NORMAN, Okla. — Oklahoma has overcome a lot of things to win a lot of basketball games since Sherri Coale became coach 17 years ago. Never, though, have the Sooners gone through what they did to beat North Texas 71-68 Thursday night.
With 1:50 left in the first half, indispensable senior Whitney Hand crumpled to the Lloyd Noble Center court, writhing in pain as she reached for her left knee. In a moment, the only thing you could hear among 4,938 shocked fans was Hand howling in tears.
She had driven into the lane in transition and planted to attempt a shot amid North Texas defenders. Her left knee buckled as she did so. Mean Green coach Mike Petersen reached her immediately, as the accident occurred on his end of the court.
“I told her, ‘Hang in there,’” he said. “When that kind of competitor makes that noise, you know something’s wrong.”
Coale followed right after. She sensed immediately it was a terrible injury, that the Liberty Christian graduate had torn the anterior cruciate ligament in her left knee.
“I’ve watched them fall. There’s a way they fall, there’s a way they scream,” Coale said. “I’m not a doctor. I can’t give you any diagnosis. I just know what I saw.”
Two more from OU’s bench were next, trying to console Hand as much as anything. Then came strength and conditioning coach Jozsef Szendrei. He helped Hand to her feet and walked her slowly off the court — she put as little weight as possible on the injured knee — first under the nearby basket and then along the sideline in front of both benches.
Fans who were crying rose to their feet in applause. The North Texas bench clapped. Hand reached the OU bench and assistant coach Jan Ross kissed the top of her head.
Hand was still crying as she entered the tunnel to the locker room and left the arena to get an MRI as the second half started. The stunned Sooners went through the motions of the final 1:50 in front of an equally stunned crowd.
They trailed the 2-5 Mean Green 30-27 at the time, and faced an unbelievably harsh reality: Already down players to season-ending injury, now they had very likely lost their leading rebounder, 3-point and free throw shooter, who was also second on the team in points, assists, blocked shots and steals.
Basically, Hand was OU’s one player who could, and would, do anything for results. She was their fifth-year senior who had already endured a 401-day absence from tearing her other ACL in November 2009, only to battle back to become first-team All-Big 12 last year.
Just Wednesday, Coale praised her team for “bowing up” and “fighting” with Maddie Manning, Kaylon Williams and Lyndsey Cloman already out for the season with injuries.
Here, facing a deeper hurt, the Sooners made 12 free throws over the final three minutes to take the lead and then keep it, the result secured when North Texas missed two shots in the final seven seconds.
“I don’t know that I’ve ever been prouder of a team, honestly, in 17 years of doing this,” Coale said. “I have no words. I don’t even know how they could think, much less change defenses and run sets. They revealed their strength.”
Nicole Griffin had 15 points and nine rebounds. Morgan Hook and Joanna McFarland helped with 12 points apiece. Sharane Campbell scored 11. The Sooners improved to 8-1.
When the game ended, Coale approached OU’s radio position for her postgame interview, shared a long embrace with her son, Colton, then put on a headset and said: “The game was immaterial. I’d love to talk about stats, but I’ve got a bunch of guys in the locker room that need me, so I’m gonna go see them.”
Coale went and saw her players, and 15 minutes later she said: “We’re devastated. Nobody loves to play basketball any more than Whitney Hand. The fact that she is denied that and has to endure again is really, really hard for all of us to accept and understand.”