If you want to understand why this Oklahoma women's basketball team has been able to overcome a slew of injuries, play with a short bench but still be able to make a surprising run to the Sweet 16, you need to walk in the locker room with Eden Williams.
She is a Sooner volleyball player who was asked to join the basketball team midseason after four players suffered season-ending injuries. Even though she has practiced lots and played a bit and become part of the team, she still looks at this team with fresh eyes.
What has she seen?
What makes it tick?
She's been on lots of teams during her life at different levels and in different sports, but she's never seen a team quite like this.
“What's different is the love that each one of these girls has for everyone,” she said. “You have teams where not everyone gets along. That's not the case for this team.”
It's obvious every time she walks into the locker room.
“And everyone's having a conversation with everyone,” she said.
No one is an outsider. Everyone is a friend. Teammates aren't tolerated. They are loved.
“That's what makes them want to fight for each other,” Williams said.
That might seem like an Oprahfied answer for why this team won a pair of games last week and will play Tennessee on Sunday in the Sweet 16, but what if that love is actually the secret sauce in this NCAA Tournament run?
These Sooners started building bonds before the season even began. In August, they went on a two-week tour of Australia. They played four games, but they also saw the sights. They petted kangaroos and went whitewater rafting and snorkeled the Great Barrier Reef.
The trip not only integrated new players but also brought everyone closer on and off the court. This would become a team that would have weekly Bible study together, randomly call each other on Friday nights and end up at the movies, even hang out on their off days.
But those bonds were tested by a horrific run of injuries.
In October, Kaylon Williams ruptured her Achilles tendon.
In early November, Lyndsey Cloman ended her career because of a recurring back issue.
In late November, Maddie Manning tore her ACL.
In December, Whitney Hand did the same.
Not long after, Eden Williams joined the team so it would have enough practice players. Even though the Sooners were going through a devastating time, there were no signs that the troubles were tearing them apart. It was still a team having Bible study and going to the movies.
That bond never weakened.
“I wish everyone could see these people,” Williams said of her basketball teammates. “I wish they could see how they react and how they handle things.”
Such as coming back from a 22-point deficit to beat West Virginia in the Big 12 Tournament.
“I still was like, ‘We're gonna win. They want it,'” Williams said. “It was just the look on their faces.
“I mean, not a lot of people get to look in the huddle, but when you're looking at those five people ... there was no way we were going to lose that game.”
Williams counts that come-from-behind win as her favorite memory from the season. It was indicative of everything that has made this team so successful. They faced serious adversity, but they beat it because everyone stepped up and played hard.
You play that way when you want to do right by your teammates.
These Sooners clearly want that, something that even outsiders can see it.
“I don't care if they're dealing with five (healthy) people, six, seven, eight; they play extremely hard,” Tennessee coach Holly Warlick said. “They play extremely well together and feed off each other.”
Eden Williams knows the reason why. She's seen it in the games. She's seen it during the practices. She's seen it in the locker room.
It's the love.
“With so many things that they've gone through, who thought they were going to be in the Sweet 16?” she said. “No one thought they could to it. They just proved 'em wrong.
“I think that's what they're meant to do; they're meant to prove people wrong.”
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at (405) 475-4125. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK, follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok or view her personality page at newsok.com/jennicarlson.