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Going to Hartford to win

Posted: Tuesday December 25, 2001 2:23 PM
Updated: Friday January 04, 2002 9:38 PM
 

Sherri Coale is in her sixth year as coach at Oklahoma. After seven years of coaching at the high school level, the Oklahoma native was hired by the Sooners. She has led Oklahoma to two Big 12 regular season titles and two back-to-back Sweet 16 appearances. Check out Coale's diary on CNNSI.com throughout the season.

December 24, 2001

What a difference a week makes. Or sometimes a day. Or sometimes a half! On Dec. 8, we played Montana State at home. It was a game we won by 24, but I can't remember when I've been so upset with one of my teams; (OK, I can remember several times but that was a long, long time ago). We took a 32-point lead into the locker room at halftime and were absolutely lousy for the next 20 minutes. Sometimes players think the point is to win. It's not. The point is to play the game the way it is supposed to be played. Often the chasm between those two is deep and wide.

The bright spot of the night, however, was sitting through the men's game that followed ours with my friend and mentor, Dan Hays, who is the men's basketball coach at Oklahoma Christian University. His first year at OC was my freshman year, so I was afforded the unique opportunity of watching him build a program. I used to sit and watch his practices after ours, and I still (15 years later) pick up something new every time I watch his teams play. He told me after the Montana State game that my first six had played quite well, and I would probably feel better after I watched the film. He then pulled his little notebook out of his jacket pocket and showed me a diagram or two he'd made during our game. He liked our "wrinkle" on secondary. He's one of my heroes. Not because he liked what we did (although I could not have received a bigger compliment), but because he is the ultimate learner. He's been coaching for 30+ years and he never stops learning. He is a basketball purist. He loves the game and will readily admit his appreciation of and fondness for the women's game. "Because it's still basketball," he says. "It's clean and it's pure and it's still about skill." How lucky I am to always have him only a phone call away.

Our team went over the next seven days after the Montana State victory debacle, from being the worst 9-0 team in America to a pretty good squad who believes we can beat UConn. It was exam week so we had ample time to make a point or two to our team. Finals week presents some unique opportunities -- or formidable challenges -- depending upon how you look at it. I really challenged our guys early in the week, reminding them of why their performance on Saturday upset me so much. There is a certain way in which this game should be played. Period. And be it right or wrong, particularly in women's basketball, we have a collective responsibility that extends beyond winning games. We are in the business, daily, of selling our sport. Every time we take the court there are some people in the arena who have never watched women's basketball. We have the unique opportunity to increase our fan base or to detract from it. We did ourselves no favors on Saturday.

The following Sunday we played Illinois on ESPN in the Big XII-Big Ten Challenge. We came out in the first half and played with outstanding energy. I was so pleased with our defensive intensity, our relentless pursuit of the basketball and our togetherness. We shared the ball beautifully. Our fans fed off our enthusiasm and appreciated our performance. From Stacey Dale's behind the back pass to Rosalind Ross -- which Roz returned to her for a basket -- to our three defensive possessions that resulted in shot clock violations for Illinois, the Lloyd Noble Center responded with energy that fed our adrenaline and sent us into half time with a 21-point lead.

The second half, unfortunately, began just as the Montana State second half had: lousy. Perhaps I should fire the halftime speaker, or at least convince her to leave well enough alone. We came out flat and lethargic and careless with the basketball. Illinois came out feeling no pressure and promptly cut our lead to ten. The best part of the game, however, came in the next two minutes as it took us only that long to extend the lead again to 21. The flood gates were thrown open by Stacey Dales who passed up a good shot to get Laneisha a great one. A perfect reminder that you should always stay with the guy that brought you to the dance. You never know when you might need a ride home.

This time of year is one of the toughest for me as I try to be coach, mother and Santa Claus all at once. I only have two Martha Stewart cells in my whole body, but they fight like mad to the forefront in late December. I finished all my shopping on the day before we left for Connecticut, mailed my Christmas cards on the way to the airport and made a list on the plane of all the places I had hidden the kids' gifts (which I obviously did not have time to wrap... being lots of different people at once destroys your short term memory). It was good to sort of "close up" all my Christmas responsibilities so that I could turn my attention to the next game. It would be important whoever it was because it closes out our pre-conference schedule, but since it's the number one team in the nation, it takes on an aura of even greater significance. As I re-read that sentence I have to laugh. What an understatement!

We played Connecticut twice season before last. The first meeting was at our place and we lost by 16. It was like a win for us, however. We were at the point in building our program where being on the court with UConn was a big deal. For us to have some success against them, even if we didn't win, was a victory. Our team came away from that game feeling a genuine sense of confidence because while we knew we weren't there yet, it was obvious that we weren't very far away. Then, as fate would have it, we met them in Richmond, Virginia for the Sweet Sixteen. It was the point at which they had been upset the previous season and it was, for us, uncharted territory and we had become America's Cinderella. That's not a good combination. No matter how hard we tried not to be satisfied about being there, our feet were barely on the ground. And I'm not sure it would have mattered anyway because Connecticut was on a mission. They plowed through us just like they plowed through everyone in route to a National Championship.

This one feels entirely different. We're not who we were then. We've grown up. We've won two Big XII titles. We've been to two consecutive NCAA Sweet Sixteens. We're going to Hartford to win. Undoubtedly, you pick your poison when you play UConn. But, perhaps, they'll have to pick their poison with us as well. I know too well what they can do to teams right out of the gate. They can beat you with the name on their jersey if you're not mentally prepared for swagger. But, I really like my team. I like our chemistry. I like our heart. And I like our chances.

-- Coach Coale


 

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