NORMAN — Abi Olajuwon and Joanna McFarland led the parade of Sooners up the Lloyd Noble Center ramp and through the small but jubilant gathering of fans.
Amanda Thompson raised a triumphant fist. Carlee Roethlisberger high-fived a lucky soul. Sherri Coale hugged a familiar face. The pep band played. The pom girls danced. And when the charter bus honked as it headed toward the airport Thursday afternoon, the fans whooped and hollered, waved and smiled. It was a good day in Soonerville. Oklahoma is going to the Women’s Final Four. The entire Sooner Nation should thank its lucky stars for these gals. They haven’t just earned the right to go to San Antonio and play for a national championship. They haven’t just put together a magical season despite difficulty and adversity. They have been a bright spot in an otherwise gloomy time for OU athletics. This has been a tough year for the crimson and cream. The football season was a disappointment. The men’s basketball season was a fiasco. Now, the athletic department is investigating reports that Sooner center Tiny Gallon received $3,000 from a financial adviser. For a school still on probation for major NCAA rules violations, there could be more bad news in the offing. There could be more program penalties. There could be more ugly headlines. OU is already on a short leash. If the NCAA yanks on it again for men’s basketball violations, every program will feel the pain. Yet as the women’s basketball team left for San Antonio and the Final Four, no one seemed to be thinking about any of that. More than a dozen athletic department officials gathered near the team bus, smiling and talking in the afternoon sun. Joe Castiglione had a similar look about him Tuesday night as he basked in the glow of the Sooners’ Elite Eight victory. He smiled while he watched the players and coaches celebrate on the Sprint Center court. "How hard is it to get to this point?” he asked. He wasn’t really expecting an answer, but here’s one anyway — it’s unbelievably hard to survive four must-win games in the NCAA Tournament, to play with great energy and high intensity in each game, to triumph even as the opponents get tougher and the stakes get higher. But here’s the thing — it’s been even harder than that for these Sooners. Sure, this is the first season without Courtney and Ashley Paris, but everyone knew they would eventually graduate and the Sooners would be without them.