The women's NCAA tournament got some unexpected spice at Oklahoma's Senior Night on March 4. That's when
In a season in which 33-0 Connecticut has destroyed opponents by an average of nearly 32 points a game (the Huskies trounced the Sooners by 28 back in November) this is bold talk. But is it crazy talk?
Not necessarily. For one thing, thanks to the Huskies, the fourth-ranked Sooners (28-4, 15-1 in the Big 12) discovered their flaws early. "I don't think there's any way we'd have done what we did in conference play had we not gone to Storrs and gotten it handed to us," says coach
How much closer are they? Only an NCAA tournament rematch which would come at the Final Four in St. Louis will tell, but here's what we know now: The Sooners' powerful post game, anchored by Paris (who averages 16.4 points and 13.7 rebounds per game), has been even better since her talented twin, Ashley (12.7 points, 9.5 rebounds), dropped 25 pounds and vastly improved her conditioning last summer. "Ashley's ability and willingness to run on every play has changed us dramatically," says Coale. "Now, in transition on offense, we have [a layup threat] that someone has to take away, and on defensive transition she [gets back to] thwart fast breaks."
Even more critical to the Sooners' success this year is an improved backcourt. Point guard
Award-winning personnel aside, the Sooners can claim something the Huskies can't: They have been tested. Two weeks after the smackdown in Storrs, Cal had Oklahoma down by 26 at the half in San Jose. But in the greatest regulation rally in NCAA history, the Sooners stormed back to win 86-75. "That game gave us confidence that we could come back from anything," says Thompson.
Even when Hand broke her left index finger on Feb. 21, the Sooners found a silver lining. "We had to learn to manufacture rhythm," says Coale. "That's like finding a muscle you didn't know you had." Oklahoma went 3-1 in the games Hand missed, but she's still finding her stroke: She has missed her last 18 three-pointers and all five shots she took in Oklahoma's 74-62 loss to Texas A&M in the Big 12 tournament semifinal.
As for chemistry, Coale realized this group had it in abundance during a bus ride to the Waco airport after a win over Baylor in late January, when the whole team started singing the national anthem. "They had decided to all sing it together for Senior Night as a sign of unity," says Coale. "I told them to keep practicing!"
The team's musical performance on Senior Night won't earn it any trophies "Everyone was off-key," laughs Thompson but maybe Paris's challenge to her team will. "I was pretty shocked when she said it, but it will make everybody step up their game," says Thompson. "And it's going to make the tournament a little more exciting."