NORMAN — Sherri Coale isn’t sure quite how big of a role she played in helping Tyler Neal fulfill his dream of playing basketball at Oklahoma.
But about five years ago, the Sooners’ women’s coach kept running into Neal when she went to watch her son, Colton, play at Norman High and during the summer.
“I just loved the way he shot the ball,” Coale said of Neal, who then played for Putnam City West. “I thought he had great instincts and could really put the ball in the basket.”
Coale also found out from close friend Dan Hays, the Oklahoma Christian University men’s basketball coach, that Neal wanted to play for the Sooners.
Hays really wanted Neal to come play for him, but there wasn’t much turning back once OU got involved.
“It was what Tyler had had his mind set on and was hoping and praying for — who wouldn’t want to help the local school,” said Don Neal, Tyler’s father. “We had a stack here four or five inches tall of envelopes from schools. He just never even bothered opening them.
“He had his mind set on where he’s going.”
So Coale called then-OU men’s coach Jeff Capel and told her about the kid who had the longtime dream of suiting up for the Sooners and who had the shot to do it.
“I don’t know if I was the first person to find out about him,” Coale said. “He may have been on Jeff’s radar. He may have been watching him anyway. I may have been just a small, tiny little vote of confidence. I’d seen him. He’s good. He’s legit.”
Saturday, Neal and Cameron Clark will be honored in a Senior Day ceremony before the Sooners’ 3 p.m. game against Texas in Lloyd Noble Center.
Family and friends of Tyler and the rest of the Neal family are coming from around the country for the event.
“It’s kind of hit me this week,” Tyler said. “It’s a little weird with it not being the absolute last home game, but it’ll be fun.
“It’s been a fun last year.”
After averaging 3.1 points through his first three seasons, including 1.1 last year, Neal has played a big role for the Sooners off the bench as they make their way to a second consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance.
He’s averaging 6.7 points and 3.3 rebounds per game. In Big 12 play, his minutes have gone up slightly while his scoring average has increased to 7.5.
“What he’s done in these last 10 games or so, he’s done at times during his college career but the consistency is the big difference,” Sooners coach Lon Kruger said. “Pretty much every time out now you kind of expect him to do that. In the past, it was more of when he did it, it was nice but there’s more of an expectation now. He’s responded well to the higher level of expectation because we need him to do what he’s doing.”
What the 6-foot-7 Neal has been doing is hitting big shots at critical times, creating matchup problems with forwards tasked with defending him away from the basket. Neal is fourth on the team with 28 3-pointers.
No matter how big of a role Coale played in convincing Capel to give Neal a chance, she’s enjoyed watching his development — especially this year.
“It’s been neat,” she said. “I think you always feel so happy for seniors to have the kind of year that their potential speaks toward. Joanna McFarland had one of those years for us (last year). Nothing makes you feel better as a coach to see them grow and bloom at the right time. He has been fantastic this year. He makes the big shots at big time(s). I think that’s a combination of character, mental toughness and patience.
“He’s worked and toiled and kind of done his thing in the shadows and when he got the opportunity to shine this year, he’s done it beautifully.”