“Looking back, that's one of the things I think that got us here, to be honest,” Thrailkill said. “Whitney had been everything. All the players deferred to Whitney, so it came down to (Coale) having people buy into leadership roles and letting people know exactly what's expected, and not letting kids off the hook.”
That's where Coale's propensity for finding different ways to motivate became crucial. Sometimes, it meant temporarily sacrificing the players' affection for her.
“She'll sacrifice that for the team because she knows it's best,” Hand said. “However she has to get it out of us, she does. Every moment that's been a turning point, she's responded the right way.”
Oklahoma lost its first game, 76-63 to Vanderbilt, after Hand's injury, but then won six straight.
The Sooners lost five of their eight games in February, including four out of five over a difficult stretch through the middle of the month, before rebounding to win their last two regular-season games.
Asked what specifically changed about the team after its early season rash of injuries, Ross said, “Everything. Physical, mental, emotional, spiritual. ... I've been with (Coale) 17 years and I'm still amazed how she just knows what they need. Every year, she gets them to bind together and be this unit no matter what the situation is.”
After losing to Iowa State in the Big 12 semifinals, Oklahoma sneaked past Central Michigan in the NCAA Tournament's first round, then routed No. 3 seed UCLA — which beat OU in Norman just four months earlier — to earn a Sweet 16 spot in Oklahoma City.
Coale deflects lots of the credit for her team's surprising NCAA run, heaping praise on her assistant coaches.
“I can't tell you how much easier it is for me to trust my instincts and to lead by feel because of the faith and trust I have in my staff,” Coale said of Ross, Thrailkill and Pam DeCosta. “They allow me to be in that place where I can hear myself. It's easy to lose that voice sometimes.”
Over the 115 short days between Hand's injury and Sunday afternoon's regional semifinal against Tennessee, Coale's careful, meticulous methods spurred this Oklahoma team's remarkable, immense growth — not unlike the mustard seed described in the gospels.
“It all just takes a little faith,” said senior Jasmine Hartman, who stored her mustard seed in a plastic bag in her locker.
“If each and every person has a little faith, we can go a million miles.”
MORE FROM NEWSOK
NO. 2 TENNESSEE VS. NO. 6 OKLAHOMA
When: 3:30 p.m. Sunday
Where: Chesapeake Energy Arena
TV: ESPN2 (Cox 28/HD 721, Dish 144, DirecTV 209, U-verse 606/HD 1606)
Radio: KOKC-AM 1520, KREF-AM 1400
Three things to know
*Oklahoma and Tennessee meet for the sixth time, with the Volunteers holding a 4-1 advantage in the all-time series.
*Tennessee beat Oral Roberts and Creighton in their home gym to advance to Sunday's regional semifinal.
*The Volunteers won the regular-season SEC championship, but lost to Texas A&M in the conference tournament title game.