He put another parable before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field.
It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”
Oklahoma coach Sherri Coale used that Bible verse — Jesus' “Parable of the Mustard Seed” — in a powerful teaching moment just before her team began Big 12 Tournament play in early March.
As the Sooners sat in the film room, Coale passed out one tiny mustard seed to each player on her team, which began the season with soaring expectations, lost four players to devastating injuries and somehow remains alive for Sunday's Sweet 16 showdown with Tennessee inside Chesapeake Energy Arena.
The lesson represents another example of Coale's unique ability to connect with young people and understand what motivates them individually.
“It's a very spiritual group,” Coale said. “They study scripture all the time, so I knew immediately they would know the implications. It's one thing to read about that in the Bible, and one thing to hear your preacher talk about it, and another thing entirely to see how little that thing is. As coaches, we always try to find ways to make things real.
“When people feel, incredible things can happen.”
This season was especially trying for Coale and her team, which included only eight healthy players after senior guard Whitney Hand's career-ending ACL tear in a Dec. 6 home win over North Texas.
Assistant coach Jan Ross, Coale's college teammate at Oklahoma Christian, has been by her best friend's side throughout her entire 17-year tenure as the Sooners' coach, and said this year's injuries hit Coale particularly hard.
“I think a lot of her motivation coming into this season was wanting to get those seniors — and especially Whitney Hand — back to the Final Four,” Ross said. “When Whitney got hurt, it hit her to the core.
“She's not gonna let anybody know it bothered her. She's gonna fight back and not let it change her goals.”
The goals never changed, but the means to reach them certainly did. First and foremost, Coale needed to get herself — and her players — past the initial shock of Hand's injury, which happened late in the first half against North Texas.
The Sooners rallied to win that game 71-68, and OU assistant Chad Thrailkill points to that victory as one of the season's most important.
“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.”
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.