STILLWATER — This Oklahoma State women's basketball team has plenty of reasons to keep this season going.
But six of the best reasons sit behind the bench for just about every game.
Section 109 is where you can find Kurt Budke's family whenever the Cowgirls are playing. That top row is where his wife, his three children and his parents sat before the Cowgirl basketball coach was killed in a plane crash last November, and that is where they continue to sit.
As long as the Cowgirls are playing.
On a night when OSU hosts San Diego in the semifinals of the WNIT, it hopes to extend what is already an improbable postseason run. Where have the Cowgirls found the energy to keep playing after losing both Budke and assistant Miranda Serna in that plane crash? How have they managed to find that focus that so understandably eluded them at times throughout this season?
“Just with their actions, I can tell that they're still trying to make those coaches proud,” said Larry Reece, the Gallagher-Iba Arena announcer who's had a front-row seat for every WNIT game. “But they also want to continue it for those family members and for each other.”
As long as this season continues, so does the strongest link to Budke and Serna.
There will never be another season so directly linked to those two coaches. Sure, the Cowgirls will look largely the same next season as they do right now. Go looking for a senior on their roster, and you'll find nary a one. But there will be change. There will be at least one new recruit. There will be at least one new assistant coach.
Next year will be different.
This season is the last one in which Budke and Serna coached. They were involved in the preseason practices. They were on the bench for the season opener. They left fingerprints on this team.
That has been evident in this gritty, gutty run in the WNIT.
“It has been amazing to me,” said Reece, whose ties to women's basketball are long and deep. The Cowgirl program was the first to give him a crack at announcing at OSU, where he now is the voice for football and all basketball. “I've never been prouder of the Cowgirl program.”
Agatha Adams, the team's academic counselor, said, “I'm still amazed, but ... they wanted some good to come out of this year.”
They didn't play well in the Big 12 Tournament. They didn't squeak into the NCAA Tournament. They were left with a WNIT invite.
A lot of teams would've cried “uncle” at that point.
Not these Cowgirls.
“I think they just decided, ‘No, we're not going out like this,'” Adams said.
The experience that this young team has gained over these past few weeks has been invaluable. The chance to keep practicing and continue bonding is no small thing for the future. But nothing is more invaluable than the tenacity that they've shown.
What these Cowgirls have willed themselves to do during the past couple weeks is awe-inspiring.
I'm reminded of watching the OSU men's basketball team battle after its plane crash. Those Cowboys won games that they probably shouldn't have won. They lost games that they probably should've won. They still managed to go to the NCAA Tournament.
But in the end, they ran out of gas.
I was there that night the Cowboys' season ended at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum just outside New York City. They gave it all they had against USC, Eddie Sutton hollering and Fredrick Jonzen scoring and Mo Baker defending and Andre Williams rebounding. They simply didn't have the energy to keep up with the Trojans.
This OSU women's team is every bit as worn down, but still, they have found a way to keep winning and keep playing.
Of course, there is going to come a point very soon when this season will be over. Even if the Cowgirls win Wednesday night and play for the WNIT title Saturday afternoon, the schedule runs out by week's end.
The basketball will stop.
The season will end.
Who knows what happens then, when the games are over and everyone is left with their emotions?
I mean, it's obvious that Budke and Serna are still on these Cowgirls' minds. They still write tributes on their shoes before games. They still have photos or mentions of the coaches on their Twitter pages. They still hug the Budke family after every game.
But if winning three of their four WNIT games by double digits is any indication, these Cowgirls aren't focused on what comes next. They want to prolong this season for each other, for the coaches who they lost and for the coaches who remain.
They want to keep it going for the Budkes, too. Every game is one more chance for them to come to the arena, sit behind the bench and see Budke's fingerprints.
By winning these games, the Cowgirls have extended the bond to what was lost.
“We've been through a tragedy,” Reece said, “but they can make this a special season.”
In so many ways, the Cowgirls already have.