“They will always be my family,” Young said.
While Littell was dealing with his own grief and helping the players through theirs, there were still basketball games to play. Those Cowgirls were a young bunch. Add that to the trauma of the crash and the switch from Budke’s style to Littell’s, and they had their struggles. They lost a bunch of games that they were in but just couldn’t win at the end.
But at the end of that season, they put together a six-game run through the WNIT that Littell believes still resonates today.
“Very positive,” he said. “Get six additional games. Win the WNIT. That helped our kids learn how to win.”
That propelled the Cowgirls to the NCAA Tournament last season even though they lost several players in the wake of the crash and the change in head coach. OSU won its first-round game, then kept Duke on the ropes until the last five minutes of the game.
Now with a 22-7 record in the nation’s toughest conference and six of their seven losses coming against 20-win teams, the Cowgirls are expected to be a five or six seed when the NCAA Tournament bracket is announced in a little over a week. Make a run to the Big 12 title game this weekend, and they could rise even higher.
Players and assistants deserve plenty of credit for what’s happened these past few years, but so does Littell.
“He’s an unbelievable basketball coach,” Oklahoma coach Sherri Coale said. “I recruited Jamie Talbert from him back in the day when he was at Seward County, and he was an unbelievable coach there. Nobody wanted to play Seward County. He’s a great tactician. He does a great job with strategy, and his kids play really hard for him, and that’s a pretty lethal combination.”
Cowgirls who played under Littell the assistant aren’t surprised at the success that he’s having since becoming the head coach. But since they were around to see Budke and Littell together, they know how close the two men were. They marvel at Littell’s strength these past two-plus years.
“He could have sorrowed, he could have said, ‘No, I’m gonna leave, I’m gonna get away from everybody,’ but he didn’t,” former star Andrea Riley said. “I don’t know if I could do it. But there’s that saying about you never know how strong you are until that’s the only thing you have to be.
“He’s got so much strength.”
Jim Littell will always miss his best friend, but in continuing to build the program at OSU, he is continuing Kurt Budke’s legacy.
Littell is keeping Budke in it forever.
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 475-4125. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK, follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok or view her personality page at newsok.com/jennicarlson.