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An inside look as the Sooners try to find an identity

By George Schroeder Published: February 9, 2007
AUSTIN, Texas — The coach does not say much. There is not much to say.

Moments earlier, the final buzzer sounded. Now, sitting in a semicircle in the locker room, the Sooners stare straight ahead, in silence, trying to make sense of a two-game losing streak.

After a 67-62 loss to Texas, their faces show anger and frustration — but also confusion. They are not sure how they arrived here. Or how to get back out.

"We have got,” Sherri Coale says, slowly emphasizing each word, "to figure out who we are.”

This was nine days ago. Since then, the Sooners have beaten Oklahoma State. They've practiced hard, and well.

But in a sense, they're still in that locker room. Still trying to figure out who they are.

Tomorrow, Oklahoma plays at Texas A&M — which, two weeks ago, snapped OU's 26-game Big 12 winning streak. On Monday, the Sooners host Texas.

The next three days will reveal much about the identity of a team that, not so long ago, had it all figured out. The Sooners were rolling again through the Big 12 schedule, heading toward a destination — and they were certain of this — of Cleveland, and the Final Four.

Then came Jan. 31, when for the second straight game, OU was buried beneath an avalanche of turnovers.

Back to Coale's short, emphatic monologue:

"Maybe,” she continues, looking at first one Sooner, then another, "there's been way too much talk about Cleveland and the Big 12 Championship — and not enough talk about fundamentals and executing. … We have to get better.

"Are you guys scared?”

"No!” comes the reply, from several players.

"You sure did look scared,” the coach says.

"Your future's so bright, it burns my eyes.” – Oprah Winfrey.

Before each practice, OU players receive a handout with the day's emphases and drills, timed to the minute. Each practice plan also includes a "Thought.” Typically unrelated to basketball, these are nuggets Coale has clipped and saved — enough to fill three large recipe boxes in the corner of her office.

One day last month, Coale plucked Oprah's quote. It seemed to fit, and it seemed familiar. Turned out, she'd used it before, during the 2001-02 Final Four season (and coincidentally, on the same date).

Not that this bunch needed much reminding about its potential.

Even after the loss to A&M, the Sooners had remained confident, with no suspicions that it was anything but an anomaly.

And maybe, the thinking went, it wasn't such a bad thing. No remaining pressure from the streak, but perhaps an added urgency with the knowledge that they weren't invincible.

The Sooners certainly didn't appear uptight the night before the Texas game.

They gathered in Coale's suite on the 14th floor of a downtown Austin hotel for one last scouting session on the Longhorns, but "American Idol” came first. Like the rest of the nation, the Sooners laughed at some auditions. And they sang along with the guy doing Michael Jackson's "Rock With You.”

The meeting itself was brief. Assistant coach Jan Ross showed several minutes of Texas highlights, along with the keys to winning — take away their easy baskets; value the basketball.

"What's the No. 1 thing on our list?” Coale asked.

"Value the basketball,” came the chorus.

With the meeting over, the girls were free to spend the rest of the evening in their rooms.

"Take care of your bodies. Get some rest,” Coale told them. "There was a little too much dancing in the hallways at Colorado.”

The Sooners laughed, and left — again singing … "You gotta feel that beat…”

They were still relaxed at a light practice the next morning. When it was over, the girls circled Coale at midcourt, holding hands.

"With what we did on Saturday, we gave away a little of our mystique,” Coale said. "We can get it back by burying (Texas) early.”

The day's schedule also included a couple of hours at a nearby mall — a staple of OU's trips. It's not so much about shopping; Coale doesn't want the players to lie around their hotel rooms.

Hours later, with the clock ticking toward tip-off, Coale had a few last-minute instructions.

"They can play very hard,” she said of Texas. "What they have never been able to match that we have is the ‘together' part.”

And a few minutes later: "Why is it so important for us to value those possessions? Because we're too good. We cannot be guarded unless we stop ourselves.

"This game is about urgency. … We can regain a lot of that mystique. I want you to punch 'em. We know what we're capable of.”

And the team huddled: "One, two, three: TOGETHER!”

But the mood at halftime was a bit different. Instead of punching, the Sooners were reeling from one. Texas led 36-20.

"They are winning every battle!” one Sooner yelled.

No one was happy — Coale least of all.

"They've outrebounded us, but that's not what I'm disappointed by,” the coach said. "We're shooting 26 percent, but that's not what I'm disappointed by.

"We are not us. It is so evident, it is crystal-clear. And we're nothing when we are not together.”

And then Coale diagramed second-half strategy. Offensively, OU would spread the floor and pass to Courtney Paris; defensively, the Sooners would trap everywhere, all the time.

"This might be the best thing that could happen to us,” Coale said. "How good can we be? I want a total commitment to every possession.

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Photo Gallery: Women's road trip
Audio: An inside look

Oklahoma guard Erin Higgins sits during a press conference after the Sooners lost to Texas in Austin two weeks ago. BY BRYAN TERRY, THE OKLAHOMAN


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