Sherri Coale was on her soapbox Tuesday night.
With eyes flashing and curls flying, the bubbly Oklahoma women’s basketball coach made a passionate plea for her Sooners — her 16-13 Sooners — to be in the NCAA Tournament field. She wasn’t angry but very blunt and clearly biased that her team deserved a spot in the dance, even with a competitive 79-66 loss to sixth-ranked Texas at the Erwin Center.
“I tell you what guys, we’ve played the No. 2 toughest schedule in the country, and we have a top-30 RPI,” said Coale, whose team is 2-9 against ranked opposition. “Do we pass the eyeball test? Absolutely we should. I would think so. If we’re not one of best 64, we might be one of the best 25 or 30, or maybe even 15. And if we make some free throws tonight …”
While Coale was talking what-ifs, her Texas counterpart was talking about what’s next. And for Karen Aston, that’s the Big 12 tournament. And nothing else.
Not the first two rounds of the NCAAs which her Texas team will host. Not anything beyond that. And certainly not the — shhhhh — Final Four.
That’s a definite no-no.
They’re not even thinking about the playoffs a bit. Both senior guards Brooke McCarty and Ariel Atkins shook their heads no.
“No, we’re not (looking ahead),” said an emotional McCarty, who scored 17 points in 39 minutes in the final regular-season game of her career. “Because we still have to play the Big 12 tournament.”
Aston, sitting next to them, flashed a knowing smile and said, “They’ve brainwashed each other.”
And they’ve learned from the past, eager to avoid repeating it. They still remember falling to sixth-ranked Stanford in the Sweet 16 last year after barely squeaking by 17th-ranked North Carolina State in the Erwin Center and finishing 25-9. That 19-game win string from mid-December to to mid-February went for naught. And the memory is painful.
“We got ahead of ourselves last year,” Aston said. “They went through that long win streak last year and started thinking about this, that and the other. That’s why their mantra has been to take one day at a time.”
They won’t make the same mistake this year. The two seniors do have things they want to do.
“Camping,” McCarty said.
“Zip-lining,” Atkins said.
Aston frowned nearby and said, “I don’t want to see them zip-lining. Ever. Brooke might sail away.”
Instead, they’ll stick to practice and teamwork and chemistry building. But surely they watch television and see national commentary on which seed this team deserves and where this team might be sent. Not McCarty.
“She watches Lifetime,” Aston said of McCarty, who has regained her shooting touch of late with 16 threes in 25 attempts over the last four games.
Well, her college lifetime will be coming to an end at some point in the next five weeks. And the success that the tunnel-vision McCarty, the athletic and gifted Atkins and the rest of their teammates on this 24-5 squad have before then will determine how they look back on these times.
There’s nothing to keep Texas from winning it all except maybe a challenged front court and some occasional mental lapses like six turnovers in the first quarter. Oh, and the foul-prone Atkins collecting her first personal foul in the first minute of the game. But she was whistled for no fouls the rest of the half, a reporter reminded Aston.
“Thank you,” said an appreciative Atkins.
Texas, which as the No. 2 seed in the Big 12 tournament will play its first game on Saturday, is blessed with an array of talent at guard, players who can push the ball and score from the perimeter and in transition and rebound with 22 boards among them Tuesday. But Aston does not have the luxury of a strong front court like a Baylor or a South Carolina.
Tournaments are made for guard play, but one bad shooting night could end Texas’ season unless Jatarie White, Joyner Holmes and the undersized Jordan Hosey come through with solid play down low to compensate. Compounding the situation, the Longhorns’ most experienced post player, Audrey-Ann Caron Goudreau, hasd a bruised wrist that required surgery and may not return.
Asked if Texas is a Final Four-caliber team, Coale said, “They’re very talented. Their guards wreak so much havoc defensively that it’s hard to take advantage of that mismatch (inside). With their experience on the perimeter, they can score a lot of different ways. They’re pretty solid.”
The Longhorns are projected as a 2 seed in the national tournament, the same as Big 12 champion Baylor, which could be without recently injured Kristy Wallace. The Big 12 tournament should have no bearing on either team’s seed in the NCAA Tournament, but that doesn’t mean Texas’ goal will change.
“We’re gonna try to win,” Aston said.
One goal, one mindset, one day at a time. And hopefully it leads to one championship.