STILLWATER — As the final buzzer sounded, Tiffany Bias pointed both index fingers into the air and looked up.
Almost immediately after that, Jim Littell embraced Toni Young at midcourt.
And a few minutes later, Shelley Budke finished cutting down the net on the south side of Gallagher-Iba Arena and raised it to the sky.
Oklahoma State won the WNIT Championship Saturday afternoon with a 75-68 victory over James Madison. But the moments that really matter happened after the Cowgirls clinched the win.
A season that will forever be linked to the tragedy of the November plane crash that killed coach Kurt Budke, assistant Miranda Serna and program supporters Olin and Paula Branstetter culminated nearly five months later with celebration.
With hugs. With tears of joy. With smiles.
“It was like that fairy-tale ending for us,” Young said.
It was also the first time Littell, the former associate head coach who took over for Budke, and the Cowgirls really opened up about the coaches they lost and the emotions of the 2011-12 season.
Littell shared that Budke, Serna, the Branstetters and his father, who died last month, were on his mind a lot Saturday. Young revealed that when the WNIT began, she started wearing her shoes from her freshman year, because that's when both Budke and Serna began telling her how much they believed in her. Bias called this season a “roller coaster” and said Budke and Serna were also in the back of her head Saturday — and always.
“I think they were really watching us today,” Bias said. “It showed out on there on the floor. They were both on our minds the whole time.”
Added Young: “I know that they're always here for me, regardless if I can see them or not.”
The Cowgirls played in front of a season-best home crowd of 6,157 that arrived well before the doors opened, was energized and engaged throughout the game and stayed to sing the OSU alma mater after the victory ceremony.
And they watched as Young was named the WNIT MVP after scoring 25 points, her third 20-point performance of the tournament. Liz Donohoe, who was also named to the All-Tournament team, added 13 points and 11 rebounds to finish her freshman season with five consecutive double-doubles. And Bias filled her stat line with 17 points, 11 assists, five rebounds and five steals and hit eight clutch free throws in the final 1:10 to seal the win for OSU.
After JMU took an early 9-4 lead, a layup by Bias capped a 19-4 OSU run over the next nine minutes to build a 10-point advantage. That lead would grow to 16 on an old-fashioned three-point play by Young early in the second half before the Cowgirls squashed a late surge by the Dukes that cut OSU's advantage to 64-59 on a jumper by Tarik Hislop with 2:20 remaining.
“When you're talking in terms of basketball, this group has accomplished so much and gotten so much better,” Littell said. “They were exciting to watch. This stretch in the WNIT did so much for our program — the confidence level, allowing a young group to continue to play, a chance to build our fan base.”
Who knows how the Cowgirls will handle their emotions in the coming months, now that the season is over and the everyday routine of basketball will stop for the time being. Young and Bias both admitted that all members of the Cowgirl family have had days where they needed to pick someone up, or needed to be picked up. The grieving — and healing — is still taking place.
But the Cowgirls will always be able to remember that this season ultimately ended in triumph.
“Our group decided in November that we were going to pay honor,” Littell said. “I don't think there's any question that these young ladies paid honor and did things right.”
Added Young: “To see a smile on (the members of the Budke family's) faces and for them to know that we did this for them, it meant a lot.”