STILLWATER — As junior center Lindsey Keller digested just how close her Cowgirls were to making the NCAA Tournament – and they were thisclose – a sick feeling started to spread.
“I felt physically ill,” Keller said. “It was so heartbreaking, to see yourself that close and not get in, ugh.
“You go back and think, ‘What little thing could I have done to help win one more game? One more win is all we needed.'”
Or so it seemed, with Oklahoma State listed among the “next four” teams under consideration for an at-large berth, instead leaving the Cowgirls to settle for a spot in the WNIT for a second straight season.
They open postseason play against Central Arkansas on Friday, with tipoff set for 7 p.m. inside Gallagher-Iba Arena.
The last four teams in, according to NCAA committee chair Greg Christopher: Florida, Kansas, Michigan and Texas. OSU tied the Jayhawks and Longhorns for sixth place in the final Big 12 standings, even winning at KU in the season's final week to extend a three-game winning streak.
But a Big 12 Tournament loss to last-place Missouri became the Cowgirls' final impression heading into Selection Monday.
“As a team, we were frustrated and disappointed,” Keller said. “Honestly, we should have taken care of business ourselves. We should have beaten Missouri. We beat them twice; we should have beaten them again. I mean, they played very well, but we probably should have got them. Our fate was in our own hands. If we just would have buckled down…
“Hopefully we can mature and get to that level.”
And Keller insists that process starts immediately, even as it's logical to wonder what the Cowgirls have left in this emotionally grueling season? Pain remains from the loss of coaches Kurt Budke and Miranda Serna in a tragic November plane crash, with the team and the families and the university carrying heavy hearts for months now.
The Cowgirls have done their best to press on, arriving at this juncture 16-12 overall and posting several quality wins along the way.
Apparently, one win shy of NCAA Tournament inclusion.
“So the lesson learned is you control your own fate, your own destiny,” said OSU coach Jim Littell. “If we would have won one more game in the conference, we would have been in the NCAA Tournament. And we lost games by three, by five, by five, by eight. And it may not have come down to one game, it may have come down to four or five possessions in one game.
“So we're just trying to get our team to buy in to, ‘You play hard every possession. You execute every possession. Because there are rewards or consequences at the end of the year if you don't.'”
Maybe disappointment and more than a full week between the loss to Missouri and their WNIT opener have served the Cowgirls well.
“We've got a little fire in our gut right now,” Keller said. “Practices have been pretty intense. We've been going after each other. Everybody's just playing hard.”
And while the reward isn't as grand as the NCAA Tournament offers, this WNIT appearance isn't without merit for an OSU team dominated by freshmen and sophomores.
Kansas State used the WNIT as a springboard in 2006 and 2007. The Wildcats won the tournament the first year and made the Final Four the next, before finishing atop the Big 12 standings in 2008.
“I'm not saying this is going to do that for us,” Littell said, “but it can jump start you for next year and get your kids excited about the future of the program.”
Said Keller: “If we could win it, that would be so much better for us. More experience. Our young players would be able to get more games in. Plus it would just boost us into next season, get us going and give us something to be proud of and give our fans something to appreciate.”
WNIT: Oklahoma State vs. Central Arkansas
When: 7 p.m. Friday
Where: Gallagher-Iba Arena, Stillwater
Radio: KGFY-FM 105.5
Three things to know
UCA's Megan Herbert, after being named Southland Conference Freshman of the Year two seasons ago, has won the Player of the Year award the past two seasons.
The Cowgirls are 5-0 in WNIT games played in Gallagher-Iba Arena.
The teams have met once before, with OSU taking a 107-36 win in 2007.
Oklahoma State (16-12)
Pos.; Player; Ht.; Wt.; Cl.; Pts.; Reb.
F; Liz Donohoe; 6-0; Fr.; 12.3; 7.1
F; Kendra Suttles; 6-1; So.; 8.8; 5.1
F; Lindsey Keller; 6-2; Jr.; 7.5; 6.8
G; Tiffany Bias; 5-6; So.; 12.7; 6.5*
G; Jordan Schultz; 5-10; Fr.; 3.8; 1.2
Central Arkansas (24-6)
Pos.; Player; Ht.; Wt.; Cl.; Pts.; Reb.
F; Megan Herbert; 5-11; Jr.; 17.6; 11.3
F; Desiree' Rogers; 5-11; Jr.; 6.9; 6.4
G; Nakeia Guiden; 5-8; Sr.; 9.5; 2.2
G;Micah Rice; 5-6; So; 8.3; 2.7
G; Destinee Rogers; 5-5; Sr.; 6.7; 2.0