SAN ANTONIO — Abi Olajuwon played with the piece of white cord freshly snipped off the Sprint Center net. It was longer than last season’s. As the Oklahoma center celebrated the Sooners’ return trip to the Final Four on Tuesday night, she found herself thinking about past OU teams that didn’t make it as far. Her freshman season, the Sooners had a celebrated senior class led by Leah Rush, but they lost in the Sweet 16. When the Sooners made the Final Four last year, Olajuwon cut her piece of net in half and gave a piece to Rush. "I knew how much it meant to her,” Olajuwon said. The bond that Olajuwon feels with Rush might be rare in the sports world, but it is hardly unique on this OU team. Links to past players are common among these players. What’s more, the bonds are strong. They always are among Sooners past and present. Sherri Coale makes sure of that, and at a time when the teams left in the NCAA Tournament are looking for every edge, this might be one for OU. These Sooners aren’t just playing for themselves. "We’re doing it for everybody who wanted to be there,” Amanda Thompson said. "We’re doing it for them.” The Sooner senior looked for another way to explain the bonds that extend across different generations of teams and different eras of the program. "It’s kind of like a sorority when you think about it,” she said. "Except you don’t have to do all that other stuff.” No spring formals. No date dashes. "It’s just family,” Thompson said. "It’s more than just being a part of a program. It’s being part of a family.” That family atmosphere is one of Coale’s main selling points with recruits. While they may not entirely grasp what she means — "Once you’re an Oklahoma Sooner, you’re always an Oklahoma Sooner, you’re always a part of that family” — the ones who commit quickly realize how deep the connections run. Players meet alums who received the same scholarship that they have. (Every women’s basketball scholarship has been endowed and named.) They meet alums when they come to games. They stay connected via e-mail and text and Facebook. Jamie Talbert-Wyrick, the starting center on the Sooners’ 2002 Final Four team, even started a Facebook group for current and former players. "It’s nice to be able to see the foundation of the program,” Sooner point guard Danielle Robinson said, "to be able to interact with them and keep in contact with them.” That connection was something Olajuwon sought during her recruitment. "Do you talk to your players after they graduate?” she remembers asking a Big 12 coach who she refused to name. "Why?” the coach replied. That business-like approach suits some people, but Olajuwon wanted something different. Now, she considers LaNeishea Caufield-Daniels a good friend. The same goes for Beky Preston and Stephanie Simon. She never played a day with any of those gals. "It’s only because we’re Sooners,” Olajuwon said. "It’s only because we’re part of that family.” And in this family, the elders provide what they can for the current generation. They offer advice. They give suggestions. More than anything, though, they support and cheer, encourage and celebrate. Lately, no one has celebrated more than the players from the 2002 team. They went to the Final Four in San Antonio, so this year’s team returning to the Alamodome has been special. They sent text messages. They sent flowers. A bunch of them planned to gather in San Antonio. "We’ll be waiting on the Riverwalk,” they told the players and coaches. "We’ll hold a boat for you. Come see us.” Thinking about that leaves Coale misty eyed. "As a coach, God, it doesn’t get any better than that,” she said. "It just doesn’t get any better than that.” Coale considers that family atmosphere to be the bedrock of her program. "It’s what we’ve built it upon,” she said. "It’s the essence of our program.” Players and coaches believe those family ties have helped the Sooners play in the Final Four three times in the 2000s. They have joined an elite group and established a perennial power. They believe there is strength in numbers, and these Sooners are drawing strength from the players who came before them. "When these guys feel that connection with former players, they’re playing not to let them down,” Coale said. "They’re playing to make them proud. "That gives you something special.”
No. 3 OKLAHOMA VS. NO. 1 STANFORD→When: 6 p.m. Sunday →Where: Alamodome, San Antonio →TV: ESPN (Cox 29) →Radio: KOKC-AM 1520 →Tickets: All-session tickets are $175 for lower level, $100 for upper-level sideline and $75 for upper-level end zone, available at www.TicketMaster.com or (877) 622-2849.