end of the day, they would have been very proud of us."
At the end of this season for Oklahoma Sate, whenever that is, that sentiment will be the same.
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at email@example.com. Read her blog at mechellevoepelblog.com.
17dBonnie D. Ford