NORMAN — Oklahoma might not have qualified for the NCAA Tournament — much less the Sweet 16 — without senior forward Joanna McFarland's considerable transformation.
That's how Whitney Hand sees it, anyway.
“I believe that with my whole heart,” Hand said. “Big plays. Always big rebounds, big shots. We can't not have her on the court.”
McFarland's 38 points and 33 rebounds through the first two tournament games were critical in sixth-seeded Oklahoma's victories, which set up Sunday's regional semifinal with No. 2-seed Tennessee at Chesapeake Energy Arena.
The story of how McFarland, who entered her senior season with 38 career starts and averages of 4.8 points and 5.8 rebounds, became vital to Oklahoma's success began with an early December catastrophe inside Lloyd Noble Center.
“When Whitney (Hand) got hurt,” McFarland responded when asked to pinpoint the onset of her transformation.
Hand, a senior guard, team leader and fan favorite, suffered a career ending ACL tear late in the first half of the Sooners' win over North Texas.
“I thought, ‘It's gotta be done; it's gotta be right now,'” McFarland said.
Statistics support McFarland's claim, and they're remarkable: At halftime against North Texas, Oklahoma trailed and McFarland had scored just two points.
After the break, she scored 10, including four free-throws in the final minutes that helped secure OU's 71-68 win.
But the stunning statistics go far beyond one game. McFarland started Oklahoma's first three games of the 2012-13 season, recorded a total of six points and 12 rebounds and was benched.
She averaged 4.3 points, 6.9 rebounds and 19.3 minutes this season before the night of Hand's injury. From that game on, those numbers are 11.5. 11.5 and 31.7, respectively.
McFarland's effort and energy have never been in question. Teammates describe her as the ultimate competitor, regardless of the competition. Board games, academics, even team stretching — she always wants to be the first player finished — are cutthroat, life-or-death contests to McFarland.
Coach Sherri Coale said McFarland “hates to lose almost as much as she loves to win.”
“I think what (Hand's injury) did was put her in a position where she couldn't afford to worry about not being perfect,” Coale said. “That's in her DNA.
“When Whitney went down, she was like, ‘I don't have time to worry.'”
Perhaps nothing illustrates the change in McFarland better than the Sooners' second-round win Monday over UCLA.
McFarland scored 20 points and grabbed 16 rebounds in the victory. On Nov. 14, when Oklahoma at home to UCLA, McFarland started, played 17 minutes, grabbed only three rebounds and didn't score a single point.
“I'm literally playing every game like it's my last, because it can be, it might be,” McFarland said. “There's no tired. There's no ‘I can't.'”
2013 NCAA Oklahoma City Regional
When: Sunday (OU vs. Tennessee at 3:30 p.m.; Baylor vs. Louisville at 6 p.m.); Tuesday (8 p.m.)
Where: Chesapeake Energy Arena
Tickets: All-sessions tickets — courtside levels ($48); end zones ($35); Individual session tickets — courtside levels ($32), end zones ($21.
Phone numbers: 1-800-745-3000; (405) 236-5000.