COLUMBUS, Ohio —
The names on the front of the jerseys are the same, yet the people wearing them may not be.
It’s been 41⁄2 months since UCLA and Oklahoma last met on a basketball court. Both sides say what happened then has almost no bearing on their NCAA women’s second-round showdown tonight at Ohio State’s St. John Arena.
“That was the second game of the season,” Bruins power forward Alyssia Brewer said. “There’s been a lot of games in between for both of the teams.”
Circumstances have dictated change for both the sixth-seeded Sooners (23-10) and third-seeded UCLA (26-7).
“We’ve grown exponentially since that game,” Sooners coach Sherri Coale said of the 86-80 home loss to the Bruins back on Nov. 14. “I can go down a litany of areas in which we’ve improved. The biggest difference is the identity of our team, though. We weren’t hard-fired at that time. We hadn’t been through all that we’ve now been through.”
The Bruins have undergone change, but a lot of it may have stemmed from that night in Norman.
“I do think it was a major turning point for us as a program,” said second-year UCLA coach Cori Close, who had seven new players on the court in that game. “I remember walking behind the players out to the bus after that game and listening to them talk. I leaned over to one of my assistants and I said, ‘This is a formidable day.’ Because I could hear how they were processing the experience: ‘That was fun.’ ‘That meant something.’ ‘We were so together.’ They were reliving not only the win, but the way it happened.”
The differences for Oklahoma, ranked No. 11 at the time, were more tangible. Less than a month later, the Sooners lost perhaps their best player, versatile guard Whitney Hand, to a season-ending knee injury. Top freshman sub Maddie Manning also went down with a torn ACL.
“We lost two big-minute players, so a lot of us have had to take on new roles,” said Oklahoma forward Joanna McFarland. “That changed the complete makeup of our team.”
Nothing has come easy for the Sooners, it seems, including their 78-73 win over pesky Central Michigan in Saturday’s first-round game.
But the experience of so many close calls has helped meld and mold the team.
“We’ve had our backs squarely against the wall repeatedly throughout the course of the season, and we’ve learned how to fight our way out. At that time, we were just trying to figure out who we were,” Coale said. “We did fight back in that game and we made a run at the end and it was close and made some big shots and made some big plays.
“It was like (we were saying), ‘Hey, I didn’t know I could do that.’ Now we do. We’ve done that over and over and over. Now it’s a part of who we are, a part of our character as a team.”
The details of the first meeting could be revealing. The Bruins pulled away early in the second half to build an 18-point lead, then hung on at the finish. UCLA dominated the Sooners inside, scoring 46 points in the paint. Much of that damage was done on putbacks, with 23 points coming off a staggering 24 offensive rebounds.
“We got whipped on every single offensive board that they got,” Oklahoma guard Morgan Hook said. “Everyone knows how to rebound; it’s just a want-to. That’s what we need to have in our mind, is we have to want the ball more than they do.”