- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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LAWRENCE, Kan. -- Oklahoma coach Sherri Coale did something Sunday that she hasn't done in 14 years: leave Allen Fieldhouse with a loss.
Kansas' 81-71 victory over the No. 22 Sooners had a lot of storylines connected to it, not the least of which is the difficulty of conference play in the "dog days" of February.
Thursday in Norman, Okla., the Sooners held Iowa State to 3-of-14 shooting from long range, which is generally an effective means of beating the Cyclones. But not when you surrender 46 points to the forward combo of Hallie Christofferson and Chelsea Poppens. Oklahoma lost 72-68.
Then Sunday, the Sooners were at Kansas, where they haven't lost since Feb. 20, 1999. The Jayhawks were coming off a tight-wire act Wednesday in which they spotted Big 12 newcomer and current cellar dweller TCU a 23-point halftime lead before rallying for a 76-75 win in Fort Worth, Texas.
So what would happen between Kansas and Oklahoma? Would the Jayhawks' longtime struggles against the Sooners -- KU had beaten OU just once in their last 16 meetings -- continue? Would Oklahoma right its ship, or hit another rock?
And how much of an impact would that three-letter abbreviation that brings so much heartbreak in sports -- ACL -- have on this game?
This time, things went the Jayhawks' way. Led by their seniors, they got yet another crucial win for the NCAA résumé.
"I've been here, and I know how it works," KU senior forward Carolyn Davis said of teams thinking about their positioning this late in the season. "Having gone through it before, making it to the tournament last year, barely. Just knowing the games you have to win, who you have to beat. Those things stay in my mind."
Applaud Davis for her honesty. In her previous three seasons, the Jayhawks didn't quite do enough twice for NCAA selection, and then did -- with very little room to spare -- last year. But that 2012 NCAA tournament berth, which ended an 11-year Big Dance drought for KU, was bittersweet for Davis. She suffered a torn ACL and dislocated her knee in February 2012, so she didn't get to finish out the season.
Now, there's another Jayhawk starter on the sidelines with an ACL injury: sophomore guard Natalie Knight. She suffered her injury Jan. 30, when she had a career-high 21 points against Iowa State. In that game, the Jayhawks rallied from down 14 points with 5 minutes left and won in overtime, but also lost the kid who'd just had one of the best games of her career.
We see these scripts so often, especially in women's basketball, where the ACL regularly plays the role of dastardly villain. Senior guard Angel Goodrich has been through two ACL injuries at Kansas: one that pre-empted what would have been her freshman season, and another that cut short her actual rookie year.
Yet here she was Sunday playing in her 100th game for the Jayhawks, finishing with 10 assists -- the exact number she needed to break the KU women's career record. Goodrich now has 687 assists, surpassing Lisa Braddy, who was at KU from 1986-90.
Goodrich, who is from Tahlequah, Okla., talked about how when she was in high school, she went to Oklahoma's camps.
"Every year, Sherri Coale would write on my shirt: 'My future point guard,'" Goodrich said. "But I just came [to Kansas] and felt like this is where I needed to be. It felt like the right spot for me."
Coale, who's in her 17th season at Oklahoma and has coached or gone against all the Big 12's best point guards, had kind words for Goodrich. Even if she didn't become a Sooner.
"She has a great pace about her, a real soft, fluid game," Coale said. "Plays at the right speed, crafty, clever. And anytime somebody sets an assist record, that means you've had some people around you that can finish baskets. She's been exactly what I thought she would be in this league. Would have loved to have kept her home, but she's had a great career here."
Sunday, Davis and Goodrich -- best friends with so many hours of lonely, painful knee rehab between them -- both had double-doubles for KU. Davis finished with 24 points and 10 rebounds, Goodrich with 17 points and 10 assists.
And another senior starter, Monica Engelman, had 21 points and five rebounds. It was Engelman's career-high 26 points last Wednesday that had led KU back from the depths against TCU.
"There's poise and composure," KU coach Bonnie Henrickson said of what seniors can bring to a team. "There's a sense of calm -- but not without a heartbeat or pulse. Their huddles got tighter, their voices got louder, they went and made plays."
Kansas is now 16-8 overall, 7-6 in the Big 12. That ties the Jayhawks for fifth place with Oklahoma State. Meanwhile Oklahoma, which a week ago was in second place behind running-away-with-it Baylor, is now fourth in the Big 12 at 8-5. Tied for second are Texas Tech and Iowa State, which lost by a basket at home Sunday to seventh-place West Virginia, a league newcomer.
The Jayhawks and Sooners still have work to do to secure their at-large NCAA berths. (With the way Baylor's going, it's pretty safe to assume the Lady Bears will win the Big 12 tournament and the automatic bid).
Coale's last loss in Lawrence came when her program was still establishing itself and was still three years from its 2002 Final Four breakthrough. Coale's two children were still little then, and Marian Washington was still coaching the Jayhawks.
Something that was exactly the same, though, in 1999 was how season-ending injuries can decimate teams. Sunday, Coale could look down her bench and see key players such as Whitney Hand (ACL), Maddie Manning (ACL), and Kaylon Williams (Achilles' tendon) all unable to do more than cheer on their teammates.
"We're smack dab in the middle of it right now," Coale said of the slog to battle through conference play and make a case for an NCAA bid. "Down the stretch, it's important to stay as fresh as you can. We're doing as little as we can in practice, yet guys get worn down. And I think it affects shooting.
"We shot so poorly today, just a really lousy offensive performance. And you wonder how much of that is just minutes, minutes, minutes. There's not anything we can do about it; we have to rise above it. I told our guys in the locker room, 'Great teams find ways to win when they play poorly.'"
Kansas knows that, too, because the Jayhawks have been through the same thing. Sunday, KU left its historic building feeling a little closer to its NCAA tournament goal.
But Wednesday is a trip to Texas, a team that is 2-11 in the Big 12 and just looking to make somebody else feel the pain of losing. The Jayhawks don't want to be that team.
"They see the numbers; we've got a standings board in the film room," Henrickson said of her Jayhawks. "There's no sense hiding and not talking about it. Today, [we had] a top-25 win. Now come to practice tomorrow and try to get better. I'm not the fun-hater here, I'm the realist."
And the good thing for Henrickson is, she's got seniors who are realists, too.