Seniors drive Sooners from sweet to elite
BY JOHN KLEIN Senior Sports Columnist
Monday, March 29, 2010
3/29/10 at 3:52 AM
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KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Oklahoma's three seniors, including blossoming star Nyeshia Stevenson, have spent most of their four years overshadowed by superstars.
On Sunday night, Stevenson made one of the biggest shots in recent Oklahoma women's basketball history, while fellow seniors Abi Olajuwon and Amanda Thompson both had double-doubles.
"Everything about this game was kind of like it should be for this group of seniors," said OU coach Sherri Coale.
The Sooners, who squandered leads in regulation and overtime, found themselves tied but with the ball as the clock was winding down in overtime.
Stevenson, OU's hottest shooter in this game, found herself alone in the corner. She got the pass and without hesitation knocked down a 3-pointer that lifted the Sooners to a thrilling 77-72 NCAA Tournament victory over Notre Dame at the Sprint Center.
"It was a relentless, gutsy effort," Coale said. "It is the way we won a lot of games this year."
The players who once played minor roles on teams dominated by Courtney Paris are now the stars.
The win sends Oklahoma back to the Elite Eight for a second straight year.
"I wanted to play some more," Stevenson said. "So, I jumped up and shot it."
This time, the Sooners got there without the Paris twins (Courtney and Ashley).
"We had no intention to go home tonight," Olajuwon said. "I knew Nyeshia and Amanda knew that, too. We were ready to stay."
This game was about teamwork. Stevenson had 21 points, but there were other heroes, and they were the seniors.
"We've been in these situations way too many times to die or give up," Stevenson said.
Stevenson is the player who has missed or failed to shoot game-winners in the past but doesn't lack for confidence.
"She's been that thing for us, that spark," Coale said.
Thompson has flourished in her new role as a scorer and defender. She had 13 points and 11 rebounds.
"We've been in these tight situations before," Thompson said.
Most importantly, OU has seen the growth of Olajuwon, coming out of the shadow of the Parises.
Olajuwon was one of the nation's top recruits four years ago. But, she spent three years on the bench, seldom playing as a reserve to the Paris twins.
Now, given a chance to play, she has flourished.
She had 20 points and 14 rebounds. She completely dominated Notre Dame on the interior.
"Olajuwon really played well," said Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw. "I was very disappointed in our post play. I was really disappointed in our defense on her.
"She used her size. She really outplayed us. I thought she was a lot better than the first time we played."
The Irish beat OU way back in November.
This time, a couple of seniors had grown into their new roles as leaders.
"Olajuwon and Stevenson really stepped up for them," McGraw said.
This was a dead-even game with lead changes and runs.
Still, OU had a six-point lead with about two minutes to play and couldn't close it out.
Notre Dame's fabulous freshman Skylar Diggins hit a 3-pointer with 33 seconds left in regulation to get the game into overtime.
OU didn't get a shot off at the end of regulation. But, it did in overtime, and it was the perfect shooter.
"I'm not surprised she shot it," McGraw said. "She was hitting it all game.
"We were trying to guard her. We just lost her for a second."
OU's Amanda Thompson celebrates with Lyndsey Cloman after beating Notre Dame in the NCAA Women's Kansas City Regional basketball tournament, March 28, 2010. Stephen Pingry / Tulsa World